Column

Streaking Lakers create a mix of emotions

Losing would mean the lottery, but winning is more fun to watch

One moment, you're covering your eyes and cheering for losses.

The next, you're off the couch and cheering for miracles.

One moment, Kobe Bryant is missing 13 of 14 shots and Jeremy Lin is turning an important play into a Sesame Street skit — "Hey Kermit, elbow rhymes with go!" — and Byron Scott's mustache is instantaneously turning gray.

The next, Nick Young shows up and all Swaggy breaks loose.

A dozen games into this season, the once stable job of being a Lakers fan is awash in conflict and confusion.

They are insipid. They are inspiring. They are banal. They are a blast. It is better if they lose. Should you cheer for them to win?

Kobe shouldn't be here. Kobe shouldn't be anywhere else. Swaggy is a joke. Swaggy is a savior. Scott is the worst possible coach for this situation. Scott is the only coach for this situation.

The season began with a simple narrative. The Lakers stink. They lost first-round draft pick Julius Randle on opening night, lost nine of their first 10 games, ran a silly offense based on mid-range jumpers or Bryant heaves, played zero defense, established a clear mandate.

Tank. Tank hard. Tank harder than last season, when they won 27 games and were the sixth-worst team in basketball. Tank to the absolute bottom, because the Lakers keep their first-round pick next spring only if it's in the top five. Otherwise it goes to Phoenix as part of the horrible deal for Steve Nash and the Lakers must settle for Houston's top pick, which probably will be deep in the draft.

(By the way, has any future Hall of Fame athlete ever abandoned Los Angeles with less dignity than Nash? He can no longer play because of back problems, but admitted he wouldn't retire because he wanted the guaranteed $9.7 million on the final year of his deal. Yet even being paid all that money, he has refused to show up and mentor the younger players and initially didn't even return Scott's phone calls. Nice.)

So for the first couple of weeks of the season, it was all about tanking for a draft that could include two potential franchise-changing big men, Jahlil Okafor of Duke and Karl-Anthony Towns of Kentucky. They had to lose. It was their only hope.

But earlier this week in Atlanta, the Lakers showed a different kind of hope. Nick Young returned from his thumb injury, Wesley Johnson returned from dreamland, Bryant made more than half of his shots, Lin had 10 assists, Carlos Boozer had 10 rebounds, and John Ireland excitedly screamed through the radio as if it were Game 7 against Boston.

The Lakers beat the Hawks, and suddenly the unwatchable became the irresistible, a bad team suddenly become a Bad News Bears team, lovable through their flaws, as embraceable as Young's self-anointed, "Swaggy P" persona.

"It's like my swag just rubbed off on everybody," Young told reporters, and he wasn't talking about just his teammates, but much of this city, right?

The winning continued Wednesday night in Houston against a team playing without starters Dwight Howard and Terrence Jones, the Lakers doing what they really don't do, like playing interior defense and grabbing big rebounds. Johnson actually picked the pocket of James Harden to clinch it.

"It's been tough, but you find beauty in the process," Bryant said.

He's right on both counts, so what is a Lakers fan to do? Root for the tough that will bring the lottery pick? Or enjoy the beauty that will bring ... what exactly? The Lakers are not going to make the playoffs. They won't play any big games in the spring. The best they can be is mediocre, which, in the NBA, is the absolute worst.

For answers, I consulted Neighbor Sam, a buddy who's been in this column before, the consummate Lakers fan, if only because he possess the two traits found in all Lakers fans.

He hates the Clippers. He loves Kobe.

Neighbor Sam attended last week's debacle against San Antonio, felt no passion or energy even though he sat two seats down from Kurt Rambis Man, and walked away believing the worst . But this week happened, and Neighbor Sam found himself watching every minute of these meaningless games and finding renewed meaning.

"Hey, as a Laker fan, I know everything we should be thinking," he said, meaning the losing and the lottery. "But when they're out there and things are kind of jelling, I can't think of anything else other than, I want them to win."

He knows he's not cheering for a potential champion. He knows that cheering for the Lakers this season is actually cheering against their future. He doesn't care.

"Even though this could cost us winning for three more years, in that moment, when they're playing hard and it's exciting and it feels like it used to feel, I'm cheering for them to win now," he said.

That makes no sense, and plenty of sense, and that is apparently how this Lakers season will proceed, with the heads of their fans leaning in one direction before being overtaken by their heart.

Sure, Bryant shoots way too much, but he's leading the league in scoring and he's exuding the sort of graceful wisdom not often evident in his early years. Of course, Young can be nuts, but nuts is preferable to despair. Certainly, Scott seems overwhelmed by his new job, but it's comforting to see some of that Showtime toughness.

Yes, the Lakers should lose, lots, and nobody can be blamed for hoping that happens. But as this week showed, it might be a lot more fun trying to watch them actually win.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

Twitter: @billplaschke

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