The next five minutes could determine the future of the franchise. Deep in the fourth quarter trenches on Friday night, the Lakers led the Sacramento Kings by a single point, 115-114. It was crunch time, a true test of will, a schism separating the really bad from the fantastically awful.
Fate sneered at the Lakers from tip-off. DeMarcus "Boogie" Cousins, the Kings' leading scorer, rebounder, and Ring King enthusiast, drew a one-game suspension making him ineligible for play. Only a game and a half separated the teams in the dregs of the Western Conference standings. In a season of hard-fought losses, this was potentially the biggest must-lose game of the season.
Who would be the hero for the Lakers? Would Kendall Marshall hurl a crucial possession into the $1,000 seats? Would Pau Gasol break out his Maginot Line defense? Or would Mike D' Antoni cryogenically unfreeze Steve Nash, play him as a stretch 4, and gleefully troll the Lakers fan base?
None of these things happened. Instead, the Staples Center crowd detonated at the sheer dominance of MarShon Brooks.
Unless your first-born son (or daughter) is named Kareem, you probably have no idea who MarShon Brooks is. Until a little over a week ago, maybe six fans in the sold-out Staples Center crowd had any clue. The trivia answer is that Brooks was an after-thought in the Steve Blake trade with Golden State; a 6'5" shooting guard struggling to stay in the league, disposable enough to be on his fourth team in just three seasons.
With the Lakers lottery fortunes hanging in the balance, Brooks blitzed the Kings with a five-minute extravaganza of jackknifing turn-around bank shots, balletic reverse lay-ups, and dagger slashes to the hoop. In the locker room after the game, fellow trade bait Kent "Baze God" Bazemore called him a young Kobe, which is the sort of gleeful hyperbole you rarely hear outside of a moon-rock binge.
And yet Brooks' fourth-quarter spree left the Kings stunned and crestfallen. Even Lakers rookie Ryan Kelly started swatting away their shots like he was baby Shaq.
Leave it to this year's Lakers: they can't even win by losing. With 23 games left in the season, they're so far out of playoff range that not even Mike D' Antoni would tell them to keep shooting. But on a team where 80 percent of the players are about to be free agents, they're going to keep playing hard (and pad stats). It's as admirable as it is frustrating for any fan resigned to long-term strategy.
Not only did the Lakers limbo past the Kings 126-122, they turned in the best three-point shooting performance of any team in the last quarter century (with more than 25 attempts). They shot 73 percent from behind the arc: a solid statistic for team free-throw percentage. Jordan Farmar dropped a career-high 30 points (8-10 from 3-point land). Jodie Meeks hit all eight of his shots. MarShon Brooks went off for 23. And Pau Gasol took a pause from maligning the Goya-like misery of this season, to hit for 22 points.
Few things are more fatalistic and cynical than rooting for your favorite team to lose, but welcome to the NBA in 2014. The combination of the NBA's Mad Marx collective bargaining agreement, a particularly strong draft, and a .339 winning percentage have left the Lakers a quarter season away from their highest draft pick since James Worthy. As basketball commentator Nate Jones opined after the Lakers victory: "Lakers fans should be mad about every win at this point. #embracethetank."
But this triggers an alien cognitive dissonance for the franchise with the second-most championships in league history (and most over the last 40 years). Few things are more psychologically jarring than watching the Lakers play the Kings with Kobe Bryant out for the season (probably) and Shaq now part-owner of the team he once derided as "The Queens." We are living in the future.
So far, the best coping mechanism remains unclear. There's a contingent of fans too proud or too stubborn to embrace the tank - either that or they're trying to make the most out of having shelled out the cost of a downtown condo for season tickets. Rooting to lose feels like forcing yourself to vomit when you're drunk in a last-ditch effort to salvage the night.
With the CBA effectively locking up draft picks for seven years, fans and general managers are left with Messiah complexes. Draft picks have never been more important, even though most players are almost comically unready for the rigors of the NBA after a single season of college basketball.
None of this year's projected top picks figure to be star until the next presidential administration, but this is a city psychically bound by an unerring gambler's confidence that borders on the delusional. There is the sense that some fixer somewhere will rig the draft lottery so that we can get a top-three pick, provided the Lakers keep losing.
As it stands, they're tied with the Kings for the fifth worst record in the league. But the Knicks and Jazz are only a game behind the Lakers in the tank sweepstakes. You can see the Lottery odds breakdown here. At this point, losing isn't everything; it's the only thing.
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I should be clear that the notion of tanking is inherently hideous. I was fully in favor of the Lakers refusing to trade Pau Gasol for a bowl of authentic Spanish gazpacho and a slightly used vinyl copy of Pearl Jam's Vitalogy. There are few things more shameful than welcoming visiting teams into your building like you were Vichy France. But it's unequivocally clear that it's in the Lakers best interest to blow most of their remaining games. If you don't believe me, just watch this highlight reel of Andrew Wiggins walloping Duke. Or this one of Jabari Parker: (though I recommend muting the music).
The Lakers have no significant assets under contract other than an aged Kobe Bryant, who has spent the second half of this season alternately rehabbing his broken leg, vowing revenge, promoting a shoe line, un-following his teammates from Twitter, and boasting about "how his collection of [Darth Vader piano] masterpieces has reached a crescendo of domination."
The good news for purple and gold pragmatists is that the Lakers have one of the toughest schedules for the duration of the season. Things could get hideous. But as my grandmother once said to me: this too shall pass.
Of course, she never watched a Mike D' Antoni-coached, shoot-first team full of free agents desperate for a new deal. In the weeks ahead, the Lakers play the best team in the league (OKC) twice, the Trail Blazers twice, the red-hot Clippers twice, and the Spurs thrice. They even play the Kings one more time, which means the Lakers will have a chance to avenge their victory.