Forty games into the 2015-16 NBA season, the Los Angeles Lakers have nine wins.
After game no. 41 on Thursday, the Lakers' 2015-16 season will be halfway complete. At that stage, the thought of losing games in order to benefit the team can truly enter the conscious stream of thought without causing too much guilt. Before diving too deep down that avenue, though, the fact of the matter is that the Lakers simply aren't bad enough to finish with a top-three draft pick without getting lucky in the NBA Draft Lottery.
In order to win the NBA Draft Lottery or at least finish in the top three, the Lakers don't need nearly the miracle required to win the $1.5 billion (and growing) Powerball lottery.
The 2015-16 Lakers' season, however, was never meant to be about chasing ping pong balls and focusing on the NBA Draft. That was last season, and the Lakers got lucky. Now, that kid is beginning to show signs of his abilities. By the way, the odds of winning the Powerball lottery are one in 292.2 million, which make the NBA Draft lottery odds sound exponentially more attractive.
Time To Stop Rooting Against The Lakers?
The Philadelphia 76ers lose games for a living, so they will end at the bottom of the league unless they miraculously stop doing everything that has defined that team for the past few years. At best, the Lakers can finish second from the bottom in the NBA, which would give the Lakers a 55.8 percent chance finishing in the top three in the draft lottery, while keeping their draft pick. Incidentally, Philadelphia would get the Lakers' pick if LA falls out of the top three (see: Steve Nash trade).
Currently, the Lakers are only marginally behind the Brooklyn Nets, but Brooklyn just fired its head coach and its general manager. At 10-28 (.263) on the season and no reason to expect the Nets to (want to) improve, Brooklyn could and should pass the Lakers in the race to the bottom. Finishing with the third-worst record in the NBA would provide the Lakers a 46.9 percent chance of holding onto their draft pick.
Essentially, if the Lakers regress back to how they started the season, which no one wants to see, their chances of holding onto their draft pick would be either slightly better than or slightly worse than a coin flip.
Add in that the Phoenix Suns are falling from the sky and not anywhere near touching the ground as yet. The Suns have lost 11 of their 12 games, and the Lakers even managed a 20-point victory over Phoenix. At one point, these Lakers led by 38 points over the Suns. If the Lakers continue to show improvement and the Suns continue to crumble, the Lakers will likely finish, at worst, with the fourth-best record in the NBA and possess only a 37.8 percent chance of keeping that draft pick.
Also, the Lakers only trail the New Orleans Pelicans by two games in the wins column, and LA beat the Pelicans on Tuesday night. So, the Lakers could conceivably jump up to the fifth or sixth worst record in the league.
"The young guys are starting to get a little resilient--starting to learn," Lakers coach Byron Scott said after Tuesday's win over the New Orleans Hornets. "They're starting to grow."
Ultimately, the Lakers are far more likely to need a bit of luck in the lottery, so it's probably time for fans to stop being upset at victories and start enjoying the wins, rare as they may or may not be. It's time to find that lucky t-shirt because the Lakers will probably need it when the ping pong balls are in play.
But if the Lakers finish with the sixth worst record, they'd still have slightly better than a one in five chance of keeping their pick, which is only slightly better than one in 292.2 million most of America is currently facing.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Losing helps the Lakers' chances, obviously, and they'll lose plenty of games from here until Apr. 13—the date when Bryant hopes to walk off the court on his own terms after playing his final game.
Concerns over Bryant are rising, as the 37-year-old has alarmingly missed four of the past seven games. Bryant left Tuesday's game due to a sore right Achilles—not the same one he ruptured in 2013—and his coach voiced concerns about the 20-year professional missing Thursday's game in Oakland, a city that sits across the bay from San Francisco.
"I don't know if he's going to be able to play Thursday in San Francisco," Scott said of Bryant on Tuesday night. "It's more of how he feels and if it's something we can get under control."
With or without Bryant, the Lakers will win games because they have improved, and they should continue to improve. Winning does not dramatically hurt LA because Brooklyn, Philadelphia and Phoenix are all genuinely worse than the LA. An 82-game season should prove that point.
Fighting wins is futile, and Tuesday night against New Orleans proved that point. The Lakers finished the game with Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr., Anthony Brown and Lou Williams on the court. With the exception of Williams, the Lakers put out a team that either had one year or less of experience in the NBA. And the Lakers won.
Winning may not help the team's draft position or odds in the lottery, but these kids need to learn how to win games rather than simply learn how to accumulate statistics. Winning with youth helps teams advance past the rebuilding stage.
The vision entering the 2015-16 Lakers season projected a year of developing talent while saying goodbye to Bryant with the long shot of making the playoffs. Forty games into the season, this team finally looks like the team fans hoped for on opening night, and the playoffs may be an improbability, but they're not entirely an impossibility.
Even if the postseason is a pipe dream, chasing lottery balls doesn't make sense at the moment because the Lakers simply aren't playing poorly enough to land at the bottom of the pile. They'll likely come up well short of the post season and end up holding a lottery ticket with odds far better than a country full of Powerball players.
Before going past 40 games, let's clarify that the Lakers were terrible. A 2-15 start to the season matched the eye-clawing level of basketball on display. A forgettable record of 5-25 also properly reflected the gut-wrenching quality of round ball on offer through the first 30 games.
However, the Lakers have won four of their last 10 games, and this team is playing like a .400 team currently as opposed to a .118 (2-15) team or a .167 (5-25) team. Considering their trajectory and the makeup of the squad, the Lakers should target playing .500 basketball over the final two months of the season, i.e. March and April. However, even .400 basketball bodes well for a team with maneuverability in free agency.
Showing steady improvement with a young core would provide the Lakers with desirable assets to lure free agents and also potentially strengthen the team via trades. A promising, young squad with the ability to add a superstar and a sidekick would make for a positive pitch to go along with the suitcases full of money the Lakers have available with Bryant's contract coming off the books.
Of course, the alternative is that the Lakers fall apart, return to losing at an embarrassing level and enter another summer with an unproven NBA roster.
Why would anyone hope for that?