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Why the Los Angeles Lakers Must Embrace the Tank

Published on Remember when the Los Angeles Lakers surprised the NBA by taking it to the highly favored Los Angeles Clippers on Opening Night? What about when Steve Blake crushed a game-winning three-pointer over Dwight Howard to beat his Houston Rockets in the first game against Superman since he bolted over the summer?

After beating the Minnesota Timberwolves on December 20, the overachieving Lakers had stayed afloat with a 13-13 record through the first quarter of the season despite missing Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash for all but a few games. Nobody could really explain why the team had been so competitive, so the party line was that the roster was made up of bunch of hustling cast-offs on one-year contracts playing with nothing to lose.

The truth was that reality had gotten lost on its way to Los Angeles. But just before Christmas, reality started catching up with the Lakers. And last week, reality finally found them, as evidenced by a 123-87 beat-down at the hands of none other than the Clippers, who were hungry to repay the purple and gold for Opening Night.  

The drubbing was the Lakers’ 10th loss in their last 11 games, and it dropped their record to a season-worst 14-23. The Lakers were outscored 31-8 in the third quarter, just one game after being outscored 33-15 in the third quarter by the Rockets in Houston’s version of revenge. The theme in the team’s recent losses has been a second-half struggle. And with the midpoint of the season coming up in a few games, a second-half struggle on a much larger scale is looming for the injury-riddled Lakers.

This summer’s upcoming draft class has been widely pegged as one of the best ever, which means it’s time for the Lakers to embrace tanking the rest of this season in order to improve their long-term future. Of course, a franchise as proud as the Lakers would never suggest losing on purpose, and that’s not what they should do. Instead, Los Angeles can maximize its lottery chances by tanking in a less traditional sense.

The most obvious plan of action would be to have Kobe Bryant sit out the rest of the season. The Black Mamba, who made a brief — yet inspiring — return from his Achilles injury before fracturing his knee, is a first ballot Hall-of-Famer whose mere presence on the court can give the Lakers an edge they so desperately need. By sitting out, Bryant won’t be able to help the team avoid letting games get away out of halftime as has been the case during the recent free-fall. The extra time on the sidelines will also allow Bryant to fully recuperate his body in time for training camp in October and the beginning of his new two-year extension.

Another step would be to address the disaster that has become Steve Nash. Since the Lakers traded for the former back-to-back MVP on July 4, 2012, Nash has missed more than half (63 of 119) of the regular season games since that date due to various injuries.

Let’s be honest. The guy will turn 40 next month. As the oldest player in the league, it’s clear his body just isn’t up to the rigors of the NBA schedule anymore. All of Nash’s comeback attempts have been futile, so the Lakers should alleviate the headache by using the CBA’s stretch provision to waive Nash and pay the remaining $9.3 million he is owed for 2014-2015 in smaller increments over the course of the next three seasons, thereby giving the team more financial flexibility during that span.

Speaking of financial flexibility, the Lakers can’t wait for Pau Gasol’s $19 million to come off the books after this season. Despite perpetually finding himself in trade rumors, Gasol is still the Lakers’ best healthy option on offense. Well, mostly healthy. The Spaniard tried to play through an “upper respiratory infection” last month but struggled so the Lakers gave him games off to rest his cold. It might not be a bad idea to give the aging Gasol more days off down the stretch to simply rest, similar to what the Brooklyn Nets are doing with Kevin Garnett. After all, the Lakers want tangible assets back in trade involving Gasol but suitors are unwilling to hand over a young player to the Lakers when Gasol could simply walk at the end of the season. The Lakers should simply ride out Gasol this season while continuing to swallow career nights from opposing power forwards due to his declining defensive abilities.

It's going to be nearly impossible for the Lakers to climb out of the hole they have dug for themselves in the ultra-competitive Western Conference. Even if Bryant and Nash do return, it's most likely going to be too late for the team to make a push and any progress will be in vain, ending with a first-round playoff exit at best with unnecessary mileage added to Bryant's legs.

The basketball gods have always had a penchant for purple and gold, so why else would the team hit rock bottom just before the likes of Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins and Marcus Smart among others become ripe for the picking? With unbridled young talent and salary flexibility on the horizon, it's up to the Lakers not to let their pride get in the way.