An NBA Detective Story: Who in the Lakers Organization Knows They’re Tanking?Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images
I’m used to trouble walking into my office, just not wearing a uniform with its name printed on the back. Halloween in Los Angeles is different. Sure, the city’s got its share of freaks, hungry-eyed hustlers, and vampires. But, in the City of Angels, Halloween is when the masks come off. So, when a guy comes into my office on Halloween, dressed up in full Lakers gear, asking me to take a look at his case, a voice somewhere inside starts screaming, “Don’t do it, Jake.” Well, I never listen to that little voice.
“Nice getup,” I said. “You look just like him. Except he stopped wearing no. 8 a few years ago.”
I lit a cigarette and took a long drag. God, this tastes terrible. Like smoking a ballpoint pen. Then I remembered I had just switched to vape cigs.
“I’m in disguise,” he said. “What do you know about the Lakers?”
I coughed into my arm. “Just what I read in the papers. Dr. Buss’s kids running the show, worst start in franchise history since referencing lakes made actual geographic sense. Projected to be one of the worst defensive teams in the NBA, their prized rookie breaking one of his pins during a funereal home opener. You really do look like him.”
He slides an envelope across the desk. “Take a look at this.”
“So? A team is bad these days and everyone and their mother thinks it’s on purpose.”
“I want you to find out if it’s true that we’re really tanking. And I want you to find out who knows about this.”
Tanking. The possibility that NBA teams might start their season with a brick on the accelerator pedal and ghost-ride the El Camino toward the cliffs. It had been all over the tabloids. Heck, Philly doesn’t even try to hide it. Word on the street was, Silver and his people tried to get their finger on the scale, fudge the percentages and take away the incentive. Tried and failed.
“If I do this,” I told him, “I do it my way. I look at everybody. And I get paid up front.”
That’s how I ended up taking the L.A. tanking case.
If the Lakers were tanking, they were doing it, as Lil Wayne might say, “in silence like lasagna.” No fingerprints on a still-smoking revolver. No draft picks stashed in Eastern Europe. No Mark Madsen firing up a ludicrously incriminating number of 3-pointers. Not with Byron Scott around, anyway.
The Lakers did have motive, though — their first-round pick in 2015 would go to Phoenix if it fell outside of the top five. And they had opportunity — after missing out on the store window free agents, L.A. kept its powder dry rather than sign the likes of Greg Stiemsma or Mike Beasley. Therefore, its cap picture after this season is quite clear.
So, if the Lakers are tanking, who in the organization is behind it?
Mitch Kupchak: The Shadow Tank Mastermind
If the Lakers really are tanking, Mitch is the Keyser Söze. To the casual observer, the clouds from Dwight’s escape from Los Angeles, and Nash’s spinal column completing its years-long transformation into rice pudding, cast an undeserved pall over Mitch’s stewardship. This overlooks the fact that just landing Steve Nash and Dwight Howard in the first place was a league-shaking accomplishment, which led various NBA watchers to name the 2012-13 Lakers as favorites to win the title. Dwight and Nash were both the fallback options, so to speak, from the Stern-scuppered deal for Chris Paul. Pretty good plan B. Of course, it didn’t quite work out. Mitch has had to recalibrate, and here we are. But read between the lines, and you can just glimpse the shadowy hand of tanking brilliance:
Carlos Boozer, claimed off waivers, theoretically gives the team solid post scoring, semi-OK rebounding, and a veteran presence to mentor Julius Randle. From a shadow-tanking perspective, Boozer also brings negative defense (Bulls opponents scored three more points per 100 possessions with Boozer on the court than off the court last season — that number rose to 10.1 in the playoffs), no rim protection, and a bunch of totally unwarranted yelling and arm flexing.
Which brings us to:
Byron Scott: The Fall Guy
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The hiring of Byron Scott fulfills much of what Lakers partisans were grousing for under the troubled stewardship of Mike D’Antoni. Scott comes in with a reputation — mostly of his own invention, it turns out — of being a defensive-minded coach. Right after he was finally hired, he told Kobe, via text, that the team “better be ready to play some defense.” Scott, who won three titles as a player with the Lakers, also brings a connection to the historic culture of the Lakers, based on a close familiarity with the team’s greatness far removed from current circumstances:
You always need one of those type of guys. In this situation, where it’s just Kobe — who really understands what it means to be a Laker — and myself, who understands what it means to be a Laker — you’ve got two guys coming from two different perspectives, but delivering the same message. That’s important. That’s important for Swaggy P and Wesley Johnson and Ryan Kelly who need to understand what it means to put that purple and gold on.
