LOS ANGELES — The Lakers were miserable last season, slogging through Kobe Bryant's farewell campaign with a paltry 17-65 record. Since replacing the departed Byron Scott, rookie coach Luke Walton has begun a change of culture.
Collectively, the team believes it's now on the right path, but it's early October—the most optimistic time of the NBA year, when every team buys into the blank slate without a single blemish in the loss column.
On Sunday, the Los Angeles Lakers wrapped up training camp in Santa Barbara, California. Like the 29 other NBA teams, they felt like they had a positive, productive first week.
"The music, new faces, new coaching staff—everybody is different. Everything is different," second-year guard D'Angelo Russell said. "It's a whole new vibe."
"I think it's been a good training camp, a lot of energy. The players seem to be responding," general manager Mitch Kupchak said. "Obviously, there's a new system, new coaches."
The Lakers seemed enthusiastic through last season’s training camp, before their disaster of a season. What is different this time around?
"I think we have more players that we're committed to this year than we have in the last year or two," Kupchak said. "Every year, for the last two or three years, we didn't know if Kobe was going to make it through the season. We got players on one-year deals, trying to get to a certain point.
"Here we are. We find ourselves with a completely new team with about six players that we've drafted over the last two or three years," he continued. "They are young and talented, and we've also made commitments to some free agents that we think will be with us for a while."
The Lakers are excited to see young players such as Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr., Ivica Zubac and Russell develop.
Kupchak is also hopeful that long-term investments in veterans Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov will pay dividends. Both signed four-year deals in July, with the 31-year old Deng earning $72 million and Mozgov, 30, at $64 million.
While their contracts are not cheap, the Lakers still project to have enough salary-cap space next summer to sign a maximum-salaried free agent.
In recent years, the Lakers have seen veterans such as Roy Hibbert, Jeremy Lin and Carlos Boozer come and go, after just a single season each. Now the team, Deng and Mozgov are all committed to building a long, successful relationship.
"Luol has been a terrific lead-by-example guy. He's the first one in here every day. Every team would love to have somebody like that," Nance said. "Timo is awesome for our bigs, especially [rookie center] Zubac. Those two are going to be fun to watch."
"For me, it's an exciting time—not only playing basketball but also to be in a position to lead a younger group of guys," said Deng, who played last season with the Miami Heat. "It's a new beginning. It's a new system that I really like [from what I've seen]. I think I'll enjoy playing for Luke a lot. The guys in the locker room have just been amazing—beyond basketball—just to be around."
Walton has indicated he will start both vets, with Mozgov replacing Hibbert at center and Deng at small forward instead of the retired Bryant.
On Sunday, Walton told the Southern California News Group (h/t the Orange County Register's Mark Medina) that Mozgov will serve as a defensive anchor for the team and is "the best in the league at his verticality and protecting the rim."
Will the Lakers be as successful on the court this season as their optimism suggests?
Inflated rhetoric in October fades into memory by November and December. The Lakers may be a surprise team this season, but projecting even 30 or 35 wins seems generous.
"It's something that we're building," Kupchak said. "We were so fortunate to have 20 years with [Bryant], and the way he ended couldn't have ended any better."
But he and the Lakers are happy to turn the page on Bryant's Hall of Fame career.
"We have a new coaching staff—our direction and our path is pretty clear to everybody," Kupchak said. "There's a lot of work to be done still."
Brandon "Tiny Dog" Ingram
While the origin isn't quite clear, Ingram's teammates have given the rookie a new moniker.
"His nickname is Tiny Dog," Clarkson said.
Rookie hazing is an NBA tradition. On Thursday, the first-year players were asked, or rather ordered, to sing karaoke in front of a Santa Barbara crowd.
Veterans Lou Williams, Deng and Metta World Peace chose the songs.
Ingram's performance of Rihanna's "Diamonds" was not especially impressive, although his costume certainly stood out.
"Tiny Dog," Clarkson said. "That's why they put him in a dog suit. When he got to singing, it was terrible."
"I have no idea what that was," Walton said. "I just saw he and D'Angelo go in the back with a bag, and that's what he came out with."
