Biggest Early Season Storylines for Los Angeles Lakers
Like the New York Yankees, Montreal Canadiens or Green Bay Packers, the Los Angeles Lakers conjure up the very essence of a mythical, iconic franchise—even when they’re not very good.
Despite their cellar-dwelling mediocrity, the Lakers remain a dramatic, enigmatic and wildly erratic assemblage of a team. What’s similar to last year's club but different from most in its history is that the storylines tend to revolve around its failure to inspire and win.
Youth, injuries and a general lack of playoff-worthy talent have left the Lakers searching for any signs that they might be on the right path to redemption. So far, those paths have led to dead ends.
The Lakers limped into Boston Friday with the hope of at least knocking off their longtime rivals, the Celtics. Needless to say, Kobe Bryant’s Thursday morning breakfast with Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo ended up being a bigger storyline than the game, which was a 113-96 blowout by the home team.
With another game Sunday against the New Orleans Pelicans at Staples Center, the 5-15 Lakers are going nowhere fast. The sad irony is that their few wins have put them in danger of not finishing in the bottom five, which would cost L.A. a top draft pick next June.
Struggling through one of the heaviest schedules in the league, the Lakers have survived a variety of absences, including those of Steve Nash (back), Nick Young (thumb), Ryan Kelly (hamstring), Julius Randle (leg), Xavier Henry (Achilles) and Wayne Ellington (personal matter), and they're still not quite bad enough to protect their 2015 NBA first-round pick.
If L.A. finishes outside the bottom five teams, they lose a first-round pick that was part of the Steve Nash trade with the Phoenix Suns. No one would ever suspect the Lakers of wanting to tank in order to get that pick. But should they end up winning too many games, they will not only fail to make the playoffs, but they will also be without that draft selection.
Those are the sort of storylines the Lakers would just as soon ignore.
1. The Loss of Julius Randle
The first and only look at rookie forward Julius Randle came and went in just 14 minutes of the first game of the season. If you got up for a coffee and a cookie, you may have missed his entire highlight reel.
Randle broke his leg while elevating for a shot at the rim against the Houston Rockets. He just stepped wrong on the court and crumpled to the floor in agony.
A promising rookie campaign was trashed before it even started.
Byron Scott’s debut as Lakers coach was not what he expected nor sought. He told ESPN at the time:
It is heartbreaking, because I saw him all summer. I saw the work that he was putting in. I saw the progression that he was making, the steps that he was taking to get better. And his first game, he goes down. I don't think anybody in that locker room is happy about the way we played, but we're even more saddened about the fact that we lost one of our young guys.
The 6’9”, 250-pound Randle looked dominant and reminded many of a young Lamar Odom during Summer League, averaging 12 points, four rebounds and two assists in 23 minutes over the course of three games.
His loss was a big blow to the Lakers, who figured Randle for at least 20-25 minutes per night and as a spark plug off the bench.
Lakers fans are having to suffer and learn about patience. Randle won't be back on the court until next Summer.
Former Laker James Worthy and L.A. Clippers forward Blake Griffin both suffered season-ending leg injuries their rookie seasons, so there’s optimism and reason to believe Randle may experience a similar fate.
2. The Defense Rests
We knew the Lakers would struggle this year but assumed the defense would be improved with Scott as head coach.
The Lakers give up a league-leading 111 points per game. That is not what Scott had in mind when he took over for Mike D'Antoni this past summer.
L.A. also ranks 28th with points in the paint allowed, surrendering 47.2. The Lakers gave up 54 to the Celtics on Friday and 56 to the Washington Wizards in their loss earlier in the week.
Scott has repeatedly talked to reporters about the Lakers defense, or lack thereof. His comments after a 120-119 loss to the anemic Minnesota Timberwolves actually sound similar to what he's said on many nights. Per Robert Morales of the Long Beach Press-Telegram:
I watched it last night, I watched it this morning and our lack of focus and the mistakes we made mentally, it was atrocious. I addressed that with them this morning and told them how I felt and I’ll leave it at that.
Scott admitted that once he reviewed the tape, it was even more repulsive.
I think it looks worse. I mean, seriously, you sit there in person and watch it and you know it’s pretty bad. When you go home and watch it again and, you know, I found myself shaking my head a lot of times when I was having my nice little drink of stuff. And then again, I said, 'Let me watch it again in the morning,’ It didn’t look much better this morning, either.
This is one story the Lakers wish would go away. Only four other teams in the league are worse at defending the three-point shot. Teams are shooting 38.3 percent from beyond the arc, so there really is no bright spot to speak of when the Lakers defend.