Sounds great. Small problem: Byron Scott, despite his Lakers bona fides, is not actually a defensive specialist. Via NBA.com’s John Schuhmann:
The Cavs ranked in the bottom five in defensive efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions) in each of Scott’s three seasons. That’s not just bad. It’s unprecedented.
Before Scott, the last coach to lead his team to the bottom five in defensive efficiency in three straight seasons was Mike Dunleavy, who did it with Milwaukee from 1993-94 to 1995-96, a streak that started when the league had only 27 teams. So Scott is the only coach to do it in a 30-team league.
Through four games this season, the Lakers are giving up 120.2 points per 100 possessions. It’s a healthy dose of small-sample-size theater against the Rockets, Suns, Clippers, and Warriors, but still not a promising sign.
Then there’s Scott’s much-maligned offensive philosophy. What if Rip Van Winkle became a head coach after falling asleep in 1994? Scott explained his plan to have the Lakers take between 10 and 15 3s per game to the L.A. Times: “I don’t believe it [3-pointers] wins championships. It gets you to the playoffs.” Strictly speaking, like where you compare the previous statement to things that have actually happened, this is not true.
OK, so maybe Scott is poised to buck the trends of the last several years of his coaching history while single-handedly wrenching the course of NBA evolution back into the primordial soup. Or perhaps Kupchak, considering that he also interviewed Lionel Hollins and George Karl, just hired the wrong guy. That happens. No GM bats 1.000, and even the worst NBA teams are staffed by smart, hardworking executives who just want to make the right call. Sometimes things just don’t work out.
Except … why did it take, by my count, three interviews over two months for Scott to get the gig? Surely three interviews, between May and July, is enough to suss out Byron’s overall defensive non-impactfulness and retrograde offensive style. Unless — shadow tanking conspiracy theory alert — Mitch took those months to fully vet Byron’s awfulness, to make sure he really was committed to having the Laker take 15 (at most) 3s per game, while trying to drive to the rim without any spacing. And, if the fans turn on the team — which they won’t unless Kobe starts grumbling — they’ll go straight for the head coach, who reacts to blowouts by silently pacing the sideline with his arms crossed, like he’s waiting for his wife to come out of the shoe store. Is Mitch ruthless enough to do a Laker semi-legend like that?
Jim and Jeanie Buss: The Co-Conspirators
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If the Lakers are shadow tanking, it’s hard to imagine that, as Dr. Buss’s heirs, Jim and Jeanie Buss aren’t in on it. Jim, in particular, is Kupchak’s boss, was present at Byron Scott’s job interviews, and has promised that he’ll step down if the team isn’t contending in three or four years.
For her part, Jeanie said back in April that “Jim has assured me that they have a plan in place, that the team will be better next year and we will be back in contention shortly. He’s very confident in that plan and so I have to believe he knows what he’s doing and what he’s trying to accomplish. We have to be patient and give him that opportunity.”
In the same L.A. Times piece, Jeanie’s fiancé, Phil Jackson, described that plan: “Forward wise, they’re all hoping they get the No. 1 pick and get the player that they really need or want and that things start turning around for them because it would be great to have two good basketball teams in this town — besides the Clippers.” That pick turned out to be the now-injured Randle. With things just as dire, if not more so, than last season, it’s hard to see why their plan to score a top player in the draft would have changed.
Kobe Bryant: The Unwitting Accomplice
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Just going by everything we know about Kobe — his famous competitiveness, his sociopathic drive, his willingness to play through pain, the way he reacted to his torn Achilles by trying to reattach it by himself — suggests that, if the Lakers really are tanking, Kobe doesn’t know. I mean, I don’t even think his mind could fathom the concept.
Through four games, Kobe is averaging 24.8 points on 41.2 percent shooting, and has basically looked like the scene in The Last Samurai where a defeated Tom Cruise holds off five samurai with just a flagpole. His very presence on the team is the perfect smokescreen for a shadow tank.
The last time he felt the team hadn’t made enough moves, Kobe demanded a trade. This time, he says he’s committed to seeing the project out. “I saw them put the work in. It’s much different than in 2007 when I felt like they were just sitting on their hands. This is not that case. They were going after it and being aggressive. I will fight for that till the end. They tried, tried and tried and it didn’t work out. I stand behind them 110 percent. I bleed purple and gold.”