Mitch Kupchak asks Pat Riley if he has any extra LeBron Jameses lying around (Andrew D. Bernstein/ Getty).
When the Los Angeles Lakers lost Dwight Howard to the Houston Rockets in free agency, many reactions suggested that, with few hopes of contending in the 2013-14 season, the NBA's most consistently successful franchise in history would be better off tanking. The logic was sensible: with a limited roster on paper, no Metta World Peace, Kobe Bryant needing to rehabilitate his torn Achilles tendon, and Pau Gasol and Steve Nash returning from injury-riddled seasons, the Lakers should get real and take advantage of the long-term benefits of being terrible. They could clear as much cap room as possible for the summer of 2014, sign a new free-agent star, draft a potential one, and enter 2014-15 as legitimate contenders once again.
While the Lakers still seem to be banking heavily on signing a big-name free agent next summer, they have shown no signs of planning for the lottery. As Kobe rehabs with his typical intensity and Nash says he's nearing full health, general manager Mitch Kupchak has signed center Chris Kaman and other veterans, the sort of players a team goes after when they're trying to win (or at least gesturing towards that goal).
On Monday, Kupchak confirmed that the Lakers have no plans to tank. From Mike Bresnahan for the Los Angeles Times:
With Kobe Bryant coming back at an unknown date from a torn Achilles' tendon, is it time to punt away next season and play for a high draft pick in 2014?
"You know that's not our plan. Our plan was to bring back Dwight Howard and that would have sky-rocketed our payroll," Kupchak said. "That's never a plan here with our fan base, to throw in the towel before the season begins. We always try to win, and that's what we're going to do this year.
"We have challenges. There's no doubt. We don't know when Kobe's coming back, and we don't know what level he's going to come back at, although we're optimistic. Everything's good with Steve [Nash]. Pau [Gasol] should be fine. We've added some athleticism. We're hopefully putting ourselves in position where we can compete in every game."
It's worth noting that team executives never admit to seeing tanking as even a potential option, so it's possible that a bad start and several more injuries would force the Lakers to rethink matters. Nevertheless, Kupchak's statement does confirm the impression that they're at least entering the season with the intention to win as much as possible. That's what every team does, in a way, but it means more when associated with a group of veterans. These players are accustomed to winning and in some cases joined the Lakers over other teams specifically to chase titles. On a basic level, the Lakers have to try to win because that's what made their employees want to work there in the first place. Not aiming for that goal would be a breach of trust, regardless of how much circumstances have changed. Their situation is not yet so bad that they can change their entire short-term philosophy without some collateral damage.
However, the biggest issue here is what Kupchak refers to: the effect of the Lakers' rabid fan base and rich history. Decades of success have turned Lakers fans into a particularly demanding group, one accustomed to near-constant excellence and relevance. The franchise's public image is one of greatness — they seek titles, not playoff appearances, and do whatever possible to get there. Not trying to win would communicate that they're not currently at that level and have to resort to the tactics of also-rans to get back to it. In other words, they'd have to admit that they're not the Lakers we've known for so many years.
It may seem ridiculous to suggest that a basketball franchise could think itself above certain methods of improvement, but the NBA is made up of people prone to emotional decisions, not purely rational actors who devise logically direct paths to wins. As Kupchak indicates, the Lakers (and by extension the rest of the league) conceive of themselves as elite. Not doing so even for a sole season could diminish their standing and make themselves a less attractive destination in free agency — the Los Angeles Lakers in name only. Tanking may seem like a solid way to ensure a top pick, but it could also result in an upset core of veterans, a partial loss of the mystique the Lakers have relied on for so long, and massive disappointment if the lottery ping-pong balls don't fall their way. For an organization like the Lakers, the cons of the situation might outweigh the pros.
Losing 50-plus games is a depressing way to spend a season, to the point where putting up with it to reach a better future requires full institutional support. That decision can be an especially difficult one for a team as used to winning as the Lakers, particularly with so many vets on the roster. Although the argument for tanking makes sense on paper, it's not a feasible action unless its logic becomes universally accepted. As is, there's simply too much disagreement for it to work. For now, challenging for one of the West's final playoff spots may be better for the Lakers than banking everything on next offseason. In their minds, they're still the Lakers, and therefore not yet ready to concede the possibility of an awful future. They will subsist on their reputation for as long as they can.
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