The Final Game
It was a typical Wednesday night in my house. I was drowsily sitting on my couch after a long day at work followed by a half hearted gym session, and finally a carb-heavy home-cooked meal. I wanted to go to bed and it was only 9:30. But I couldn’t. It was April 13th, 2016. Kobe’s last game in a Laker uniform, or in any basketball uniform for that matter, unless he somehow staved off the basketball gods (and Father Time) again and suited up for Team USA in Rio this summer. I had to kick off the cement blocks of fatigue dragging my eye lids downward and watch the #24 strut up and down the court one last time.
What happened in that game has been well documented. From some saying, “Yeah, I could scored 60 points on 50 shots, too.” to “That was one of the most incredible feats of basketball I have ever seen.” For one final time, KB balled out in front of a starlet-laden crowd, and put on a show that few will forget any time soon.
Now, beyond his miraculous and age-defying adieu, Kobe’s final game in purple and gold spelled the end of a 2-year financial death grip that he’s had on the franchise. A two year albatross of a contract worth $48.5 million signed in November 2013 was the last show of loyalty from the Lakers to (arguably) their greatest player ever. But with that loyalty came a stretch of futility that has never been equaled in the history of this great franchise.
On April 13th, as the buzzer sounded and Kobe’s storied career came to a close, that dead weight was lifted and new life and optimism were breathed back into the lungs of we the oft-spoiled and antsy Lakers fans.
I liked Byron Scott. Let’s just get that out there. It’s always nice to see a team dig back into their history and find a player-turned-coach who played a hard-nosed, no bullshit kind of basketball who then tries to imbue that tenacity and bulldoggedness into his players. Byron Scott was a great Laker, but Byron Scott was not the right coach for this team. His unwillingness to let our young guys play was a costly and short-sighted mistake. His eagerness to play Ron Artest 25 minutes per game was a fireable offense. His old school mentality of playing within the three point line showed his age and an inability to adapt to a league that has almost completely given up the art of the mid-range jumper. And with Kobe’s departure, so too was it time to let go of the past and find a young, fresh player-friendly coach who could relate to our young core and help mold them into a squad that may one day befit the purple and gold jerseys they wear every night.
Enter the prince that was promised. Luke Walton. The son of a basketball legend. Also a former player, but one who is young enough to bridge the gap between the recent glory of the powerhouse teams of the early aughts, and our current inexperienced, malleable, Snapchat-obsessed core who have not yet tasted winning basketball in any sense of the word. He is someone who has shown, though in small sample size, that he is able to command a team and win games. And that’s what we need.
The Lakers are at an important time in this new, uncertain post-Kobe era. They need a coach who is patient, who will not pull a player for making two or three mistakes in a row, just to “make an example.” They needed a coach who knows knows when to whisper a quick word of encouragement in a players ear and slap him on the ass. Not berate him in front of teammates and media.
Character-building is just as, if not more, important than talent-building and I believe that Walton, he of the Steve Kerr-Gregg Popavich coaching tree, will be able to relate with these young players (he’s only 36) and bring their maturation process along off the court and it will eventually pay dividends on the court.
Will Luke Walton lead the Lakers to a 39-4 start like he did in Steve Kerr’s absence? No. Will he lead us to the playoffs this year? Unlikely. Is he even a good coach? I don’t really know. But what I do know is, is that the Lakers needed a change, a positive one at that, to kick off this post-Kobe Bryant voyage. The waters are uncertain and scary, but optimism and hope are immeasurably important moving forward.
The Young Core
The inception of this new wave of young prospects began on Draft Night in 2014. We selected Julius Randle* with the 7th pick out of Kentucky. In his one season in Lexington, Randle put up adequate, but not incredibly sexy numbers (15p/10r/50fg%). He was most certainly the best player left on the board and set the tone for building a new foundation in LA. In the second round, the Wizards selected Jordan Clarkson at #46 and immediately traded him to LA. Clarkson’s impact was immediate starting 38 games at point guard, averaging 11.9p/3.5a/3.2r, and deservedly was selected to the NBA All-Rookie First Team. The rebuilding had begun.
*Randle unfortunately broke his leg in his NBA debut, and thus was forced to sit out the entirety of his rookie season.
It is rare for a Lakers team to draft in the lottery at all let alone two years in a row. Yet, here they were with the second pick in a decidedly more talent-ladden draft than the year before. With that pick Mitch Kupchak selected a raw, but exciting 18 year old in the form of D’Angelo Russell from Ohio State. If anything, DR’s one year in Columbus proved his passing and court vision were light years beyond his tender age. Draft wonks dubbed him the best passer in the draft and some even said he was the greatest passer since Magic (insert wide eyes emoji here). Regardless, of those insane remarks, Russell was an intelligent pick to pair with the budding Jordan Clarkson in the back court. Late in the first round, the Lakers used the conditional first round pick from the Jeremy Lin trade to select the son of a former NBA player, Larry Nance Jr. with the 27th pick. Nance is also raw, but wildly athletic (like his dad) and will hopefully become a serviceable big man in years to come.
With the Kobe farewell at last in our rear view, the 2016 Draft was finally the draft that would allow the Lakers to add one final piece to a young and slightly jumbled puzzle of potential talent. The Lakers, by the grace of the basketball gods, and several small white ping pong balls (and 65 losses) did not have to give up their top-3 protected draft pick to the Sixers. All is saved. Not only did they not have to give up that pick, they also got to pick #2 in a two player draft (sorry Boston). And huzzah we got our man – Brandon Ingram – the great tattooed hope of a beanpole who, in his freshman year at Duke, took over that team and led them deep into the NCAA tournament. The kid is 6’9″ with a 7’3″ (!!!!!) wingspan. He can’t get away from the Kevin Durant comparisons fast enough. But I’m sorry to say they will follow him for quite a while.
So there you have it. Three consecutive drafts in the lottery yielding five young, raw players to mold and develop into a cohesive unit. All five should not be expected to hit or become All Stars. I think that is a bit of a stretch, but the possibility that even two of them could become the cornerstones of a new age of Lakers success is both very possible and could possibly begin to be realized this season with Jordan Clarkson entering year 3.
Now that the Draft is behind us we are faced with the Wild West portion of the NBA off season: FREE AGENCY PERIOD. Beginning on July 1st at 12:01am teams are allowed to offer and agree to contracts with free agents. Let the free-for-all begin. With Kobe’s contract is official off the books, and myriad role players including Brandon Bass, Roy Hibbert, and Ryan Kelly becoming free agents, the Lakers will have roughly 60 million dollars in money to throw at players searching for a new team, a new city, and a pretty pay day. We are officially out of the Kevin Durant Sweepstakes (alas), but that doesn’t mean we can’t get one or two very quality players on (likely) max deals. I won’t go into a breakdown of possible players who may choose LA over other suitors, but top tier unrestricted free agents like Hassan Whiteside, DeMar DeRozan, Al Horford, and Chandler Parsons will all take calls from (and likely take meetings with) Mitch Kupchak.
As currently constructed, this team has a young player at every position except center. A veteran front court player, coupled with a savvy scoring guard could lift us from the dregs of the Lottery to potentially competing for a playoff spot, not this year, but possibly in 2017. Though that may seem a bit overly optimistic (I am) I believe it’s entirely possible and would be a nice salve to ease the pain of winning a total of 65 games in the last three years.
Farewell, Kobe ‘Bean’ Bryant. What is dead may never die. You’ve been my favorite player for two decades, but sometimes you need to put down old Yeller so that the litter of new puppies get a chance to play.