Lakers are full of hope to start new season, but the picture isn’t pretty
There’s a wall at the Lakers’ training facility filled with individual photographs of current players, each wood-and-glass frame almost three feet long and showing various action poses.
Here’s Kobe Bryant, about to set up in the post, a comfortable spot for him year after year, now 20 in all with the Lakers. Here’s Julius Randle, driving hard to the basket, the image Lakers fans hope to see endlessly after his short-lived rookie season. Here’s this year’s top pick D’Angelo Russell, bringing the ball upcourt.
And, of course, Coach Byron Scott, arms folded in a gray suit, looking intently toward the court.
Phil Jackson used to be on these walls. Pau Gasol as well. Derek Fisher and Lamar Odom. Shaquille O’Neal may well have been up there too, though no one is quite sure.
Those were the good old days, when seasons were deemed a success only if there were championship parades and goofy dances were part of the fun.
These are the new days, the uncomfortable ones for the franchise, shut out of the playoffs the last two years and unsure what they have now.
They have youth, they have experience, they have some stuff in between. What they can’t have is a repeat of last season, a 21-61 endeavor that was the worst Lakers season of all time.
There’s optimism going into the season opener Wednesday against Minnesota. There always is for teams that can’t sink much lower.
Maybe Russell can pick up the NBA game quickly, though Scott is still uncommitted to naming him a starter.
It’s possible Randle’s broken leg is a thing of the past. He had some good moments in the exhibition season and established his trademark move of launching himself downcourt with a defensive rebound, a faster and bulkier version of the similarly left-handed Odom.
Perhaps Jordan Clarkson keeps ascending the ranks of NBA point guards, already proving so much in half a season as the Lakers’ starter and doing plenty during the off-season to show it should continue.
There’s a chance Bryant finishes his final contract year ($25 million) without another injury obstacle, though that hasn’t been the case the last three seasons (Achilles’ tendon, fractured knee, torn rotator cuff).
Bryant, 37, hasn’t spoken to reporters since sustaining a bruised lower leg two weeks ago, but his mind-set might not have changed since last month, when he said it would be hard to predict how the Lakers would fare in the tough-as-ever Western Conference. “I’m not sure,” he said. “I’m just not sure.”
Nor was he certain about his NBA future, saying he would decide after this season.
So-called experts think they know what to expect of the Lakers. Sports Illustrated picked them to finish 14th in the West and TNT analyst Charles Barkley offered unkind words.
“They’re the fourth-best team in California,” he said on a conference call with reporters. “They’re lucky the Sparks ain’t playing [because] they’d be the fifth.”
At the very least, the Lakers would be wise to expunge any recollections of 2014-15, when Vander Blue and Dwight Buycks were hastily added to the roster just to ensure there’d be enough healthy bodies.
The team took steps to improve defensively by picking up center Roy Hibbert for a 2019 second-round draft pick. The NBA’s sixth man of the year, Lou Williams, was signed to add scoring punch.
Almost everything points back to Bryant, though.
He averaged 22.3 points and 5.6 assists last season, no small feat for someone his age, but it came with unsightly 37.3% shooting accuracy on 20.3 shots a game, a high volume that hurt the team when matched with the high miss rate.
He played only 35 games before his rotator cuff gave out, the wear and tear obvious even before that: Bryant sat out for “rest” eight of the Lakers’ last 16 games before his injury.
His playing time will shrink from the 34.5 minutes he averaged last season and then his contract will expire in June. Will he come back?
“I hope it’s his last year,” Barkley said. “There’s a reason he keeps getting hurt. His body can’t take the NBA pounding anymore. I just want to remember the great Kobe Bryant. I don’t want him to come out there and play 20, 25 minutes a night and just have, like, a farewell tour.”
Nick Young was right there with Bryant in the (in)accuracy line, shooting 36.6% in a wayward year that included Twitter fights with Snoop Dogg and an ESPN anchor, and a season-ending knee injury in January. The Lakers tried to trade him and found no takers, so Iggy Azalea’s boyfriend is back.
Lakers fans had had enough of all the losing by March, clamoring for the team to improve draft position by losing games (a.k.a. tanking), and cheering when perfectly healthy players started getting “rested” by Scott toward the end of the season.
The Lakers managed to hang on to their top-five-protected draft pick and moved from fourth to second overall on a lucky lottery night. The player they selected a month later, Ohio State’s Russell, has been ordinary at best since then.
He was borderline abysmal in summer league, shooting 12% from three-point range and turning over the ball far too often without showing the ability to blow by defenders.
Russell was in and out of the starting lineup this month in exhibition play and averaged 6.9 points on 38.6% shooting while handing out 3.3 assists.
On the other hand, he’s 19 years old. Time is on his side, even as the franchise drifts and lolls in an awkward phase of its existence.
Scott has already talked to him about playing with more conviction. Russell is listening.
“Just really focused on playing hard. All the time — defense, rebound,” Russell said. “I told [Scott] I thought my role was to facilitate, be a playmaker. He said, ‘That’s what you’re going to do naturally, so I’m not going to label you with that.’”
The Lakers will stumble across another low-water mark if they fail to make the playoffs this season. It has never happened three consecutive years for them.
It would be great if the ghosts of last season haunted someone else’s franchise for a while, Scott said.
“I would hope so because a lot of these guys weren’t here [last season]. To them, it don’t matter what we did last year,” Scott said. “A lot of these guys are trying to make a name for themselves. A lot of them are trying to put a stamp on their career or further their career.”
Or help a franchise in need.
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