Lakers not tanking, but stalling in rebuilding year

Somehow, this all goes back to the Lakers and the Celtics.

They’re two of the greatest juggernauts of the decade from 2000-10 and this summer, a few years past their primes, they’ve been reduced to shells of their former selves. This summer, they’re both rebuilding, all the while insisting that to rebuild is not to tank. Sure, the situations are not identical – the Celtics hired Brad Stevens and dumped their stars, whereas the Lakers are clinging to their coach and their big-name players – but they’re too eerily similar not to note.

Who’s doing it right? It’s hard to say, but the Celtics are sure making it look a lot more fun.

While the Lakers have spent the past month stocking their roster with a mediocre supporting cast of journeymen and veterans, the Celtics have undergone much more high-profile changes. They dealt Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to Boston, lowering their team’s average age to 23.7. (Eliminating Gerald Wallace, Keith Bogans and MarShon Brooks, and that age in Boston dips even lower, to 22.9.) It’s a team of children, practically, but they’re also potential personified, maybe not the highest level of potential, but beggars can’t be choosers.

The Lakers, however, will enter next season with an average age of 28.8 if they make no more moves beyond signing their second-round pick, Ryan Kelly, who is 22. They’re a middle-aged to old team, in basketball terms, where the bench players are guys like Nick Young and Wes Johnson, who have so far proven where their ceilings stand – and they aren’t exceptionally high.

Sure, the Celtics cutting all emotional ties to their aging elite helps. (Remember: Pierce was a Celtic for just two fewer years than Kobe Bryant has been a Laker, and to far less drama.) It means there’s no weird obligation to win for the sake of history, and that’s helpful in times like these. The Lakers, on the converse, are trying to prop the past up when it can’t really stand on its own any longer.

And neither team is tanking. Remember that. They’re rebuilding, and it’s true. Even the Celtics, who are thinking more long-term than the Lakers in their rebuild, aren’t going to tell their players to blow games next year. They’re just going to grow, and growing can be painful.

Growing, for the Celtics, involves signing guys like Phil Pressey and Vitor Faverani. Pressey showed promise in college but seemed to have no clue as to what his strengths were, and with the right coach, he might be something. Faverani is a Brazilian big man, relatively unknown, but whom the Celtics hope will pan out. If either of these players do, great. If not, Boston took a chance, with the consequences being close to nil.

The Lakers aren’t growing. They’re just stalling, approaching the season, coach Mike D’Antoni says, like they would any other. He, too, spits out the t-word like venom.

“We expect to have a great season, and we expect to go into it hard and do everything we can to win every game possible,” D’Antoni said when asked about the prospects of his team tanking next season.

“That’s not even, it’s not reality. It’s a lottery, so you’re not even guaranteed. That’s crazy to do that.”

These Lakers, it seems, do not like gambles, except of course that they’re betting it all on LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony – or both – opting out of his contract early after next season. Until then, though, they’re fine with taking the boring route, one with known, unexceptional quantities and very little room for surprise. They’re going to be back to their old tricks in a year, clearing out the mere peasants they’ve cast as this season’s supporting cast in the hopes of attracting a big-name free agent or two. They’re painting it like it’ll be easy. It used to be, but recent experience says it might not. If it isn’t, then where will they be?

The team the Lakers have on paper now will not be the worst in the league, whereas the Celtics may just be among them. The Celtics could luck into a top draft pick, whereas the Lakers may squeak into the eighth seed or eke out enough wins to just hover in the pack. They won’t be salivating watching Andrew Wiggins at Kansas next season or DVR-ing everything Jabari Parker does at Duke. They’ll be competing, in the way that a middle-of-the-pack Western Conference team competes, which is to say, it won’t necessarily be fun.

But back to Boston. This time, though, let’s rewind a decade and a half, to 1997. In 1997, there was this senior at Wake Forest, this kid who could have come out of college a year earlier and been the No. 1 pick, but who elected to wait. The Celtics wanted him. They likely tanked to get him. They had the best odds in the lottery.

Tim Duncan went No. 1 overall to the Spurs, whose terrible 1996-97 season was the result of an injury to David Robinson. Two years later, Duncan and San Antonio won a title. After drafting Chauncey Billups third overall – and then trading him for Kenny Anderson that same season – the Celtics didn’t make the playoffs again until 2002.

It’s not proof that tanking doesn’t work; the Warriors did it somewhat successfully in 2011-12 to land Harrison Barnes, and theirs was a less specific brand. They didn’t need the top pick, just a good one, and that sounds more like what the Lakers could do if they dared lower themselves to such tricks. (They won’t. They swear. They will not.)

The Celtics, though, didn’t learn their lesson, and perhaps that explains at least in part why they are so especially gun shy when it comes to talking about tanking. Ten years after the Duncan debacle, Boston tried it again, in a year that Boston legend John Havlicek has referred to as the “Greg Oden Sweepstakes.” Again, the Celtics caught a bad break, drawing the fifth pick despite having the second-best odds at No. 1. They had to go the other direction and acquire big-name veterans – Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen – albeit through trades, but in a fashion similar to what the Lakers are now aiming to do.

The Celtics went on to win a title that next spring, and the trade of their fifth pick in a package that got them Allen certainly helped. But even their tanking efforts would have been for naught if they hadn’t had a discontented Garnett fall into their laps.

What transpired in Boston in 2007 doesn’t validate the Lakers’ plan to do anything but tank, but it shows how little control these teams have. Sure, of the 21 players who have ranked among the NBA’s top 10 in PER in the past five seasons, 19 made the playoffs with the team they debuted with. Top draft picks who pan out can propel teams to win, but they have to pan out, and they don’t have to be the result of tanking. The key here is that if the Lakers do lose next season, tanking or no tanking, they need to realize the value in building through the draft, whether it’s the first pick or the eighth. Maybe the draft is too risky to tank for, but it isn’t too risky to treat in an informed, forward-thinking fashion.

The Lakers could have treated this season as an experiment, but instead they’re looking at it as a throwaway. It’s all hands on deck for the summer of 2014, for better or for boring in the meantime.