The swoon of the Los Angeles Lakers has surfaced conversations that seemed unthinkable when LeBron James agreed to become the centerpiece of Magic Johnson’s rebuild last summer.
Most notably — should the Lakers go all in on tanking for the NBA lottery?
It’s a concept that’s completely foreign to James-led teams. It’s an idea that surely wasn’t even in the furthest corner of the minds of Lakers brass when they signed James.
Should the Lakers really tank?
But it’s one that ESPN’s Rachel Nichols surfaced on Tuesday in the wake of the Lakers’ home loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on Monday.
And it’s one that deserves consideration.
The Lakers have less than a 1% chance of making the playoffs - but right now their lottery odds aren’t great either. With 18 games to go, should they try to “catch” a team like the Wizards in the tanking race? If they did, their chances of a top-4 pick would go from 5% to 32% pic.twitter.com/COOjcbVmMR
— Rachel Nichols (@Rachel__Nichols) March 6, 2019
The math says tank
When breaking down the math on what tanking could mean for the Lakers, the idea moves beyond one worth considering to one that makes obvious, undeniable sense.
As of Tuesday evening, the Lakers had a 30-34 record, a number that would place them 12th in the draft lottery standings, which would give them a 4.5 percent chance of landing a top-four pick.
They’re 3 1/2 games “behind” the 26-37 Washington Wizards who sit at seventh place in the lottery standings. If the Lakers were to move into that seventh spot, their odds of landing a top four pick would increase to 32 percent, according to Nichols.
New NBA draft lottery
It’s part of a revamped NBA lottery intended to discourage tanking to the bottom. The new system give the teams with the three worst records in the league an equal 14 percent chance of landing the top pick in the draft.
The worst team used to have a 25 percent chance, while the No. 2 seed had a 19.9 percent chance and the No. 3 seed seed held a 15.6 percent chance of winning the No. 1 pick.
Under the new system the No. 7 seed will have a 7.5 percent chance of earning the top pick compared to the 1.5 percent chance the No. 12 seed does. While still long odds, 7.5 percent is obviously a considerably better spot than 1.5 percent.
The No. 6 seed, where the Memphis Grizzlies stand with a 25-40 record, comes with a 9 percent chance of winning the lottery.
And beyond winning the lottery outright, the 32 percent chance of winning a top-four pick is significant enough incentive for the Lakers to look to improve on what would likely be the No. 12 pick based on the current standings.
A shot at a player like Duke’s R.J. Barrett and the trade value he would bring is absolutely worth it.
Why not set their sights lower?
Beyond the Grizzlies lies a low unattainable even for the ever-sinking Lakers. The five worst teams in the league move from the realm of mediocre to flat-out terrible starting with the 22-43 Atlanta Hawks extending to the dregs of the 13-51 New York Knicks and 14-51 Phoenix Suns.
The Lakers can’t practically sink that low with 18 games remaining, even if they try.
But the No. 6 or No. 7 seed? That’s an attainable goal. And if the Lakers care about salvaging the LeBron James era into something that can save the job and the pride of team icon Johnson, it’s the only choice.
And it’s not just because of their long odds to make the playoffs. They were never going to do anything once they got there anyway.
Path was clear once Davis trade failed
Once the Lakers failed to attain Anthony Davis at the trade deadline, they should have shifted everything in their power to improve their draft standing to make themselves a more viable trade partner and free agent destination.
And that may be exactly what they’re doing. Starting point guard Lonzo Ball hasn’t played since an ankle sprain sidelined him on Jan. 19. The team doesn’t appear in any hurry to rush him back.
Forward Kyle Kuzma suffered a sprained ankle against the Clippers and is expected to miss a week of action. Again, no reason to rush him back.
James insisted on Monday that he won’t sit any games that he’s healthy. But it’s become clear that he’s not able to will the Lakers to victory by himself. And if he tweaks anything down the stretch, what’s the motivation for the Lakers to put him on the court?
Tanking is a concept that may seem unfathomable to career winners like James and Johnson. But neither of them are winners this year, and times have officially moved into desperate territory.
If they want a shot at not experiencing disappointment moving forward, it’s time to implement desperate measures.
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