For Los Angeles Lakers fans, the past year has been a surreal nightmare. Who among us could contain our elation when Steve Nash was traded and Dwight Howard decided to pit his legacy against that of Shaq, Wilt and Kareem? Who was not already making plans to go see the championship parade? Didn’t we all believe this was karma taking its revenge on David Stern for his notorious Chris Paul veto?
Then the nightmare began. The Princeton offense was a farce. Dwight was clearly still recovering from surgery. But it’s all right, we said, just wait until Nash gets back!
Then, in what was surely one of the worst snubs this town has seen since Goodfellas lost out to Dances with Wolves, the Lakers inexplicably spurned Phil Jackson for Mike D’Antoni. That’s right, Mr. Seven-Second Offense and zero titles, whose resume could not be worse for a team with two dominant big men and the NBA’s oldest starting backcourt.
There’s no need to relive the rest of last season. We all know what happened, for in spite of ourselves, we watched every last painful moment, every awful Howard free throw, every two-bit point guard making Nash look like the one-way player he’s always been and every Pau Gasol injury.
So now here we are. Dwight is gone, Metta World Peace is amnestied and the Lakers, having just used their mid-level exception on Chris Kaman, are fresh out of ways to make meaningful acquisitions to improve the team.
Enough burying the lede, I’ll just come out and say it: the Lakers should tank next year, and they should tank hard. It’s the only way to save the franchise in the long run.
First of all, the Lakers are still over the salary cap and as I stated, have used all of their cap exceptions. This makes them non-factors in the current free agent market. Their 2013-14 payroll of around $73 million — which won’t get much higher since the Lakers can only offer minimum contracts going forward — isn’t nearly as egregious as last year’s $100 million monstrosity. Indeed it is easy to be distracted by the mammoth Howard, Gasol and Kobe Bryant contracts and ignore the modest cost-cutting measures the Lakers have undertaken in recent years: Derek Fisher ($3.4 million saved), Luke Walton ($6 million), Lamar Odom ($8.9 million) and now World Peace ($7.7 million) were all let go in order to save cap space.
The result of these maneuverings is that the Lakers are still hamstrung this year and only have one player, Nash, under contract for 2014-15. This opens a world of possibilities for Los Angeles. We’ve heard how badly Bryant wants that sixth ring, and now we’ll see if he puts his money where his mouth is. If Bryant resigns for a more pedestrian salary to free up cap space, the Lakers could all of a sudden be major players in the 2014 free agent market. Signing Lebron James might be a pipe dream, but the Lakers would do well to make a massive push for Kyrie Irving, who could anchor the Lakers for years to come after spending a year or two under Bryant’s tutelage.
The most compelling reason for the Lakers to tank, however, is that 2014 will be, by all accounts, the most loaded draft since the fabled 2003 draft that boasted James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade. Though the Lakers dumped virtually every draft pick they had to sign Nash, GM Mitch Kupchak mercifully held on to a 2014 first-round pick. If the Lakers wants to make the most of this pick, they will need to finish near the bottom of the standings. It is a perverse incentive, but it is one the Lakers ignore at their own peril.
Believe me, I never thought I’d see the day when I’d be writing these things, and I’m sure my third-grade self would be furious if he could read this. It just seems wrong on a fundamental level, but this is no time to get nostalgic. The franchise is at a crossroads; we can either bury our heads in the sand and desperately mortgage our future for a few years of mediocrity, or we can blow this thing up and seize the opportunities that are available to us. If not, we will have to face an even grimmer reality: permanent second-fiddle status to that other Los Angeles basketball team. And who in their right mind wants that?
Tony Baker is a Los Angeles Angels blogger for Rant Sports. You can follow him on Twitter at @tonloc_baker.