LOS ANGELES — Despite last year's disappointing 17-win campaign and a 2-6 preseason record in October, the Los Angeles Lakers are an optimistic bunch, enjoying their honeymoon under rookie head coach Luke Walton.
"He connects to us really well. He keeps practice fun and loose, so no one has a problem learning when he's teaching," said guard Jordan Clarkson. "We've all got respect for him because he knows what he's talking about."
The challenge for Walton will be keeping his team engaged if (and when) the losses pile up. The Lakers will be better than they were a year ago, but even if they double their win total, that's still a hefty 48 losses.
The Lakers start 2016-17's regular season on Wednesday at Staples Center hosting the Houston Rockets, another team with a new coach, Mike D'Antoni. Houston won 41 games last year, barely beating out the Utah Jazz to earn the eighth and final playoff berth in the Western Conference.
The Lakers were dead last; To make the postseason, they'll need to surpass at least seven teams. But second-year guard D'Angelo Russell believes the Lakers will be a threat this season.
"When we match up against teams, we can really compete and finish games," he said Monday. "I felt we competed last year, but we never finished the game. A lot of games we lost by buzzer-beaters, or one play determined the loss. This year, I feel we're better at finishing games."
The next tier would include the up-and-coming Portland Trail Blazers (44-38) and Utah Jazz (40-42), along with battle-tested franchises such as the Dallas Mavericks (42-40) and Memphis Grizzlies (42-40).
Portland got past an injured Clippers team in the playoffs last year, giving the Warriors a challenge in the second round. The Jazz are ready to make their leap after adding veterans such as George Hill, Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw over the offseason.
With new head coach Tom Thibodeau on the bench, the Minnesota Timberwolves (29-53) are going to try defending their way to a playoff berth. The New Orleans Pelicans (30-52) already have injury concerns, but All-Star forward/center Anthony Davis is one of the league's best.
Even if the Lakers manage to exceed humble expectations, finishing higher than 11th in the West would be a massive achievement.
"I'm looking at it from an individual standpoint of how I feel we played. I'm not looking at, 'Are we going to jump them?' Walton said of his conference opponents. "Did we execute our game plan? Did we do our defensive rotations? And if we lose, then I'm fine with that.
"If we win a game where we didn't do anything, we just happened to get hot—I'm not as happy about that," he continued. "I'm not going to lie and say I'm not going to look at the standings, but I'm not going to be judging our success on where those standings are."
The Lakers will certainly improve. It would be a challenge to do any worse.
Even if the team can come and stay together under Walton, the relative inexperience of core players such as Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr., Clarkson and Russell will keep the Lakers at least in the bottom seven in the Western Conference.
LAKERS INSIDER'S NOTEBOOK
Gary Payton Impressed by Lakers' Youth
Former Laker point guard, NBA champion and Hall of Famer Gary Payton likes what he sees in the Lakers' youth movement.
"I think they've got a nice young team. I think it's going to be a fresh start. They've got a fresh coach. They have fresh, young players who can play. They've got to prove themselves now," Payton said to the Hollywood Hoops podcast.
"I don't think they're going to be an NBA championship team right away, but they're going to be OK," he continued. "They don't have to worry about [Kobe Bryant anymore]. He's retired and all the young kids can get to play and do what they want to do. They don't have to worry about impressing a legend."
Payton was in Santa Monica over the weekend, wrapping a six-city, 3-on-3 basketball tour as the official ambassador for Dew NBA 3X. The team sport, which includes three active players and one reserve per team, is under consideration for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Payton took some time to reflect on the "superteam" that he and Karl Malone helped create during the 2003-04 season, joining Shaquille O'Neal and Bryant with the Lakers.
"When Karl got hurt, we were 18-3 and we were rolling. When he got hurt, everything went down," said Payton. "If our team would have stayed healthy all year long ... we would have had a chance to go after the 72-10 record at the time."
The Lakers finished that year with a 56-26 record. Malone tried to recover from a knee injury to help the team advance to the NBA Finals, but he was sidelined against the Detroit Pistons, who won the series in five games.
Would the Lakers have won the title had Malone been healthy?
"Absolutely," said Payton.
What does he expect from the superteam in his hometown of Oakland after Durant joined the Warriors?
