It's a tricky line, the concept of tanking without overtly doing it.
It's a wonder the final score wasn't 21-19 when the lottery-destined Lakers played the equally downtrodden Philadelphia 76ers in front of a half-asleep crowd last week. The teams were right next to each other, record-wise, and equally lusting after an infusion of young talent.
For the uninitiated, tanking in NBA parlance refers to the act of poor teams losing on purpose to increase their chances of getting a better player in the amateur draft. This year's draft is projecting to be a very good one, especially near the top.
It would be especially crucial for the Lakers to finish with a poor record this year. If they do not hold a top-five pick after the May 19 draft lottery, they must forward it to the 76ers, who inherited it in a trade with Phoenix last month. (The Lakers initially sent the pick to the Suns in 2012 for Steve Nash.)
Not surprisingly, you could have fielded an entire team with all the players that sat out last week's game, healthy or not. The 76ers went without five players. The Lakers sat eight.
Some had serious injuries — Kobe Bryant underwent surgery in January to repair a torn rotator cuff and 76ers guard Tony Wroten had a season-ending procedure last month because of a torn knee ligament.
But one of the idle players was veteran Lakers forward Carlos Boozer, a curious case all by himself.
He was told by Lakers Coach Byron Scott that he would sit a handful of games — three to five, to be exact — so the Lakers could "take a good look at the rest of the young guys," Boozer said.
"Me and J-Hill are, I guess, just resting for the next four or five games," added Boozer, perfectly healthy at the time, referring to teammate Jordan Hill.
Hill, another veteran big man, was a healthy scratch for three games before returning to the lineup after affirming his desire to play because "it's getting boring on the sideline."
Combined, Hill and Boozer average 24.4 points and 15.1 rebounds a game.
Nobody in the NBA has publicly accused the Lakers of playing hide-the-player to lose a few games on the court. But the underlying premise of healthy players sitting out so many games leads to questions. And frustration.
Lakers reserve forward Ed Davis said he was genuinely unhappy about being "rested" in a 107-99 loss to Brooklyn last week. He will become a free agent when his contract expires in June and at age 25 is seemingly one of the younger players the Lakers want to evaluate.
A hearty and hale Davis didn't get off the bench the next two games either. He's still trying to figure it out.
"I don't like it at all. I want to play as much as I can," Davis said last week after watching in his warm-ups as the Lakers lost, 113-92, to New Orleans. "My goal is to come in every year and play all 82 games. I'm not at a point in my career right now where I'm happy getting 'DNPs."
In another unusual development, point guard Jeremy Lin was playing a strong game two weeks ago against Minnesota, scoring 19 points and adding five assists before leaving with 11:21 left in the fourth quarter. He never returned, even though the game went into overtime.
Lakers assistant coach Paul Pressey filled in for Scott that night while the Lakers' coach attended funeral services for his mother. Pressey said it was a "gut feeling" to sit Lin and see what guard Jabari Brown could do, and the rookie did have an important three-pointer late in regulation.
Lin was initially tight-lipped when asked about his late-game disappearance — "I'm not going to answer that question. Next question, please," he said — but eventually opened up.
"I'm a competitor. I want to play but … my whole thing that I've learned in my five [NBA] years is control what I can control and leave the rest up to God," he said.
Like most struggling NBA teams, the Lakers consider a high draft pick to be very important. There are two potentially franchise-changing big men this year — Jahlil Okafor of Duke and Karl-Anthony Towns of Kentucky — and also top point-guard prospects D'Angelo Russell and Emmanuel Mudiay.
Two factors would incentivize poor play. The worse the Lakers' record, the better chance they have at winning the No. 1 overall pick May 19 on lottery night. Right now, the Lakers have the NBA's fourth-worst record, and that probably will hold. It gives them a 10.5% shot at landing the top pick in the draft.
Additionally, the more the Lakers struggle, the less chance they have of getting passed by other teams on lottery night. If they stay where they are right now, there's a 16% chance of two teams passing them to knock them down to No. 6, at which point the Lakers would hand their pick to the 76ers.
Scott denies the Lakers are playing to lose in his first year as their coach after a history of 11 years with the franchise as a player, mainly in the championship-filled 1980s.
"When the games start, even if I had in my mind, which I've never had in my mind, to say, 'OK, I want to lose this game,' it's almost impossible for me to think that way," he said. "I've never heard a coach say, 'You know I'm going to intentionally go out and really lose this game.' I've never heard a player say, 'We play Philly tonight, so let's lose this game.' It goes against everything that you talk about as far as being a competitor."
There's no denying the Lakers have been hit by injuries. Bryant lasted only 35 games. Nash didn't play at all because of recurring back problems. Touted rookie Julius Randle went down with a season-ending broken leg on opening night.
Nobody pegged the Lakers to make playoffs this season, but they're now closing in on the worst record in the franchise's 67-year history.
Fans are quick to point out their team isn't very good at another thing — tanking.
The Lakers won two games on a recent five-game trip, both in overtime, both by two points — over Minnesota and Philadelphia.
The Internet became a lightning rod for fans' anger after the latter win, with plenty of exclamation points and capital letters. Many gave up on this team long ago, already envisioning which college player they wanted in purple and gold next season.
A Twitter user who went by GreekMamba29 espoused that "Byron Scott should be fired for not tanking correctly!!!"
Another Twitter user, MarcusSanchez9, was more forceful, imploring a reporter to "TELL THESE IDIOTS HOW MUCH FANS WANT THEM TO LOSE!!!"
The players have pretty much heard enough about the need to tank.
"They're just not real Lakers fans if you want us to lose," Hill said. "We're not having a good season right now, but we've still got a Lakers uniform on and we still want to try to finish out hard."
But there was this alternate view from Davis on the concept of losing to improve draft status.
"As a fan, that's something that you should want," he said. "I'm a [Minnesota] Vikings fan and at the end of the year, instead of going to playoffs, I wanted us to lose. So I know how fans are and what they want."
What's the big-picture solution here?
The NBA has debated ways to eliminate tanking, but owners struck them down before this season.
The "wheel draft" was one popularly cited resolution: Each team would cycle through every draft slot over a 30-year period, Team A, for example, would start at No. 1 next year, then No. 2 the following year, No. 3 the year after that, etc.
A more recent modification of the wheel turned it into a five-year or 10-year commitment, not 30, and involved teams rotating through "groups" in draft clusters. Team A, for example, would be randomly assigned a first-round pick from No. 1 to No. 5 overall next year, from No. 6 to No. 10 the following year, 11 to 15 the year after that, etc.
For now, there's plenty of cheering. For losing. What a bizarre Lakers season indeed.
LAKERS VS. MINNESOTA
When: 7:30 p.m. PDT Friday.
Where: Staples Center.
On the air: TV: TWC SportsNet, TWC Deportes; Radio: 710, 1330.
Record vs. Timberwolves: 2-1.
Update: Minnesota is the only team keeping the Lakers out of the Western Conference basement. If nothing else, the teams have been competitive against each other, Minnesota beating the Lakers by one back in November and the Lakers winning by six and two (in overtime) since then against the Timberwolves. Andrew Wiggins continues to be the top candidate for rookie of the year, averaging 16.7 points while playing every game so far for Minnesota.