Kobe Bryant had to check if Harrison Barnes had kicked him in the back of the leg.
Instead, he had gone down without contact, his left Achilles tendon rendered in two. Bryant lumbered in pain to the free-throw line, remarkably hitting a pair to help the Lakers secure a 118-116 win over the Golden State Warriors.
While the Lakers have had moments since that day, Friday, April 12, 2013 was the end of an era. Bryant hung around for three more seasons. He even scored a scintillating 60 points during the final game of career, but it was a victory that gave the Lakers just their 17th win of the year.
The Lakers generally expect to compete for a championship annually, but the franchise has managed just 65 wins over the past three years. Fortunately, the NBA rewards teams for their struggles via the draft.
Replacing a now-departed talent such as Bryant is nearly impossible, but the team has high hopes that its young cadre of prospects will develop into impact NBA players.
No longer straddling the past and the future, the fate of the franchise is in the hands of players such as second-year guard D'Angelo Russell and rookie forward Brandon Ingram. To bring the most out of the team's youth, the team let Byron Scott go, replacing him with the youngest coach in the league: Luke Walton.
Even a significant 20-win improvement over L.A.'s dismal 2015-16 campaign would net just 37, which isn't likely to be enough for a playoff berth in the Western Conference. Thus, the "championship or bust" mindset is, for now, a thing of the past, as the Lakers look to establish a foundation that will eventually compete for a title.
Biggest Offseason Move
Trying to keep their championship hopes alive, the Lakers made two significant trades in 2012, acquiring veterans Steve Nash and Dwight Howard. Nash was injured for almost his entire three-year run with the team. Howard lasted one season, before leaving as a free agent for the Houston Rockets.
Los Angeles still owed first-round picks for both players (to the Philadelphia 76ers for Nash and Orlando Magic for Howard). On May 17, the Lakers had just a 55.8 percent chance of keeping a top-three selection in the draft lottery. Four or lower, and they would lose their pick to Philadelphia.
Instead, the franchise was fortunate, nabbing the second overall pick. A month later, the team drafted 6'9" forward Brandon Ingram, who may be the most significant acquisition since trading for the rights to Bryant in 1996.
Ingram is barely 19 years old and a slender 190 pounds, but he has tremendous potential both as a scorer and a defender. He'll need to strengthen his rail-thin frame, but he brings a lengthy 7'3" wingspan, smart footwork and a steady jumper to the NBA.
If his extreme-upside comparison is the Warriors' Kevin Durant, Ingram will need time to adapt to the size, speed and physicality of the NBA game. He is unlikely to be All-Star as a rookie, but the Lakers believe they've hit a home run.
The team also replaced center Roy Hibbert with Timofey Mozgov and Bryant with forward Luol Deng. Both should be more productive than their previous counterparts. L.A. also traded for veteran point guard Jose Calderon, drafted young center Ivica Zubac with the 32nd pick and took a flyer on Chinese forward/center Yi Jianlian (a former NBA lottery pick himself).
It is up to the players to blossom, but the Lakers' addition of Walton to the bench is a significant step toward reinventing their culture after three years of losing. He is a strong communicator, determined to bring the joy of basketball back to the franchise, according to B/R's Kevin Ding.
The early returns through training camp in Santa Barbara, California, were positive, but Walton and the Lakers will be challenged once the team starts playing in real games, against real competition.
Walton has yet to lock in a starting five, but during the Lakers' first preseason game on Tuesday, a 103-84 victory over the Sacramento Kings, he went with D'Angelo Russell, Lou Williams, Luol Deng, Julius Randle and Mozgov.
"I feel like it's a good mix of vets and young guys," said Walton before the Lakers' victory. "There's a second unit that we want to see get some time together, see how they can play—a more explosive type of unit."
Four of the five will presumably keep their spot in the rotation while Walton decides between Jordan Clarkson and Williams as the team's opening shooting guard. The Lakers coach noted that either would be productive in a sixth-man role.
Both Larry Nance Jr. and Ingram will play heavy minutes as reserve forwards. Meanwhile, Walton has a number of battles to consider, with Jose Calderon and Marcelo Huertas vying to be Russell's primary backup.