"That's not his team. That's Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and Steph Curry's team ... then it's KD's," he said. "When we were with the Lakers, we were older. Me and Karl were the veterans. We knew that the team was Kobe and Shaq's. On this team, they are all young. I wouldn't let anyone come in and take my team.
"I think they're going to be great. They ain't going to have no problems. I think Klay Thompson is going to be the leading scorer."
Lakers Make Final Cuts
The Lakers started the preseason with 20 players, but invites Zach Auguste, Julian Jacobs and Travis Wear were let go almost two weeks ago. On Monday, the team trimmed down to the maximum of 15 players, waiving Yi Jianlian and Anthony Brown.
In signing Yi to a partially guaranteed, incentive-based $8 million contract, the Lakers had generated a favorable trade asset. Yi had just $250,000 of his salary promised, with three $2.3 million bonuses kicking in upon 20, 40 and 59 games played.
The Lakers wouldn't have been able to deal him until Dec. 15, but a theoretical trade partner would have been able to send a player making roughly $12 million range to the Lakers in return. The incoming team could save millions by waiving Yi with his minimal guarantee.
Instead, the Chinese forward/center asked for his release before the season even began.
"He's had a lot of success in his career, and I think he wanted a bigger role and bigger minutes than we had available," Walton said. "We knew we had a lot of young guys that we really like and want to develop, and we had just signed [Timofey] Mozgov to a pretty big deal. So [Yi] was really going to have to outplay everybody to get big minutes."
The Lakers also let go of Brown, the 34th pick in the 2015 NBA draft, despite his fully guaranteed salary of $874,636. The team is obligated to pay the guard/forward unless another franchise claims him off waivers. Nick Young's resurgence as a productive player displaced Brown.
The two remaining roster spots were awarded to forwards Metta World Peace and Thomas Robinson.
Why World Peace?
"I put a lot of work in this summer, and now we're here," said World Peace upon making the Lakers on Monday. "I've got a personal goal, trying to reach 20 years [in the NBA]."
On Nov. 13, World Peace's age will match the No. 37 on his jersey. Heading into his 17th season, the veteran's role on the Lakers is less about what he can do on the floor and more about what he does in the locker room with his young teammates.
"You can have the best relationship in the world with your players, but unless you're out there going through what they go through, it's a completely different relationship," Walton said. "I tended to listen to my teammates much more than somebody who wasn't in the trenches.
"As a player, you get frustrated. I remember times [Derek Fisher] used to talk to me, or even my rookie year, Karl Malone," he continued. "When they put their arm around you and tell you something, it means a lot more."
World Peace still isn't entirely in the clear—his $1.6 million contract won't guarantee in full until Jan. 10.
"I'm going to be the same old Metta," he said. "It's pretty simple, pay attention to coach, pay attention to the staff and work hard."
Robinson's Fight Impresses Lakers
Robinson was the last player to sign with the Lakers this offseason, inking a non-guaranteed minimum contract of $1.1 million on Sept. 21. Originally drafted fifth out of Kansas in 2012 by the Sacramento Kings, he quickly bounced around the league to the Rockets, Blazers, Philadelphia 76ers and Brooklyn Nets, before joining the Lakers.
"He was nowhere even on my radar. He started showing up in the offseason pickup games we were having, and every single day his teams were winning and he was one of the better players on the court," Walton said. "I talked about it with the front office, and we might as well invite the kid. He shows up every day and gets all this work in."
Still, Walton had his doubts, given Robinson's track record of five teams in four years prior to joining the Lakers.
"You assume, once you get to a more structured setting, that you'd see some reasons why he hasn't stuck, but he was great throughout all training camp," Walton said. "I'm shocked he hasn't stuck somewhere."
Like World Peace, Robinson's contract won't guarantee until Jan. 10.
"I made the team but nothing is done yet," Robinson said, lamenting the twists and turns of his career. "I shouldn't have been in that position, but things happen the way they happen. I worked my way out of it; now I've got to keep going."
The 25-year-old forward was thrilled to still have a job but would have loved a little notice from the team.
"They could have called me last night at least, let me sleep. I'm tired as hell," laughed Robinson at practice Monday. "So no, I didn't find out until I walked into the locker room today, which was the longest ride."
What did Robinson do to win the Lakers' front office and coaching staff over?
"I stuck to myself," he said. "I don't come in the gym and work on energy or rebounding, that's just something I have a knack for. If I can't do anything, then I can sure bring energy."