Zubac sang "Single Ladies" by Beyonce, Julian Jacobs tried "Roar" by Katy Perry, and Zach Auguste won the competition with "A Thousand Miles" by Vanessa Carlton.
"I respected the effort. I was not impressed by the talent," Walton said.
Ben Simmons' Injury Opens Door for Ingram
When the Lakers held their annual media day last week, Ingram admitted that one of his goals was to earn Rookie of the Year.
On Friday, Ingram's biggest challenger to that title suffered a significant setback. Philadelphia 76ers forward Ben Simmons, the top overall pick in the 2016 NBA draft, fractured the fifth metatarsal bone of his right foot. Simmons could be sidelined for two or three months, according to ESPN's Marc Stein, although the Sixers are still deciding on the course of treatment.
Ingram, whom Walton will bring off the bench to start the season, will face serious competition among his class.
Simmons may still have the opportunity to show his tremendous skill on the court and compete for Rookie of the Year once healthy. Dating back to late June, gambling website Odds Shark gave him 13-4 odds of winning the award, but it was Buddy Hield, drafted sixth by the New Orleans Pelicans, who was second with 11-2 odds. Ingram was third at 13-2, followed by Kris Dunn, the fifth overall pick by the Minnesota Timberwolves, at 15-2.
Yi Makes Strong Initial Impression
Walton singled out Yi Jianlian as a productive player through training camp.
"Yi's been really good," Walton said. "He's been shooting the heck out of the ball, which is obviously something we could use—a big man that can step behind the three-point line and help space the floor."
Originally drafted sixth by the Milwaukee Bucks in 2007, Yi return to China in 2012, where he found success playing for the Guangdong Southern Tigers and the Chinese National Team.
The Lakers signed him to a partially guaranteed, incentive-laden deal that can climb as high as $8 million. If he can continue to shoot as well as he has through training camp, Yi shouldn't have a problem reaching his contract milestones.
"I'm a big believer in playing in an open-space style of game. He's probably our best three-point shooter out of the bigs," Walton said.
Yi feels like he's integrated well with his new teammates
"We're very comfortable because we talk a lot on the court," Yi said. "We speak to each other and help each other. From the coaches to the players, we try to play together."
Clarkson also pointed to Yi as a pleasant surprise in camp.
"He's really stretched the floor," Clarkson said. "He's pretty athletic as well and gets after it on the defensive end."
The Lakers were not a good basketball team last year on either end of the floor.
Under Walton, look for the team to play with a faster pace offensively than it did a year ago under Scott.
"There's definitely growing pains with everybody. Last year, we played just a different style than this. We almost played a slow, kind of walk-it-up style of basketball, and now we're running and gunning," Nance said. "The thing for me is I've just got to go. The coaches keep harping on me, 'If you don't grab the rebound, take off, get down the court.'"
"They want to use my athleticism to beat the other bigs down the court and hopefully get some layups," he continued.
Nance said on a rebound he'll look to get the ball to a guard, but he also has the green light to take the ball up himself.
"If I get it and I see open court, I'm going," Nance said.
The Lakers kick off their preseason schedule on Tuesday night in Anaheim, hosting the Sacramento Kings at the Honda Center.
In fact, for all eight exhibition games, the Lakers will be listed as the home team. They'll also play at Staples Center on Friday against the Denver Nuggets and then again in Ontario on Sunday.
Next week, the Lakers draw the Portland Trail Blazers at Staples Center on Oct. 11, before a pair of games in Las Vegas on Oct. 13 (Kings again) and Oct. 15 (Golden State Warriors). They'll get a quick rematch against Golden State on Oct. 19 in San Diego, followed by the Phoenix Suns on Oct. 21 in Anaheim.
While it can be difficult to judge by exhibition games, keep an eye on a number of potential rotation battles. Who will be the team’s backup center behind Mozgov? Will Walton turn first to Tarik Black, Yi or Zubac? Will Marcelo Huertas beat out Jose Calderon behind Russell at the point?
More importantly, are the Lakers playing together, unselfishly? Last season, the team was neither cohesive on the offensive or defensive side of the ball. The roster may need months to reach a high level of execution, but is the effort for unity there from the start?
The regular season starts on Oct. 26 at home against the Houston Rockets.