Season 50, Game 78
San Antonio 95, Los Angeles Lakers 102
60-18, 2nd in the West

Let’s throw out a hypothetical situation:

Say there’s this team–call them the “Lasers”. The Lasers aren’t very good. They’re so bad, in fact, that they have one of the three worst records in the league. This isn’t all bad, though, because bad teams get rewarded with high draft picks, as we know. And there are some good players in this draft.

So it behooves the Lasers to get a good draft pick. But it gets trickier: if the Lasers don’t get a top-3 draft pick, they have to give it to another team in the Eastern Conference. The way the draft works, the worse you are, the likelier the chance you’ll stay in the Top-3. So it’s much better to be the 2nd worst team than the 3rd worst team.

Complicating matters even more, if the Lasers fall out of the Top-3 in the draft, not only do they lose this year’s lottery pick, but they lose another lottery pick in the future, to another Eastern Conference team.

So the stakes are high: finish in the Top-3 for the draft and be almost assured two really good draft picks to build the core of your future team around. Finish outside of the Top-3 and lose both of these draft picks and most likely stay stuck below mediocrity for the foreseeable future with no clear path to build your way out of it.

Now let’s say you’re the genius coach of a really good Western Conference team (let’s call them the Blurs), you’re locked into the #2-seed, with no chance to move up or down, and you’re playing the Lasers with absolutely zero incentive to win or lose. But you realize that if you lose to the Lasers, it will increase their likelihood of losing their draft picks, which will keep them bad for a very long time, eliminating a future rival. Plus, those good draft picks  that would have ended up on the Lasers now go to the Eastern Conference, where they will stay out of your way for many future playoff runs.

Do you lose the game?

Do I think Pop and Co. are diabolical enough to actually do this? No. Am I absolutely certain they didn’t? No.

(For the record: that win was terrible for the Lakers. Absolutely terrible. They no longer control their ability to finish with the second worst record in the league, and have a really good chance of losing their lottery pick. I love Lakers schadenfreude.)

The Spurs face the Mavs on Friday night in Dallas in yet another completely meaningless game for both teams. Dallas is marginally helped by losing (incrementally improving draft lottery odds), so perhaps the Spurs will secure a win by default.

Go Spurs Go.