D’Angelo Russell had only the second-coolest game-winning buzzer-beater by an NBA Russell on Sunday, but it was still pretty awesome. He wasn’t planning on playing after learning about the death of his grandmother, but he decided she would have wanted him to play. He didn’t have a great night. Before the game winner, he was 5-for-18 with more turnovers (five) than assists (four).
This shot was off too. It hit front rim, then back rim, and bounced up. With most 3s, that’d be a miss. The ball is moving with too much power to hit the rim and still roll in. But the ball popped straight up and fell in. It was an improbable shot to continue an improbable four-game win streak:
But to understand why Russell’s shot was so improbable, we should focus on the shot before, an ugly clanker by Metta World Peace. The artist formerly known as Artest got the ball in a ton of space, but even he seemed unsure whether he was supposed to take a wide-open jumper in a critical juncture of an NBA game in 2017. He wasn’t a good shooter in his prime, and has lost what skill he had, entering Sunday night’s game shooting a stunningly bad 14.3 percent from beyond the arc. His teammate Jordan Clarkson noticed World Peace racked with indecision and described World Peace as “shaking like a stripper.” If deployed properly, what World Peace did next would be described as a stutter step. When executed by a panicked 37-year-old World Peace, it is apparently a stripper step.
World Peace hasn’t been an NBA-level player in quite some time. In 2015, I assumed he would never play an NBA game again after he got ejected from an Italian playoff game wearing a jersey that said THE PANDA’S FRIEND on the back. But the Lakers brought him back last year, and he posted career lows in virtually every category. And he surpassed those lows this year.
For most of the year, World Peace was restricted to garbage-time minutes. You’d think that would continue, given that the Lakers have voluntarily benched three of the team’s opening-night starters — Luol Deng, Timofey Mozgov, and Nick Young — since early March with the stated justification of allowing younger players to play. (They also traded leading scorer Lou Williams, essentially for Corey Brewer and a draft pick, in February.) Since World Peace is the oldest player on the team — he’s older than even head coach Luke Walton by a few months — you’d think he’d be included in that mass veteran benching. Instead, World Peace has gotten his most meaningful playing time of the year, because the Lakers aren’t benching all veterans. They’re benching ones who could potentially help the team win.
In the team’s last two games, Walton has kept World Peace on the sideline for three quarters and then, realizing the game was competitive, sent him in to start the fourth. He played about 10 minutes in each contest, all in the fourth quarter. With the game on the line, they’re turning to their worst player. He’s a bizarro closer.
They gave their greatest tanking effort against the Spurs. Walton scratched Russell before the tip, they still jumped out to a lead, and then the coach chose not to play Clarkson, Randle, Brandon Ingram, and Larry Nance Jr. for extended minutes. For a whole quarter, the Lakers intentionally sat their eight best players and played a crunch-time lineup of World Peace, Tyler Ennis, Tarik Black, Thomas Robinson, and David Nwaba. This was the third-tier lineup of a team that was really bad to begin with — and they beat one of the NBA’s best teams.
For a long time, the Lakers were doing a pretty good job of losing. They entered the All-Star break at 19–39 and then went 2–16 afterward, including two six-game losing streaks. But suddenly, with no warning or reason, they’ve won four in a row, their longest such streak since 2013, including two wins over playoff teams.
The Lakers need to lose because of a pair of trades in the 2012 offseason that brought Dwight Howard and Steve Nash to L.A. It was going to be fun, we were told! Donald Trump, then a random celebrity with a surprisingly large amount of Twitter followers, agreed about the fun-ness.
It didn’t work out. Howard left for the Rockets in free agency — Trump predicted this twice on Twitter — and Nash played only 15 games the next year before retiring. The Lakers were swept in their only playoff series with Howard, they haven’t been back since, and Trump is president of the United States.
These trades leave the Lakers in a unique position. Tanking doesn’t generally help NBA teams as much as it may seem. The difference between having the first pick and the second pick isn’t that big — you still get to pick the second-best player! — and the draft lottery system doesn’t guarantee a team a particular pick because of its record. Most of the time, tanking gives teams a slightly better chance at drafting a slightly better player. All things considered, that’s not a huge deal.
That is not the situation the Lakers are in. They owe the 76ers a first-round draft pick via the Nash trade, but the pick is top-three protected. If their pick ends up third or higher, they keep it. If it ends up fourth or lower, they lose it. They’ll have to give up the pick next year regardless, but it would be beneficial for them to get to pick a young talent a year earlier — and perhaps be competent enough next year that the pick they’ll lose won’t be so high.
But it gets weirder and worse! If the Lakers lose this year’s pick, they’ll owe the Magic an unprotected 2019 first-rounder because of the Howard trade. If they hold on to this year’s pick, they’ll owe the Magic merely a pair of second-round picks. I have spent about a half hour trying to understand the logic behind the stipulation that the pick owed to the Magic would become a first-rounder if the Lakers conveyed their pick owed to the Sixers by way of the Suns by 2017; I have not yet figured it out.
Before this win streak, the Lakers had the second-worst record in the league, giving them a 55 percent chance at holding onto this year’s pick and therefore keeping their 2019 first-rounder. The wins, combined with a 13-game Suns losing streak, have sealed the Lakers as the third-worst team in the league, which gives them only a 46.9 percent chance at retaining the picks. This win streak sparked by their young talent has significantly lowered their chances of acquiring more young talent.
The result makes the Lakers feel like real-life, NBA Major League. Management — which has been involved in public high-profile squabbling all season long — doesn’t want the team to win, and has assembled a strange array of players in hopes that they lose. There’s Russell, the flashy young star; World Peace, the washed-up vet; Ingram, the rookie; Nwaba, a D-League call-up whose only skill seems to be dunking; Ennis, who can now suddenly hit 3-pointers after several seasons in which he couldn’t; Black, a rebounding machine who has suddenly learned to score; Robinson, a draft bust trying to figure out his game; and Nance, the son of a star trying to make it on his own. You can picture the training montage, and we’re actually seeing the team win.
These basketball players, most of whom were demonstrably bad for most of the season, have suddenly started playing the best basketball of their lives. Black has played 167 games in his career; he had 15 on Sunday (three shy of his career-high 18 points against the Timberwolves in 2015). Ennis has been traded three times in his three years in the league; he had a career-high 19 points against the Spurs and then topped that with 20 against Minnesota.
It’s something all NBA fans can root for. For Lakers fans, there is joy in watching youngsters win. Russell is great, Ingram torched the Spurs, Randle is playing some of the best basketball of his career. There is hope for this future.
For everybody else, we can celebrate the NBA’s most obnoxious franchise failing at failing. The Lakers reached for the stars five years ago. They fell so hard back to earth that they created a miles-deep ditch they’ve been crawling out of since then. They had one path to escaping, and a bunch of kids who don’t know any better are gleefully destroying that path.
At this point, there is nothing the Lakers can do, as they’re locked into the league’s third-worst record regardless of what happens in the season’s final two games. They can play World Peace 48 minutes and lose by 40; it won’t matter. It will all come down to the way the ping-pong balls bounce at the NBA draft lottery. Walton has frequently said that he believes the basketball gods will smile on his team for refusing to tank, and after watching Russell’s ball careen around the rim and then go in, I do believe they’re having an effect on Lakers-related ball-bouncing these days. I just can’t tell if they’re being generous or being incredibly cruel.