Laker fans have high hopes but lowered expectations
Alex Each always believes in Kobe.
His wife might elbow him in the ribs if he didn’t; the first name of the Lakers’ biggest star is the middle name of the couple’s youngest son.
So even things like Kobe Bryant’s uncertain return from a torn Achilles’ tendon, Dwight Howard’s departure and the absence of brand-name reinforcements can’t dampen the longtime Lakers fan’s enthusiasm for his favorite team.
“Kobe has had more resurrections than any athlete I can remember,” said Each, 39, an electrical engineer from Fairfax, Va., who watches every Lakers game via NBA League Pass, even if it means TiVo-ing it and fast-forwarding through commercials well after midnight.
“On his side, he has the best footwork in the game. That won’t change. What might change is his ability to get by defenders and elevate. But do I think he will become Andre Miller? Nah.”
He isn’t the only Lakers fan who believes Bryant and his team aren’t turning into flat-footed entities a la the Denver Nuggets’ veteran guard.
Eight of 10 Lakers loyalists contacted by The Times predicted their preferred team would make the playoffs in the upcoming season, though that’s hardly the baseline of success for a franchise with 16 NBA titles.
The Lakers are usually expected to contend for championships, something even those fans who swathe themselves in purple and gold on a daily basis concede is unlikely for a team that could trot out a starting lineup of Chris Kaman, Pau Gasol, Steve Nash, Steve Blake and Nick Young on opening night.
A few fans admitted they would not follow the Lakers as closely as they normally do, particularly if the team struggles.
“I’ll watch the same number of games at the beginning of the season,” said Rudy Rodriguez, 65, a retiree from Walnut. “I’ll watch fewer games when they start losing.”
Rodriguez said he doubted he would attend any games at Staples Center, even though he receives some free tickets each season from former company clients. Watching what Rodriguez figures will be a .500 team next season just doesn’t entice him.
Chris Rivera, 48, a director of talent acquisition in the healthcare industry who lives in Placentia, said he hasn’t harbored such meager hopes for the Lakers since the season preceding superstar center Shaquille O’Neal’s arrival in the summer of 1996. The Lakers finished second in the Pacific Division that season and lost in the first round of the playoffs before O’Neal helped reverse the team’s sagging fortunes.
Some fans believe the Lakers are actually better off now that a once-dominant center has left town.
They contend that during Howard’s one season in Los Angeles he was larger than life only on the billboards the team put up encouraging him to stay. He opted last month to ditch his Bel-Air home for Houston, which O’Neal recently derided as a “little town.”
“Dwight Howard is a real nice fellow,” said Charles Reilly, 64, a corporate recruiter for an information technology company who lives in Manhattan Beach. “In fact, he’s a fun-loving 15-year-old in a man’s body. He just wasn’t cut out for the media attention and the spotlight of a big city like Los Angeles. He also didn’t care for his coach [Mike D’Antoni] or his other coach [Kobe Bryant] and was real tired of playing second fiddle to Bryant.”
Howard’s departure might ease Gasol’s longstanding angst about securing enough touches in the post, something longtime fan Geno Apicella said could help the 7-footer enjoy a bounce-back season in which he averages 20 points and 10 rebounds.
“It will not be a good thing for Pau,” said Apicella, 50, who works in sales, distribution and production of watersports products and has been a Lakers season-ticket holder since 1988, “it will be a great thing.”
Apicella also likes the free agents the Lakers obtained this summer through the NBA equivalent of bargain-bin shopping. Young and fellow forward Wesley Johnson should provide needed length and athleticism, point guard Jordan Farmar provides a younger and speedier alternative to Nash, and Kaman is only three seasons removed from being an All-Star.
“These four players are far and away a better fit for this team,” Apicella said, “and when you can get younger and better without spending a lot, I think it was a coup.”
One issue that universally worries fans is Bryant’s return from the injury he suffered in April when he crumpled to the floor against Golden State at Staples Center. While the typical recovery period for a torn Achilles’ tendon is six to nine months, Bryant recently posted on Instagram a picture of himself running on an anti-gravity treadmill and said he was ahead of schedule.
But should he push himself to return by the Lakers’ opener Oct. 29 against the Clippers even if it means placing himself at increased risk of aggravating his injury?
“Kobe should not try to rush back,” said Reilly, the corporate recruiter. “If he does, he may end his career much sooner than later. Even Kobe can’t escape the rules and laws of medical science.”
Chohong Choi, 40, a graduate student who closely follows the Lakers from his home in Hong Kong, said Bryant’s need to round into form will require him to involve his teammates more than usual upon his return.
“If he can take care of his teammates,” Choi said, “they’ll return the favor.”
As for the notion that the Lakers should intentionally plummet in the standings to increase their odds of getting a lottery pick and drafting once-in-generation talent Andrew Wiggins, Choi doesn’t believe that’s a sound strategy. Neither does Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak, who has insisted his team will compete.
These are, remember, the Lakers.
“Fans won’t want to sit through 82 games of deliberately lackluster basketball,” Choi said. “They may excuse failure, but they won’t excuse abandonment.”
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