On SportsNation yesterday, the panelist engaged in a “debate” regarding if the Lakers’ recent play is a bad thing. This may sound crazy, but on the surface, it actually makes logical sense. As part of the Steve Nash trade, if the Lakers don’t have a top-three pick this season it goes to the Sixers. Thus, the argument is that the chances to draft a Ben Simmons or Brandon Ingram outweigh the benefits of winning in a season where you have already been eliminated from the playoffs.
Figure 2 Stats via NBA.com's Stats Page
So, before analyzing why winning is always good in the NBA, let’s look at how the Lakers are playing. More specifically, how their young trio (who, as an aside, I have defended multiple times) is transitioning into a youthful “big three.” The trio of D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, and Julius Randle have a higher offensive rating since the beginning of March than any combination of staters on the Golden State Warriors. That is a tremendous offensive feat, especially given the lack of other talent on the Lakers’ roster. Moreover, they are incredible at scoring individually. Let’s examine this below:
Figure 2 Stats via NBA.com's Stats Page
Now, the trio is by no means perfect. While Figure 2 shows how good they are at scoring individually, it is clear that they lack veteran teamwork and chemistry. Nonetheless, they are no longer a joke of a trio. D’Angelo Russell has arguably been the best rookie since the all star break, averaging 19.4 points per game with a 47.9% three-point percentage and a 60.4% True Shooting percentage.
Additionally, Julius Randle is becoming a hustling, energy big. Since the all star break, he has a top-ten rebounding percentage. Moreover, his offensive game has also grown into a presence that can score easy buckets. Randle has an eFG% of 60% in tight coverage. Thus, he is transforming into a player that can score when the offense breaks down.
Finally, Jordan Clarkson is continuously improving. Out of the Lakers’ three young stars, Clarkson has the best net rating; and moreover, Clarkson is developing into an efficient scorer, averaging a 56.1% True Shooting percentage since March 1, 2016.
This transition and improvement was inspired by Byron Scott, who has unleashed his three stars since the all star break, playing them more minutes together than any other three-man combo on the Lakers. For a guy who has been rightly criticized for not playing his young players enough, Scott’s early season strategy seems to be paying dividends now, as the trio is on a tear. Consequently, if this continues to the end of the season, I would be shocked if the Lakers fired Scott.
Yet, with all of these improvements, many are saying it is a bad trend. Many fans and analyst want the Lakers to have their first round pick this year, and unfortunately, the more the team wins the less likely that occurs. Nevertheless, that is a foolish view to have for a few reasons.
First, in the NBA, losing begets more losing. The Minnesota Timberwolves being the perfect example. Since Kevin Garnett left in 2007, the Wolves have drafted Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio, Zach LaVine, Karl-Anthony Towns, a whole hosts of lottery busts, and traded for Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett. Essentially, since 2007, the Wolves have acquired ten players drafted in the top-ten and eight in the top-five. Nevertheless, they still can’t even come close to making the playoffs.
Another example is the Sacramento Kings. The Kings began their rebuild in 2006. Since then, they’ve had eight top-ten draft picks, including a historically great big-man in DeMarcus Cousins; however, they cannot buy a ticket to the postseason.
Now, you may be thinking, “okay Jordan, but neither of those teams are a big market, draft picks are more valuable in a city like Los Angeles than in Minnesota or Sacramento.” First off, with the salary cap, I think that quote is categorically false. But, let’s assume it is true, thus we’ll look at the Boston Celtics last season.
Early in the 2014-15 year the Celtics traded away their star point guard, Rajon Rondo. Rather than losing and getting a high draft pick, though, Brad Stevens found a way to will that team to the playoffs. And while the Lakers are not in that good of a situation, the Celtics lack any star power, outside of borderline all-star Isaiah Thomas. But winning creates winning habits, and even without a star, the Celtics are one of the seven best teams this season. The Lakers have much more future potential on their roster, and should look to their cross-coast rivals as a reason why winning is important, even if it means sacrificing a high draft pick.
But the second reason tanking would be, frankly, idiotic for the Lakers is that they still do not guarantee a draft pick. The NBA lottery tries to de-incentivize tanking by making the lottery order what essentially amounts to seeded coin flips. Thus the Lakers could lose the rest of their games, have the worst record in the NBA and have the best chances at getting a lottery pick, but still end up with no draft pick. Consequently, a utilitarian risk assessment would suggest that winning now provides the Lakers with a better future than losing does.
Therefore, Lakers fans should enjoy watching their young future develop. This team has enough talent and cap space to become a potential playoff surprise in the next two seasons. It would be foolish to stall development in order to have a better chance of getting a top-three draft pick. In the world of cost-benefit analysis, one needs to evaluate magnitude and chance. And thus, in both cases, the Lakers should prioritize winning over tanking.