LA Lakers Notebook: Defining Success Depends on Who You Ask

Eric Pincus@@EricPincusLA Lakers Lead WriterSeptember 28, 2016

Young Lakers stars Julius Randle (far left), D'Angelo Russell (second to left), Jordan Clarkson (far right) and new head coach Luke Walton prepare for a photo shoot Monday at Lakers media day.
Young Lakers stars Julius Randle (far left), D'Angelo Russell (second to left), Jordan Clarkson (far right) and new head coach Luke Walton prepare for a photo shoot Monday at Lakers media day.Harry How/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES — After winning back-to-back titles, the 2010-11 Los Angeles Lakers were swept out of the second round of the playoffs by Dirk Nowitzki and the champion Dallas Mavericks.

In defeat, Lakers All-Star guard Kobe Bryant declared that season "a wasted year of my life."

To Bryant, anything but a championship was a failed effort, but now, the team's future Hall of Famer has retired. The Lakers won a disastrous 17 games in his final year—last season under former head coach Byron Scott.

For Luke Walton, Scott's replacement, a "championship or bust" mantra simply won't work. The team is just too young to peg with serious expectations.   

What then, in their first year without Bryant in over 20 seasons, would success be?

"It's hard to say, but I think we have to go into the playoffs, or why are we playing?" newcomer and center Timofey Mozgov said at the Lakers' annual media day Monday. "We want to win every game. It is a young team, but like I say, I think we have a good coach, and I think we're going to do a really good job."

Mozgov, armed with a healthy, new four-year, $64 million contract, has a lot to be optimistic about, but it took 41 wins for the Houston Rockets to earn the eighth seed in the Western Conference last season. Expecting a 24-win jump from the Lakers is too much of a stretch.

Second-year forward Larry Nance Jr. gave a more practical response, one that didn't focus primarily on win total.

"We don't know yet," Nance said. "This team is obviously going to be together, at least one more year, hopefully more. As long as we just see improvement, and we all play the right way, play as a team, play for one another...that's a success."

Nance spent most of the summer working out in El Segundo, California, with his fellow young teammates, including forwards Brandon Ingram (this year’s second overall draft pick), Julius Randle and Anthony Brown, guards D'Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson and centers Tarik Black and Ivica Zubac.

"It's a different atmosphere this year," the second-year guard Russell said. "I feel like everyone is buying in, really wanting to take steps forward."

Russell also noted an improved vibe on media day, without Bryant's larger-than-life presence.

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 13:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers signs a shoes for D'Angelo Russell #1 before the game against the Utah Jazz at STAPLES Center on April 13, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges an
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

"There's not a lot of animosity in the room," Russell said. "Everybody's gotta get Kobe's voice. It was all about Kobe [last year]. Now, it's a different headline. It's about the young guys, and it's about the new coaching staff."

Across the board, the players praised Walton for his basketball philosophy and likable, relatable personality.

"There's going to be a lot more ball movement," said Clarkson, who recently re-signed with the team on a four-year, $50 million deal. "There's been a lot of emphasis on cutting, scoring off cuts, scoring without the ball, moving, a lot of movement. That's probably the best thing for us, and it's been great."

In addition to the team's young core, the Lakers signed forward Luol Deng, traded for guard Jose Calderon and inked Mozgov. The team took a flier on forward/center Yi Jianlian, who spent five years in the league after going sixth overall during the 2007 draft to the Milwaukee Bucks but has not played in the NBA since the 2011-12 campaign.

The Lakers also re-signed Metta World Peace, who will have to find a way to earn a roster spot as he did a year ago on a similar non-guaranteed contract.

"The definition of success? Does anybody have a Webster's dictionary?" asked World Peace, who’s always an interesting interview. "Can somebody pull out their phone? Let's see what Siri says.

"For this team, obviously you want to come out on top. Kobe had success on his mind at all times. Individually, he had standards. Everybody is different. Everybody can't be Kobe, obviously. It just depends as a group, what is everybody thinking?"

"If we play the way that Coach Luke wants us to play, team basketball, the open guy gets the open shot, moving the ball, getting out there defensively—I think that's a successful season," Ingram said.

"I'm not going to put expectations or numbers on what I want to do," Randle said. "I just want to win. I want to get better every day. I feel like that's our vibe right now."

Calderon wouldn't pick a number but stressed that he and his teammates need to compete at a high level early, and continuously, over 82 games.

"I think we have the talent to be a really good team," he said. "I think these young guys have a lot of talent. I think it's a really good mix with the veteran guys. It's about playing together. I think if we all learn to play together, there is a real chance we can be really good."

Deng also expressed his excitement for the season to come, despite the skeptics.

"We all watch the news and what everybody says about the team," Deng said. "I think for everybody, success is going to be different. I think for us as a team, we've got to focus on what goes on, in and out as a group. When we step into practice, and when we go out to games, we really want to build an atmosphere where we play hard every game. We play unselfish, play hard and play together."

On Tuesday, Walton and the Lakers began training camp in Santa Barbara, California, in preparation for their first preseason game on Oct. 4 at the Honda Center in Anaheim against the Sacramento KingsWalton served as the Golden State Warriors' interim head coach to start last season, with Steve Kerr sidelined with a back injury. Over a 43-game stretch, Walton guided the Warriors to 39 wins.

He'll have a much greater challenge with the rebuilding Lakers.

