The Los Angeles Lakers’ Troubles and Tanking Culture

By Ivan Seranno
on May 24, 2019 11:56 AM EDT
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The Los Angeles Lakers are in trouble. After that devastating and humiliating loss to a New Orleans Pelicans team without Anthony Davis, they currently sit at the 10th seed. They are two games behind the 9th place Sacramento Kings and 3.5 games behind the Los Angeles Clippers and San Antonio Spurs with about 20 games left in the season. FiveThirtyEight gives the Lakers a 20% chance of making the playoffs, and even then the Lakers would probably just grab the eighth seed and get trashed by the Warriors in four games.

Lakers fans are frustrated, especially since this season was supposed to be the turnaround after half a decade of disappointment. And Lakers fans can certainly point to this or that move which proved to be a mistake. Signing Beasley and Rondo instead of Randle. Dumping D'Angelo Russell, only for him to turn into an All-Star. That ridiculous Muscala trade, especially after letting Brook Lopez go.

But the problem with the Lakers is bigger than one or two transactions. The Lakers are the winningest team in NBA history, but five years of failure have created a losing culture which even LeBron cannot wash away. And the Lakers's struggles serve as a reminder that building a winning culture is something which still matters.

The Power of Winning

The NBA has a tanking problem, and the recent changes to the draft lottery have done little to fix the fact that bad teams believe there is no reason to try to win games. And at the end of the day, the fact is that teams like the Suns and the Knicks have assembled terrible rosters, which their owners try to sell to their fans as development. Maybe those teams will become the next Philadelphia, or Oklahoma City from earlier in the decade.

But what tanking advocates have consistently glossed over is that years of losing negatively affects players. As LeBron himself noted after this loss to New Orleans, "The last few years, everyone's so accustomed to the losses that I'm just not accustomed to."

There is a reason why D'Angelo has thrived once he left Los Angeles. While Brooklyn has had no more success than the Lakers over the past few years, this is a team which fought hard for wins. Brooklyn picked up players who knew they were one slip-up away from playing in China or Europe, and Brooklyn's lack of media hype compared to the glamorous Lakers means that players are able to actually develop without endless cameras in their face. Even Philadelphia, the tanking team without peer, developed scrappy, tough players like T.J. McConnell and Robert Covington.

The Lakers have developed players who can score like Kyle Kuzma. But this team has consistently failed this season because of its defense, which is all the more embarrassing after their successes there last season. And while there are certainly rotational changes, a large part of defensive success,  comes down to toughness and effort, something which the Lakers have shown none of this year. That's because many have faced injury and the team doctor has had to use medical supplies to bring the team back to full fitness.

Maybe the desperation and embarrassment of not making the playoffs may cause this team to turn things up defensively, and Lonzo's return will help. But the Lakers are failing because they are a team which does not play for each other and has no incentive to do so. Why should they, when half the team may be traded away to toil in New Orleans in the summer, and when Magic seems to indicate that he will give no one a long-term contract?

Turning Things Around

Maybe everything can change in the offseason. The Lakers can finally send their young pieces away for Anthony Davis, just like Philadelphia sent many of the key mainstays from the Process away for Jimmy Butler. LeBron and Anthony Davis certainly have the talent to be winners together, and the worries about Los Angeles's team culture will fade away.

But for half a decade, the Lakers have been content to sit and tank, always certain that it would catch the next big free agent whether it was Kawhi or Kevin Love or Westbrook or whoever else. Now that they have their big star, it is clear that they lack the culture to have a championship team around LeBron, and risk missing the playoffs together.

Stars certainly matter in the NBA. But the Lakers should serve as a reminder that there is still a right way to go about things and that there are real downsides to endlessly tanking.

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