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March 16, 2017

Where is the outrage for the Lakers’ all-out tanking?

A few hours before the Los Angeles Lakers lost by 39 points to the Houston Rockets on Wednesday, their 11th defeat in 12 games, a little television program called “Pardon the Interruption” aired on ESPN. My guess is that you have heard of it before.

The Lakers were brought up at one point, specifically their current shameless tanking state. On the show, the question was framed as how NBA commissioner Adam Silver should feel about the Lakers losing on purpose. Tony Kornheiser promptly replied that he should feel embarrassed.

This was followed by an answer that I wasn’t expecting, as Kornheiser’s longtime co-host and former colleague at The Washington Post Michael Wilbon doesn’t feel the commish should be embarrassed by the Lakers at all. In fact, Wilbon opined that Silver should be thrilled with the current arrangement. The audio is here at the 14:30 mark:

He should feel “Thank God” about the Lakers tanking. The league needs the Lakers. There’s only one way to get well: You got to draft your way and sign free agents. They got to have this pick, thank God they’re tanking.

Earlier, former Inquirer writer and world-renowned performance artist Stephen A. Smith offered similar sentiments on his show:

The Los Angeles Lakers are losing and they should continue to lose, as in every single game of the rest of the season. This is a Process you can trust. Not losing three seasons, just a couple of months and call it a day. Why? Because a Lonzo Ball out of UCLA, because of this kid Fultz of Washington. He’s a baller, he’s no joke!

Even though it must kill Jeanie Buss (“Tanking is unforgivable”) and Luke Walton (“You start losing on purpose, I think the basketball gods come back to get you”), nobody in their right mind blames the Lakers for losing. On the contrary, they are doing exactly what they should! With 2017 and 2019 first-round picks hanging in the balance due to costly past mistakes, you could easily argue that the 2016-17 Los Angeles Lakers have more incentive to tank than any team in NBA history.

So, in a vacuum, both Wilbon and Stephen A. are absolutely right. But after having a front row seat for how negatively The Process was covered both nationally and locally over the past 3.5 years, calls for Laker losses seem to be in major conflict with previous analysis of the Sixers.

Those two particular commentators happened to be front and center on Wednesday, and watching them deliver similar takes prompted me to bring up a development that has been irritating for a few months now: Why are the Lakers getting a free pass for tanking from the entire NBA (media, fans, Silver, etc.) when they have barely been better than the Sixers the last four years?

The notion that the Lakers haven’t lost big over the past three seasons is laughable. It’s not like they changed course and started tanking all of the sudden now that Lonzo Ball is a possibility. Does this look like “a couple of months” to you?


(Fun fact: Despite only winning 10 games in 2015-16, the Sixers somehow had a better net rating than the 17-win Lakers last year. They were just as awful.)

The Sixers were historically terrible over this stretch, but the Lakers have won only three games more per season. That number will probably drop over the next month, as well. After last year, the common refrain was, “How can the Sixers throw away three straight seasons?” And now with the Lakers doing the exact same thing, there are crickets, or even better, calls to brazenly tank down the stretch. Sad!

Another popular gripe with The Process was the lack of veteran leadership, which is probably fair to an extent. For some reason, though, you don’t hear nearly as much about D’Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson trying to develop as Kobe Bryant shot brick after brick after brick while receiving consistent playing time. What an example for the young guys!

As soon as Bryant’s albatross contract came off the books, the Lakers went out and immediately “made a splash” in free agency, something the Sixers under Sam Hinkie never did. This was for good reason. The Lakers foolishly spent a combined $136 million over four seasons on Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov... who they just shut down for the season. Because they’re tanking.

The lesson here is that you can be terrible in the traditional sense (by accident, incompetent), but not well-run and terrible at the same time. Rather than taking the proper steps to clean the wound and put on a bandage, just rub some dirt on it.

So, why aren’t there the same calls for the Lakers to lower ticket prices for their dedicated fan base? Why aren’t there pieces flooding the Internet about how the Lakers are ruining basketball?

It’s probably pretty simple: The Sixers, who were in a terrible spot when Hinkie took over in 2013, opted to take their medicine as part of a long-term plan. The Lakers just kind of winged it, which, for some reason, is more desirable to everyone.

The lesson here is that you can be terrible in the traditional sense (by accident, incompetent), but not well-run and terrible at the same time. Rather than taking the proper steps to clean the wound and put on a bandage, just rub some dirt on it. Note: This isn't a great lesson.

As always, the argument all comes back to the NBA’s screwed-up incentive system. As the two ESPN commentators said above, the best way for a team to get an all-important star player is through the draft. And the only way to get to the top of the draft is to be really bad, which the Lakers have been. For four straight years.

It’s true that even though they were just as bad, the Lakers never tried to game the system to quite the same extent that the Sixers did. Well, until now, that is.

Follow Rich on Twitter: @rich_hofmann