In the absence of Kobe Bryant, Lakers SG Nick Young has emerged as the "go to" guy.
It's a new year and time to face reality: About the only thing the youthful roster of the Los Angeles Lakers will be shooting for between now and April are starting jobs and a guaranteed contract.
We can all forget any notion of a playoff berth and a run for a title in 2014. And we would all be best to put to rest any grand idea that Kobe Bryant will return at the All-Star break and finish the season on a 25-point-per-night scoring binge.
The Lakers of 2013-14 are really a band of mostly young, gypsy role players bent on impressing head coach Mike D'Antoni, general manager Mitch Kupchak and any other NBA team that may wish to sign them after the current season ends and they are free agents.
What we can count on from this core group are inspired performances of passion, speed, fearlessness and a not-so-subtle anxiety about their immediate future in the NBA.
As Bryant tries to rest from his latest setback, and Pau Gasol battles lingering injuries and an upper respiratory infection, the short-handed Lakers dole out opportunities to everyone but the team doctor.
Patience wears thin when you're the coach of a team that not only lost Dwight Howard to free agency, Kobe Bryant to a torn Achilles and Steve Nash to injuries and age, but has to convert forwards into point guards and then gets blown out on the road by Golden State and Phoenix.
D'Antoni had some choice words for Lakers Nation earlier in the week after a 27-point loss to the Suns. As reported by Mark Bresnahan of the L.A. Times, D'Antoni said, "If they're discouraged, then find another team to root for. We're not going to give up. Are you kidding me? Discouraged? That's not even fair to these guys."
D'Antoni apologized the next day, but his true colors show that of a coach who has been dealt a shaky hand and is just hoping something good will come of it.
The transparent Lakers showcased just what they have and don't have during their nationally televised Christmas Day matchup with the Miami Heat. They were entertaining and, at times, tantalizing to watch, but in the end, they were outmanned and outperformed by LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and a confident assemblage of veteran playmakers.
Per the L.A. Times' Helene Elliott, Miami head coach Erik Spoelstra said of the Lakers:
This team has been playing well. They've been grinding this year. You can't ever underestimate teams like that, that have been counted out because of all the injuries but have found a way to compete and win. That shows a grittiness, that you're going to have to earn it, and at times we were and at times we weren't. And you have to give them credit for that.
The Lakers, led by Nick Young and his 20 points, stayed right with Miami and were tied at 83 with 8:25 left in the game. Then, as this team is prone to do, it went cold while Miami found its way into the paint and took control late in the fourth quarter.
The 6'7" Young, a Los Angeles native and USC alum, is one of the bright spots on the injury-riddled Lakers. Coming off the bench, the seven-year veteran is averaging 16 points in 27 minutes while shooting 40 percent from beyond the arc and creating shots off the dribble that wake up the faithful at Staples Center.
In his last six games (prior to Friday's game at Utah) Young is averaging 20.8 points. He felt good about the team's perseverance against Miami, but not satisfied. Via the L.A. Times's Mike Bresnahan, Young stated, "The last two games we were just getting murdered, getting killed. To come back and fight like that (against Miami) is a step forward, I think, for us."
Young leads a core of young players all hoping to establish themselves and secure a contract longer than one year. Xavier Henry, a 22-year-old former first-round lottery pick in 2010, is a bona fide NBA talent, making the most of Kobe Bryant's absence with aggressive attacks to the rim and an improving perimeter jump shot.
The athletic, 6'6", 220-pound Henry made five of eight shots against Miami and is averaging over 10 points a game in 22 minutes, both career highs for the fourth-year pro From Kansas.
Others to keep an eye on the rest of the season include Jordan Hill who, when given the minutes, is the Lakers' best rebounder by a mile. The 6'10" center, another former first-round pick (New York Knicks in 2009), is averaging eight rebounds in just 20 minutes per game and has upped his scoring to over nine points on 58 percent shooting.
The Lakers will need to come up with a substantial two- or three-year contract or fear losing Hill in the offseason.
Jordan Farmar, Wesley Johnson and Shawne Williams all have had impressive moments for the Lakers and are now starters playing significant minutes. Fans should also keep an eye on second-round draft pick Ryan Kelly—the former Duke star is recovered from foot problems and making the most of his newfound time on the court.
Before being called up to the big club, Kelly averaged over 25 points in five games with the Laker's D League team (D-Fenders). On Wednesday, he got to play 17 minutes against the Heat. He even defended LeBron James on one drive to the basket, a big learning experience for the 6'11" rookie stretch forward.
Which role player has emerged as a true star for the Lakers?
Per Eric Pincus of the L.A. Times, D'Antoni said of Kelly, "He knows how to play, defensively and offensively. Defensively he's the first one to get to the right spot. I think that going forward, he can keep earning more time. I'm pretty excited about him."
Kelly is not going to lead the Lakers to the playoffs, but he may just help them win a few games with his accurate outside shooting.
Young, Johnson, Williams, Farmar, Henry, Kelly, (Robert) Sacre, (Jodie) Meeks and Hill are, for better or worse, the nucleus of the Los Angeles Lakers this season. Under D'Antoni, they will live and die by the three-point shot and be entertaining in the process.
The harsh reality is that even with Bryant and Gasol in the lineup, the Lakers are in transition. The sooner they recognize that, the better for all concerned.
Here is Gasol reflecting on the Lakers' loss to the Heat and their prospects for a win against the terrible, lottery-hunting Utah Jazz, via ESPNLA.com:
We need to just build on the same intensity and effort and concentration that we put in (Wednesday) and carry it to the next game and don't fall back into the bad habits of the last two games against Golden State and Phoenix. We need to really bounce back in Utah. We have a good chance to get a nice road win and that's what we're gonna try to do.
Later, Gasol decided not to travel with the team due to a recurrence of that upper respiratory ailment. The veteran Chris Kaman was named to start in his place, but it's the young role players who are the new conductors.
For them and the fans, there will be moments of sheer athleticism and artful brilliance, but there will probably more cold spells and blowout losses for the Lakers and their youth brigade.
This year is all about managing expectations. That's not an easy assignment when it's the 16-time world champion Lakers. But this is the new reality.