The trade deadline has come and gone and the Los Angeles Lakers made moves clearly designed to prioritize the future instead of winning now. They parted with their best player this year in Lou Williams in order to land a 2017 first round draft pick and also shipped out veteran Marcelo Huertas to get a look at 22-year-old Tyler Ennis.
However, don’t tell Magic Johnson, the newly-crowned President of Basketball Operations, that the Lakers are tanking. Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times found out about Johnson’s disdain for the idea when Plaschke brought it up earlier this week:
Few Lakers fans actually want them to purposely give up. Jeanie Buss hates the idea. Johnson glared at me this week when I broached the notion.
“I would never be about that, sending that message to our players,” Johnson said. “You know that.”
What we have here is a problem with the definition of the term “tanking”. One school of thought is that it means that a team goes out and loses games intentionally, with players deliberately blowing defensive assignments, missing shots, committing turnovers, etc. That’s what Johnson is referring to, and it’s easy to see why he would find the practice so unsettling.
NBA players don’t throw games. There is no reason for them to do so when bringing in a better draft pick (the Lakers only get their 2017 pick if it falls in the top three) only increases the likelihood that themselves or one of their teammates will be out of a job the following season.
Instead, we see organizations “tank” in another way: they trade away productive veterans and focus on feeding minutes to young players in order to build a better future. Losing games just so happens to be a byproduct of such practices, but it isn’t the primary goal.
Unquestionably, the Lakers are employing this strategy, and it’s allowing them to increase their draft odds without completely sacrificing their dignity. They won’t give up, but don’t expect the Lakers to win many games from here on out. If the basketball gods smile upon them during the draft lottery, it will be worth it.