The story continues.
3. Swaggy P Returns: The Bench Gets a Boost
In the 10 games Nick Young has played since returning to the lineup, the veteran small forward has shot over 43 percent from three-point range while averaging 15 points.
For a Lakers bench that already lost Randle for the season and Ryan Kelly and Xavier Henry to all but a few games, Swaggy P's energy and scoring have been a breath of fresh air.
The Lakers were 1-9 when Young returned to action against the Atlanta Hawks. Coincidentally, L.A. won that road game and the next one against the Houston Rockets.
Overall, Young's numbers are off from last year's when he averaged 17.9 points on 44 percent shooting. But, he's coming back from surgery on the thumb of his shooting hand, so it may take more time for Swaggy P to find his rhythm.
In a season where anything resembling positive energy and fun emerges, one should take hold of it and not let go. Young energizes Staples Center when he enters a game and is a constant source of lighthearted banter on and off the court.
Young is even making fashion news. He was featured in a recent issue of GQ (with his Aussie girlfriend and rapper Iggy Azalea) as "a hot-handed swingman for the Los Angeles Lakers with a penchant for flashy Versace."
The Los Angeles Times' Adam Tschorn wrote that Young "brings a level of sartorial swagger to professional basketball that's been in short supply since the days of Dennis Rodman."
Young may not lead the Lakers to a championship—or even a playoff berth this year. But he is leading them as the team's most outspoken, fun-loving, high-flying basketball star. And that's got to be worth something.
4. Kobe Bryant's Comeback: A Balancing Act
Easily the most anticipated moment to the start of the Lakers season was the return from injury by Bryant.
He has not disappointed the faithful, even though it's obvious that father time is keeping an eye on No. 24.
In 20 games, the 36-year-old Bryant is averaging 26 points while playing 36 minutes per game. He's also shooting the ball a ridiculous 22 times a game and making a career-low 39 percent of his shots.
So, Bryant's return has been a mixture of incredible admiration coupled with painful glimpses of an aging superstar trying to will his team to victory.
A number of late, fourth-quarter collapses by the Lakers have magnified just how much Bryant misses having another one or two top-flight, big-game teammates to help share the load. Carlos Boozer is no Pau Gasol.
Still, the Lakers are already thinking about Bryant returning to the team after his current contract runs out in 2016. Said Byron Scott (via Mark Medina, Los Angeles Daily News):
We’ll talk about that. You guys have watched him play. He has a lot left in that tank. If we put something together that excites him, we’ll have a real good chance of him saying he’ll play another year and give it another shot. That’s what we plan to do.
5. A Repeat of Last Year, Only Worse
The Lakers are tired. Really tired.
Rebuilding is never easy and it's rarely pretty. But for teams like the Lakers that are accustomed to winning world championships, the doldrums of defeat seem to linger like smog hovering over the San Fernando Valley on a hot summer day.
Lakers Nation has seen its treasured franchise dip and dive into the depths of despair over the past several years. Last year, when the team lost more times than any former Lakers club in history, the wheels came off, the coach (D'Antoni) resigned and management seemed to proclaim them to be in a rebuilding mode.
This was Bryant last March (via L.A. Times) looking toward an offseason when he hoped the Lakers would draft well and pick up at least one top free agent:
It's my job to go out there on the court and perform. No excuses for it. You have to get it done. Same thing with the front office. The same expectations they have of me when I perform on the court, the same expectations I have for them up there.
Well, that didn't turn out too well. After going 27-55 last year, the Lakers are on a course to win even fewer games in 2014-15.
There have been relatively few bright spots to the Lakers' 5-15 season thus far. Forward Ed Davis has played inspiring defense, though he lacks a mid-range game. Bryant continues to turn back the hands of time, making some incredible shots and playing with the kind of passion a true champion never loses.
Yet, the storyline remains one of endless failure and disappointment due to an injury-riddled, over-matched lineup that's been pasted together by management. We always knew there was no title contender in this group.
These words from L.A. Times columnist Bill Plaschke early in the season may have been a harbinger for what is to come for the remainder of the year.
There may be banners signifying 16 titles hanging from the Staples Center wall, but, right now, the traditional question of whether the Lakers will win a championship has been replaced with something a bit less majestic. Will they ever win a game?
The Lakers will win another game. They may win a handful. But, don't expect anything more from a franchise that has seemingly lost its collective footing and is stumbling around in the dark looking for a light and some hope.