Tarik Black also made a strong case to be the first center off the bench, scoring 15 points in 16 minutes against the Kings. Yi is taller than Black and a better shooter—but Black is the stronger defender.
Anthony Brown is also one of the team's better defenders. If he can find his outside shot, as he did Tuesday, hitting all four attempts without a miss, Walton will need to find the second-year forward minutes as well.
Rookie Zubac will be brought along slowly. It's unclear if veteran Nick Young will carve out any minutes, and the Lakers are still looking closely at training camp invites Thomas Robinson, Metta World Peace, Travis Wear, Zach Auguste and Julian Jacobs.
Reasons for Confidence
As tremendous as Bryant's career was with the Lakers, his farewell season was not a vintage performance. He played 66 games, dominating the ball with a 32.2 usage rate, easily highest on the team.
Conversely, he shot just 35.8 percent from the field, with a true shooting percentage of 46.9 percent. His younger teammates were more efficient, including Williams (58.4 percent), Clarkson (51.6 percent) and Russell (50.7 percent), but Bryant led the team in field-goal attempts (1113) despite sitting 16 contests.
Now, with Walton preaching more ball and player movement than Scott did a year ago, the team should play a better brand of basketball, without the presence of Bryant overwhelming his compatriots.
The Lakers have an impressive cadre of young players, and while their development will come with peaks and valleys, Russell, Ingram, Randle, Clarkson and Nance will have greater opportunities to shine this coming season.
Provided wins and losses aren't the measure of success, the Lakers will take a big step forward from last year's debacle. It just may not always show every night in the final score.
Reason for Concern
The term "potential" is a dangerous word in the NBA.
Franchises are often forced to pin their future hopes on the development of 18- or 19-year-old "kids," who have just a single collegiate season under their belts. That's the nature of building through the draft, and the Lakers need their selections to pan out.
Both Russell and Ingram were back-to-back No. 2 selections. The former showed flashes his rookie season, but the aspiring point guard averaged just 3.3 assists against 2.5 turnovers a game. The latter is talented, but how long will it take his body to mature?
After missing his first season with a leg injury, Randle struggled to hit shots last year. The team's seventh pick in the 2014 draft is a bit undersized (listed as 6'9") and overly reliant on his left hand.
None of the young Lakers showed much defensively under Scott. Mozgov, the team's $64 million summer acquisition (on a four-year deal), wasn't a major factor in the Cleveland Cavaliers rotation this past season. He turned 30 in July. Deng, earning $72 million over four, needs to show he still has a lot to offer at 31 years old. The trio of Calderon, Williams and Huertas are deficient defensively, while Yi was not a high-impact player through his first NBA stint.
Finally, though Walton was a strong lead assistant under Steve Kerr with the Warriors, he is a rookie head coach.
The young Lakers may quickly reach their potential, with leadership from Walton and the team's group of veterans—but that's far from a certainty. The franchise may not have first-round picks during two of the next three drafts, so Los Angeles needs its young players to show they have more than just upside.
Player to Watch
Ingram is certainly an interesting rookie to track, but first-year players generally have mixed results. The key to the Lakers' success this season is Russell, who will have the opportunity to be both the team's primary playmaker and scorer.
The 6'5" guard plays well out of the pick-and-roll; his shots range from the elbow to the three-point line, and he can score in the post when guarded by smaller defenders.
Russell struggled to get along with Scott and had off-court issues with Young, but he has matured through adversity. He'll take a step forward in his second year, but with the many talented guards he'll face nightly in the NBA, Russell will still suffer growing pains along the way.
The Lakers need Russell to be an All-Star-caliber player. That's too lofty a goal for the coming season, but steps in that direction will mean everything to the franchise.
Don't expect the Lakers to be a top-eight team in the Western Conference (or maybe even anywhere close), but they'll be more enjoyable to watch than they were through Bryant's last season.
Doubling their win total to 34 would be a surprise.
The upside is there, but the team is probably a year away from competing with the rest of the league on a nightly basis.
- Final Record: 27-55
- Division Standing: 5th in Pacific
- Playoff Berth: No
- B/R League-wide Power Rankings Prediction: 30th