Lakers' weak team remains a strong draw, thanks to Kobe Bryant's farewell

Followers of the Lakers are painfully aware of it: Their team is one of the NBA's worst.

Trackers of leaguewide popularity are acutely aware of a different notion: The Lakers are among the NBA's best.

Win or lose, the Lakers are a strong draw in many basketball corners because of Kobe Bryant's final season.

The Lakers are a weak 2-15 away from Staples Center but own the NBA's best road attendance with an average of 19,223 fans. Cleveland is next at 18,979.

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In the days after Bryant's retirement announcement three weeks ago, ticket resales to see the Lakers spiked 85%, with an almost equal increase for home and away games, according to Ticketmaster.

On top of it, the Lakers are screaming toward their worst-ever record and remain the second-most popular team in single-game sales on NBA League Pass, where viewers pay $6.99 to watch a live out-of-market game. Golden State is the most popular.

Bryant's retirement has been a huge assist to many bottom lines.

"We all know that he's not what he used to be, but people go and hope he's going to have a great game. You can get excited about that," said George Belch, chairman of the San Diego State marketing department. "If he scores 20 points that night or makes a few great plays, you feel like you got to see something."

You almost wonder about that one-game bump Dallas, Orlando and a few other teams will miss. They played the Lakers at home before Bryant's announcement and won't host them again.

The Lakers are paying Bryant $25 million this season and somehow squeezing revenue from it while following up last season's heinous 21-61 record with an even worse 4-22 start.

The team has sold out all nine of its Staples Center games so far, a trend expected to continue after experiencing nine non-sellouts each of the last two seasons.

Bryant has not played well at age 37 except for a recent three-game burst in which he's averaging 23 points on commendable 53% accuracy. For the season he is averaging 16.7 points on dreary 33.9% shooting.

He dunked Thursday for the first time since January and the home crowd went bonkers. There was a standing ovation. The Lakers trailed the Houston Rockets by eight at the time and would lose by 20.

"The Lakers' record is irrelevant at this point," said Bob Corb, president of Realize Excellence Consulting and former sports psychology program director at UCLA. "Kobe would obviously like to be going out in a different way. For the fans, I don't know that it really matters. They'll just remember this is Kobe's last year."

Lakers Coach Byron Scott called the team's popularity "a little bit" surprising based on their record. He credited a strong national fan base and, obviously, that other reason.

"They want to get a glimpse of greatness," Scott said. "I've never seen so many '24' jerseys in [road] arenas. If there's 17,000 fans in there, it seems like five or six thousand have on gold jerseys with No. 24."

If Bryant stays healthy — a big if in recent seasons — it's hard to imagine the attraction dwindling as the Lakers tumble toward (hopefully) another draft lottery appearance.

"Whether you love him or hate him, you had to have an opinion of him. He wasn't bland, he wasn't neutral," Corb said. "People just want to be able to say 'I was there for his last game in Houston or Boston' or whatever city you come from. It's that thing of, 'Kobe's been around for a long time, I've hated him all these years and now I want to say goodbye to him. I respect him.'"

No lineup changes

The young Lakers will keep coming off the bench.

It's been five games since D'Angelo Russell and Julius Randle lost their starting jobs, but Scott says he will stick with his initial plan of waiting 10 games before possibly adjusting the lineup.

"Five games is obviously a small sample," he said. "Ten games gives me a better indication."

He seemed pleased overall with the way Randle and Russell played since the demotion.

"Both those guys reacted the way I wanted them to, which is, 'I want to get back in the starting lineup, so I'm going to play even harder and show coach that I'm ready,'" Scott said.

Russell briefly but successfully returned to the starting lineup for two games when Jordan Clarkson sustained a sprained ankle. Russell then scored only two points coming off the bench Thursday against Houston.

LAKERS NEXT UP

at Oklahoma City

When: 2 p.m. PST, Saturday.

Where: Chesapeake Energy Arena.

On the air: TV: TWC SportsNet, TWC Deportes; Radio: 710, 1330.

Records: Lakers 4-22; Thunder 17-9.

Record vs. Thunder (2014-15): 0-3.

Update: Oklahoma City continues to be a top Western Conference team but is already considerably behind Golden State and San Antonio in the standings. Thursday provided a look into the Thunder’s close-but-not-quite-enough season to date: Russell Westbrook had 27 points and 10 assists and Kevin Durant had 25 points in a 104-100 loss to Cleveland. Oklahoma City’s unimpressive reserves combined for only 16 points.

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on December 19, 2015, in the Sports section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Weak team, but strong draw - Lakers have been a hot ticket on the road, as opposing fans clamor to get a last look at Bryant." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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