Bright spots have been in short supply for the Los Angeles Lakers lately. With just three wins to date, this season will be remembered best as Kobe Bryant’s final stand, punctuated by sporadic glimmers of his once-legendary skills.
But while bittersweet memories are inescapable, the Lakers need to build for a better tomorrow. And whether hidden or simply not as noticeable as we watch a shooting star fade away, there are some other encouraging signs to keep tabs on.
The Possibility of Another Lottery Pick
When it comes to reconstructing a team, draft picks are always helpful. And if the Lakers continue to lose at their present rate, a prime lottery pick may serve as yet another consolation prize. The team’s record will have to be truly horrific, however. That’s because L.A. will forfeit their first-round selection to the Philadelphia 76ers unless it’s in the top three.
In other words, the Lakers would likely have to finish with their worst loss record in history for the third year in a row. Ouch!
But think of the possible rewards, with prospects like the hyperathletic Jaylen Brown from California, the reedy 7’0” Skal Labissiere from Kentucky with his variety of offensive moves and Ben Simmons, a 6’10” swingman from LSU with a complete two-way game.
Bryant’s Exit Clears the Way for a Fresh Start
With Bryant’s recent retirement announcement, there is no longer any “will he or won’t he” caveats for the Lakers. Per Sam Amick of USA Today, Los Angeles will have a clean path to its offseason rebuild, along with around $66 million to spend:
As great as Bryant has been for all these years, it’s undeniable that some free agents will see the Lakers’ situation as more appealing now because of the clean-slate component. Rather than tag-teaming with a future Hall of Famer on the decline, they’ll have a chance to give it a go with the Jordan Clarkson-D’Angelo Russell-Julius Randle youth movement while playing for a storied franchise in a massive market. The unanswered question regarding Bryant’s future, make no mistake, was an obstacle that is now obsolete.
Will the Purple and Gold reel in Kevin Durant—the biggest fish in the 2016 free-agency pool? They’ll certainly make a run at it. Failing that, solid puzzle pieces like Al Horford, Mike Conley and Nicolas Batum will also be hitting the market this summer.
The Youth Brigade
Despite Bryant’s swan-song scenario, this year is really about all the young dudes—especially Russell, Clarkson and Randle. When this three-headed monster is running the floor, points can happen in a hurry.
Lakers coach Byron Scott kept the reins on Russell early on in the season, especially during crucial fourth-quarter situations. But the prized No. 2 overall draft pick is gaining confidence and upping his stats across the board, averaging 12.2 points and 3.4 assists in 29.8 minutes over his last five games. It’s especially nice to see the rookie connecting with some of his signature laser-guided passes.
Clarkson’s story is familiar to fans by now—last year’s late second-rounder wound up with NBA All-Rookie First Team honors by season’s end. For his second act, the 6’5” combo guard is averaging 15.4 points per game for Los Angeles, second only to Bryant. He’s also demonstrating a killer inside-outside game, either slashing to the basket or nailing 43.3 percent of his shots from downtown.
After breaking his leg in his rookie debut, Randle has been making up for lost time during his sophomore campaign. The team’s leading rebounder recently pulled down 19 boards in a road win against the Washington Wizards. Even so, per Lakers beat reporter Mike Trudell, Randle expressed a continued desire to improve after that game: “Oh man, I still have so much to work on. So many ways (to get better).”
The D-League Incubator
The Los Angeles D-Fenders are the Lakers’ D-League affiliate, an incubator of talent and a place where hidden bright spots can sometimes transition to the main stage.
The Lakers’ second-round rookie, Anthony Brown, is currently getting some seasoning on the D-Fenders roster. Undrafted shot-swatter Robert Upshaw is also trying for another chance after being released from two college programs and then getting cut by the Lakers before the regular season began.
“I've been through really a lot in the past year and a half,” Upshaw said, per Eric Pincus of the Los Angeles Times. “You don't get opportunities like that after you've done what I've done. I've just tried to put that behind me, use this opportunity, because I know at some point this year I'll be playing in the NBA.”
Undrafted rookie sharpshooter Michael Frazier also joined the D-Fenders after being waived by L.A. And then there’s Vander Blue, a high-scoring guard who has played for a myriad of teams around the world after going undrafted in 2013. Last season, Blue had a brief call-up by the Lakers.
As for the team with 16 NBA titles, they spent their Sunday in Detroit, where they lost to the Pistons by 20 points. It was just another day on the road in a season resolutely heading south. But perhaps some covert signs of hope will help make it all more palatable as Los Angeles seeks to return to relevance.