Lakers Not About to Start Tanking If Dwight Howard Leaves Town

NBA: New Orleans Hornets at Los Angeles LakersWith Dwight Howard’s Laker career teetering between “over” and “no, really, I’m coming back!” it’s not too soon to discuss going into the tank, for a splash heard ‘round the world. Tanking for newbies… like the Lakers?

As if.

Oh, we’ve already agreed that the Lakers should lose as many as they can, and intend to? Unfortunately for those who think that—that’s like 90% of you, right?–the Lakers have no intention of tanking. For what it’s worth, I understand what they’re doing, and I think it’s the right thing. The benefits of tanking seem clear with a fabulous 2014 draft and the possibility of having 55 million post-Dwight dollars to pursue LeBron James, Paul George, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony.

Meanwhile, the alternative seems like… what alternative?

No one is sure what Kobe Bryant will be, or when, including Kobe. Steve Nash played only 50 games at 39, which isn’t promising now that he’s going on 40. Pau Gasol has been marginalized, benched, and the object of trade rumors for so long, few Laker fans think he’ll be here in fall, or even care. Mike D’Antoni is the most despised Laker coach ever… about to start his first full season. And, for the cherry atop the whipped cream of the Laker misery sundade, their commitment to 2014 may preclude offering anyone more than a one-year deal, with only one $3.1 million exception.

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The Lakers reportedly just told useful Earl Clark they can’t match any offer he gets. That’s the best argument for tanking. In fact, it might happen all by itself, without having to lower themselves to try! But I don’t think that’s what would happen in a post-Dwight world.

More to the point, the Lakers don’t think so.

If they can’t say it out loud, I can: I expect Kobe, a conditioning zealot with guile and craft he has barely begun to use, to return sooner rather than later. No, he won’t be what he was, having long since lost his youthful bounce, but with an optimal rehab and a commitment to playing smart, he can be Kobe Bryant for longer than anyone now dares to think.

Nash is another conditioning freak, but always was, so all the Lakers can do is cross their fingers. As for Mike D and and Pau, that’s where the hope would lie.

Totally lost in last season’s debacle was the fact that Pau would have been great in Mike’s offense except for the presence of Dwight. With Howard’s looming free agency, he had to be the lone post player. Pau went to the corner to line up threes—after trying just 128 in 12 previous seasons. With no Dwight, Pau is not only the post guy, but the most skilled one D’Antoni’s high-scoring scheme has ever had.

If the benefits of tanking seem clear, here’s why it’s not even a close call for the Lakers.

1. What free agent class?

LeBronJames is only leaving if he drags Pat Riley and the rest of South Beach wherever he goes. Not to mention, Riles is great at this. When he recruited Bron, he dumped his six championship rings to fall like rocks on the conference table in front of him.

I’ll believe George is leaving Indiana when he turns down an extension.

And no thanks on Carmelo for moi.

2. You don’t get Andrew Wiggins for tanking

Finishing dead last—a long shot in a worst-case Lakers scenario—means a 25% chance of drawing No. 1 to get the Kansas-bound 6-8 “best wing prospect since LeBron.” There are more super-prospects—notably Kentucky power forward Julius Randle and Arizona power forward Aaron Gordon (of whom one GM said, “Blake Griffin”), before you even get to Duke-bound Jabari Parker, the former No. 1 player in his class, who isn’t as athletic.

So let’s assume there are four super-prospects….

The Lakers have to be in the bottom three to be locked into knowing they get one of the four. Last season that meant winning 25 or fewer to get below committed tankers like the Magic (20), Bobcats (21), Cavs (24) and Suns (25).

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Let’s say the Lakers pull the plug and go 29-53, their worst season in town. Last season that would have put them in a three-way tie for No. 7. Had they triumphed in the tie-break to get No. 7, they’d have had a 4.3% chance of drawing No. 1… and only a 15% chance at any of the top three.

3. It’s bad for your culture

Don’t laugh. This is one psychobabble term that means something, which bad teams always say they have to change. They mean they need to stop losing games because it makes everyone—their players and coaches, included—think the worst of everyone else.

OK, but how?

Ask the Bobcats, who fire a coach annually and a GM semi-annually, or the Cavaliers, who were losers before James came, and, frantic to hold on to Kyrie Irving, since Bron left. If Laker fans dismay at Jim Buss’s accession, the Lakers’ culture is still the healthiest thing about them.

They’re still led by professionals, with GM Mitch Kupchak at the height of his cachet within the organization. They expect to win titles, not just make the playoffs or go deep.

They also expect to charge a bleep-load for tickets, so only celebrities need apply and rich ones at that–$2,500 per regular season game during the season.

Happy 75th Birthday JackAsk Jack Nicholson if he’s okay with tanking.

If you and your neighbors are okay with watching losses on TV, the studio heads and the proletariat sitting behind them with only, say, $1 million of net worth each, … many of whom also put out the $150 to valet park… want to see the Lakers win.

4. Winning more now means better options in the future

Or put another way:

5. Getting Kobe up and running… and under contract at a reasonable price (say $10-15 million per) for another two or three seasons, would mean more to the Lakers than any other single thing

Whatever happens with Dwight, Kobe stopped being a pain, even turning into a guy a couple of years ago. Showing how far he had come, he actually talked to the press after blowing out his Achilles. I don’t know if Grant Hill would have done that.

Now, if only the Lakers can get their new ‘guy’ back to being a great player. The Lakers’ real decision point is actually two points, in the spring of 2015 and well as 2014. Without an astounding piece of luck, like landing LeBron or missing the playoffs by a game, finishing No. 17 and hitting the jackpot for Wiggins with their 2,000-1 shot… it’ll take longer.

A dream scenario would see the Lakers win 45-55, get Bryant back at a high level with Nash playing 65 games, after which Kobe re-ups to play his career with one team, continuing to do everything right at the end of his career that he messed up at the start. It’s not pie in the sky, it’s better than that. It’s something that can really happen.


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