Lakers coach Luke Walton thinks it could take longer than a season to get the Lakers to where they want to be.
Lakers coach Luke Walton thinks it could take longer than a season to get the Lakers to where they want to be.Nick Ut/Associated Press

"It could be multiple seasons," Walton said. "It could be six months; you just never know. That's the part of what's fun about sports, is seeing how good you can be as a group. It doesn't matter what other people say or the expectations that they have, high or low. The only thing that matters is how much we believe we can do and how well we can come together and try to win."

Can the Lakers compete in the West?

"Absolutely," Walton replied. "At this level, every team has talent on their roster. It's about getting that talent to play together and play for each other."

It may be some time until the Lakers reach the heights they managed under Bryant, but another trip to the lottery shouldn't be considered a failure, provided the team takes visible strides toward respectability.

"It's got to be more than 17 [wins]," general manager Mitch Kupchak said in Santa Barbara. "It can't be a game or two more."

The Lakers open the regular season on Oct. 26 at Staples Center against the Houston Rockets.

      

Ingram: Rookie of the Year?

EL SEGUNDO, CA - SEPTEMBER 26:  Brandon Ingram #14 of the Los Angeles Lakers smiles during an interview during Los Angeles Laker media day at Toyota Sports Center on September 26, 2016 in El Segundo, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

The Lakers have high hopes that the 19-year-old Ingram will make an impact as a rookie, although Walton intends to bring him in off the bench behind Deng.

"I think that drives me," Ingram said on his reserve role. "I think if [starting] was given, it wouldn't drive me as much to be the best player I can be."

After a year at Duke, one of Ingram's goals in the NBA is to earn Rookie of the Year.

"I would be lying if I said it wasn't," Ingram said. "I'm going to work extremely hard to try and get that."

He'll have plenty of competition with players such as Ben Simmons (Philadelphia 76ers), Kris Dunn (Minnesota Timberwolves), Buddy Hield (New Orleans Pelicans) and many others also vying for the award.

      

Uncle P?

Nick Young remains on the Lakers roster, despite falling out of favor the past two seasons and an ugly incident with Russell involving a leaked video featuring Young bragging about cheating on his former fiancee, Iggy Azalea.

"We've put all that stuff behind us," Young said. "I think I can be all right here. [Walton's] style of play fits my style."

Mar 30, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward Nick Young (0) at press conference related to guard D'Angelo Russell (1) at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports
Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

The Lakers have explored moving Young out in a trade, but to date, they have found no takers for his two-year, $11.1 million contract. 

Young is well aware of trade rumors.

"I'm kind of hurt, but it is the NBA," he said. "I've seen so many rumors for a long time. ... Things can still happen. You never know in the league, but I'm here now, so that's all I can really focus on."

Meanwhile, the man known by many as Swaggy P is looking to change his nickname.

"I'm just trying to become a better me," he said. "I'm 'Uncle P' now. It's a transition from Swaggy P to Uncle P. I'm growing up."

      

Thomas Robinson Looking for a Home

The Lakers have invited free-agent forward Thomas Robinson to camp on a non-guaranteed minimum contract. Robinson, drafted fifth by the Sacramento Kings in 2012 out of Kansas, has bounced around the league, playing for five teams in four years before joining the Lakers.

EL SEGUNDO, CA - SEPTEMBER 26:  Thomas Robinson #15 of the Los Angeles Lakers poses for a portrait during the 2016-2017 Los Angeles Lakers Media Day at Toyota Sports Center on September 26, 2016 in El Segundo, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly ack
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

"I just think on and off the court, I wasn't stable as a player, mentally," Robinson said. "I had a lot of off-the-court stuff, dealing with throughout my career up until now. A lot of personal things, but then...moving team to team, I feel like I was not really getting situated as a player somewhere."

The former lottery pick played 71 games for the Brooklyn Nets last season. He had his best stretch briefly in April, averaging 13.2 points with 11.4 rebounds a game. Robinson hopes to stick with the Lakers as a defensive, rebounding role player. 

He'd like nothing more than to find a long-term NBA home.

"I definitely feel I'm in a better place as a person mentally and as a player," he said.

 

Roster Crunch

Robinson isn't the only Laker fighting to earn a spot on the roster.

The team has 14 players with fully guaranteed contracts. Yi's $8 million deal has just $250,000 promised. He will earn roughly $2.3 million in incentives when he hits the three thresholds of 20, 40 and 59 games played.

If the Lakers do not trade or buy out Young, Yi would be the favorite to take the final roster spot over invites Travis Wear, Julian Jacobs, Zach Auguste, World Peace and Robinson.

 

Walton's Staff

Walton isn't the only former Laker on the bench. Brian Shaw, who won three titles with the franchise, serves as associate head coach.

The team also retained Mark Madsen, the lone holdover from the Scott era. Walton rounded out his staff with Jesse Mermuys, Brian Keefe, Jud Buechler and Theo Robertson. Casey Owens, who coached the Lakers' NBA Development League affiliate (D-Fenders) to the Finals last season, is also an assistant coach/advance scout.

Longtime trainer Gary Vitti retired after 32 years with the franchise. Marco Nunez, Vitti's assistant of nine years, was promoted in his place. Physical therapist Judy Seto, who worked closely with Bryant to help manage his injuries, has also moved on.

"It's a new staff, new everything when you walk in here," Young said. "New trainers and all that—a lot has changed in the last four or five months."

 

Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter @EricPincus. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

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