The experts at ESPN have done it again. Earlier this summer they projected that the Lakers would finish last in the Western Conference next season. Now they’ve gone further by predicting the Lakers will finish dead last in the entire NBA with the fewest wins. This offseason they’ve also pronounced that Brandon Ingram will finish only third in the Rookie of the Year voting, Timofey Mozgov was the worst free agent signing of the offseason, Julius Randle is overrated, and D’Angelo Russell is a bust or close to it.
Let’s not forget the frequent pronouncements that Mitch Kupchak is a dinosaur and Jim Buss knows nothing about basketball. You know things are bad when the media starts to pick on Jeanne Buss, who until this past year was untouchable.
ESPN has been fairly accurate the past three years projecting how the Lakers will fare, but at the time such predictions were as challenging as knowing snow will melt in 100 degree weather. My little sister knew the Lakers would be awful and she knows almost nothing about basketball. It took a while to percolate, but this is a new Lakers team and a new era, and this iteration has the ingredients needed to exceed expectations and make even the most die-hard fan excited for the future.
There are several reasons why the Lakers will turn the tables on the so-called experts at ESPN who take shots at the team regularly. Here are the three biggest reasons why the Lakers have been so awful and why things are going to get better faster than expected.
1. Kobe Bryant Has Retired
Kobe Bryant is one of the greatest NBA players of all time, but for the past three years, he has been an anchor dragging the team to the bottom of the sea. Bryant’s career ended when he tore his Achilles tendon; only the front office refused to accept this fact and for marketing reasons extended his contract for two more years exhausting all their cap space in the process. Meanwhile, Bryant’s attempted return was thwarted first by a knee injury and later by a bad shoulder.
There is no way to overstate the burdens Bryant’s teammates were forced to endure the past three years. Every decision by the coaching staff and the front office was influenced by its impact on Bryant, from the offense they ran to who covered who on defense. It was a hopeless environment designed not to win games or promote growth among young players, it was meant to allow Bryant to hobble onto the court as long as possible and in the process sell tickets.
In the context of such an environment, it was impossible for anyone to showcase his true potential. There were glimpses here and there, especially when Bryant was out of the lineup, but even then, it is not the same as going into training camp and implementing a system that will benefit the team as a whole rather than an individual player
When the final horn sounded at the end of Bryant’s last game – which fittingly saw his teammates mostly standing around watching him take nearly 50 shots while scoring an incredible 60 points – it was finally over. There would be no more questions about who would start from game to game and what the rotation would be that night, depending on whether Bryant could play and if so for how long. The game plan would no longer be centered around what he could and could not do. Bryant rarely practiced with the team, so now when there are practices the men who will play together can actually practice together.
Free of the Bryant factor, each player has a chance to step up and stand out. It is a new era with a lot to be excited about. This is not the same team or the negative environment of the last three years. The results on the court are going to be improved.
2. Luke Walton Has Arrived
Unless LeBron James is on the roster, no team coached by Mike Brown, Mike D’Antoni, or Byron Scott is going to be any good. They were uninspiring choices to lead the Lakers, and while their experience amounted to something, experience alone does not make a winning coach. The selection of Scott, in particular, was an example of a decision based on what was best for Bryant. Scott does not value young players, does not want to play them, and does not know how to coach them.
Enter Luke Walton. If hiring Scott was the worst choice possible, hiring Walton was a grand slam home run. He brings youth and energy. He brings creativity and flexibility. He will relate to the young players, and they will relate to him. He speaks their language. He is a confidence builder instead of a confidence destroyer. He is the perfect choice to lead a young Lakers squad into a new era.
Walton is not a wizard, and he will make mistakes, but he will also be a difference maker. Players around the league like him and respect him. The Lakers’ players are going to have some fun, something that has been sorely missing on the team the past few years. It may be a business, but if you can have fun at your job you are bound to do better. With Walton as the coach it ensures at least ten more victories this next season.
3.The Lakers Have a Lot of Young Players Who Are Really Good
While everything was crumbling on the court and in the media for the Lakers the past few years, the front office somehow managed to quietly assemble a talented group of young players. Suddenly the roster is full of intrigue and possibilities, and there is every reason for fans to be excited though patience is still required.
The truth is, nobody really knows what the Lakers have in their young squad, not even the front office and certainly not the national media which does not follow the Lakers from game to game, minute to minute, as many fans do. This year is much harder to predict than in the recent past when there were huge questions about Bryant’s impact and availability from game to game. Some of the young players are going to be really good, and while no one is predicting a playoff run in the immediate future, this is likely the year when things start to look much brighter for the future.
The Minnesota Timberwolves have three prominent young players, Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns, and now Kris Dunn. The Philadelphia 76ers have the oft-injured Joel Embiid who is yet to play a single game, Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel whom the 76ers were willing to trade this summer but no other team was interested in acquiring them, and Ben Simmons who is a great ball handler but can’t shoot. The Lakers, in turn, have D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Larry Nance, Jr., Anthony Brown, Tarik Black, and Ivica Zubac.
In making this comparison, I’ll take the Lakers in a landslide. If the elitist east coast media sees it otherwise, one has to seriously question their sanity. The Lakers young core is an intriguing mix of size, speed, ball handling, outside shooting, rebounding and rim protection.
It is going to take some time, and realistically not all of the eight young players mentioned above will thrive in the NBA over the next few years. But some combination of these players will excel, and it could happen sooner than many experts believe starting with this year.
With each new projection from ESPN that slams the Lakers it will only make it that much more satisfying when fans get the last laugh. The team will exceed expectations and win at least 30 games this next season, and it will not finish last in the NBA or in the Western Conference.