LOS ANGELES -- At this point in their season, when the Los Angeles Lakers lose, they actually win.
In Friday night's battle between the teams with the second- and third-worst records in the NBA, the Phoenix Suns emerged victorious 95-90. Following the loss, the Lakers dropped to 14-55, and now have a five-game lead on the Suns (19-50) for the second-worst record behind the Philadelphia 76ers (9-60).
As long as the Lakers can maintain their current standing -- which seems almost certain at this point -- they will enter the NBA draft lottery on May 17 in New York with a 55.8 percent chance at keeping their top-3 protected 2016 first-round draft pick and a 19.9 percent chance at winning the lottery.
Had the Lakers won, they would've only had a three-game lead on the Suns, with another matchup looming next week. A win there, too, and the Suns could possibly leapfrog the Lakers and jeopardize their odds of keeping their pick.
Los Angeles needed to lose Friday, and it did, trailing for all but 26 seconds. Whether the loss was intentional is a whole other issue.
The Lakers have maintained an anti-tanking stance during their current rebuild, but it's easy to read between the lines with some of coach Byron Scott's decision-making Friday night.
The Lakers' three core players -- D'Angelo Russell, Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson -- inexplicably played a combined eight seconds in the final frame. None played more than 26 minutes each. The trio had a terrible offensive performance (a combined 19 points on 5-of-32 shooting), and generally looked out of sorts on both ends at times.
But, by all accounts, those are three of the Lakers' five best players -- if not their best three -- and continuing to sit them once the game was close in the fourth doesn't seem like the best tactic.
The second unit, in contrast, played nearly the entire fourth quarter, and somehow nearly won the Lakers the game. Had Lou Williams, who had a game-high 30 points on 10-of-17 shooting, not fouled out with eight seconds left, no Lakers starter would've logged a single second in the fourth.
Scott framed this as a trust issue, as the bench seems to try harder and move the ball better, while the starters' offense can gum up and stagnate. Then, he's claimed, their effort wanes, too.
"They just don't trust each other," Scott said. "I think it's strictly on the court. ... I don't think they trust each other. Period. They don't understand how to play together yet."
The issue, though, is how are they supposed to trust each other when their coach clearly doesn't trust them?
Marcelo Huertas, Ryan Kelly and Brandon Bass -- three-fifths of the lineup that closed the game -- will all be free agents this offseason. On paper, none are long-term fits. They simply shouldn't be closing games with nothing left to play for.
Unless, of course, the Lakers are playing for pingpong balls, which they apparently were Friday night.
Last season, the Lakers defeated the Minnesota Timberwolves and 76ers twice each in the final month of the season, and it almost cost them their 2015 first-round draft pick, which turned out to be Russell -- a probable franchise cornerstone.
This season, they wouldn't make the same mistake, despite Scott insisting on the contrary.
"Obviously last year it worked out pretty good for us," Scott said. "You hope at the end of the day if you do everything the right way, like we did last year, as far as trying to win basketball no matter what the circumstance are, then everything will fall in place.
"I still firmly believe that if you intentionally go out there and try to lose games, that type of karma is going to come back on you."
Where does saying you're trying to win, but playing a lineup that suggests otherwise rank on the karmic scale?
More troublesome, though, is that if Scott truly was playing the bench to win -- and not lose -- that is tremendously counterproductive.
On nights when the Lakers' young core is struggling, they should absolutely play in the fourth quarter. That way, they play through and learn from their mistakes, gain valuable late-game experience, and if they continue to struggle -- and drop the game in the process -- that's a win-win in the long run: The youngsters develop, and the Lakers are that much closer to keeping their pick.
Instead, Scott appears to claim he'd prefer to bench his young players, stalling their development and souring their relationship with him, and try to win, which could cost the Lakers their pick. Russell, who has finally emerged after the All-Star break, played fewer minutes than Metta World Peace, and didn't play over the final 18 minutes.
Suns rookie Devin Booker, on the other hand, logged nearly 15 more minutes, including nine in the fourth.
"They're going to have to figure it out," Scott said of his young core. "They have to get to the point where they understand they have to rely on each other."
How are they supposed to figure it out if they aren't given a chance, though? How are Russell, Randle and Clarkson supposed to develop late-game chemistry and experience if one or two -- or, as was the case Friday night, all -- is forced to sit on the bench in crunch-time?
That doesn't quite make sense.
What's more, Scott somehow maintains his opinion he actually gives his young players freedom and playing time, despite their minutes clearly contradicting that notion.
"I think my leash is pretty long, and so is my patience," Scott said. "They'll continue to get shots at it. But it's still an issue as far as you want them to sit there sometimes and watch how the second unit plays."
This, by any measure, is the worst season in the Lakers' storied history. Whether they win 15 games or 18 games doesn't matter. But keeping their first-round draft pick does.
If the Lakers keep their pick, then nights like Friday night are worth it, as the potential cost of stalling the growth of the team's core is a short-term sacrifice for a long-term benefit. If the Lakers lose their pick -- whether by sheer misfortune or because they won too many games -- then they will have wasted a season mis-developing their youth and then losing out on a potential star.
"I'm not going to mess with fate right now," Scott said of his strategy. "It was good to us last year. We'll leave it at that."
Losing to the Suns was vital to the Lakers' future, and it seems as if Scott knew that based on his decision to continue to bench his best and youngest players. In most cases, though, the Lakers don't have enough talent to keep up with their opponent, regardless of the lineup, and they should just roll with their younger core instead. Because if the pingpong balls don't bounce their way, and the Lakers lose their pick, nights like these -- where they chose to yet again bench their young talent -- could come back to haunt them.