Something is happening to the Los Angeles Lakers. It started with a low rumble during All-Star weekend, just loud enough for the acutely attuned to notice. Since then, it’s been growing, building, picking up speed, and now the nation is beginning to become aware of a shift taking place.
The Lakers are fun again, and just when we least expected it.
For years, Los Angeles has feared the day when Kobe Bryant hangs up the Golden Armor for good. The prevailing thought was that losing Bryant would cost the team both fans in the stands as well as viewers at home. After all, a team full of young players and journeymen couldn’t possibly provide a compelling reason to watch.
It appears that those fears are unfounded.
Over the past few weeks, we have had a sneak preview of the Lakers extinction-level event, but as it turns out, the post-Kobe world isn’t so apocalyptic after all.
With Bryant’s aching shoulder keeping him sidelined and/or limited, the burden of power has been prematurely transferred over to the purple and gold’s young trio of D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, and Julius Randle. So far, all three have proven to be up to the task and perhaps more importantly, they are making a case for fans to keep watching after Kobe rides off into the sunset.
Without the Black Mamba, the Lakers have been competitive, determined, and dare I say, entertaining. The young talent the team has amassed certainly won’t merit many national TV dates nor draw fans in droves the way Bryant does, but there is something intriguing and perhaps unexpected going on here.
Fans still chant Kobe’s name, but on the court, it’s now the young players doing the heavy lifting and they each offer their own unique and compelling narrative.
Randle, who has a breath-taking combination of quickness and raw power at his disposal, is predisposed to bulldoze his opponent at any given moment. He may not have the vertical gifts of a high-flying contemporary like Aaron Gordon, but when the two met head-to-head on Tuesday, Randle proved that sometimes brute force is more than a match for leaping ability.
He produces a sort of bull-in-a-china-shop effect, providing the team with the kind of dirty work underneath the basket that they sorely need. Randle is 12th in the league in rebounding despite this being his de facto rookie campaign. He plays the game with an aggression that can sometimes be shocking, and the scowl permanently etched on his face reflects his desire to bully all in his path.
Every fun team needs at least one grit and grind guy and for the Lakers, it appears Randle has happily taken on that role.
Then, there is the Slash and Splash Connection — the pairing of Russell and Clarkson that has caught fire in recent weeks. When the Lakers selected Russell with the No. 2 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, eyebrows were raised. Los Angeles already had a young point guard in Clarkson, who had just vaulted all the way from the 46th pick in the 2014 Draft to being named to the All-Rookie team.
However, the Lakers saw star qualities in Russell and determined that Clarkson’s ability to play off the ball would allow them to co-exist. Since the All-Star break, they have shared the court together more often than not, and the results are promising.
“We believe in each other; we know what each other is capable of” -D’Angelo Russell
Since Russell was reinserted into the starting lineup, he is averaging an impressive 19.4 points and 4.6 assists while shooting 47 percent from three — all major increases from his pre-All Star averages. He sneaks passes through angles that no one else sees, and has learned to use his body and positioning to make up for his lack of elite athleticism.
Russell also relishes the big moments, proclaiming himself to have “ice in my veins” after hitting a dagger three-pointer against the Brooklyn Nets. He’s a star in the making, and he knows it.
Meanwhile, the more reserved Clarkson has also seen his numbers skyrocket to 18.8 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 3.1 assists per game. His unbridled speed is a perfect contrast to Russell’s skill-based approach.
Clarkson’s outside shot has drastically improved, from 31 percent in 2014-2015 to 44 percent since this year’s All Star break. This improved marksmanship has helped open up the floor for both young guards, creating opportunities for absolutely dazzling plays.
Early on, they took many of their cues on the court from Kobe, reacting to whatever he did. Now the dynamic duo dart in and out of the lane, driving and kicking, finding each other for open threes or on cuts to the basket. When they are clicking, it can truly be a thing of beauty.
Neither of them can replace Kobe, but together, they sure are a lot of fun to watch.
Of course, we would be remiss if we discussed the Lakers ability to captivate an audience without mentioning Larry Nance Jr.’s high-flying dunks, who is a constant threat to throw down a vicious slam. Even on the sideline, Nance brings entertainment value, as he has usurped Robert Sacre’s role as the team’s celebration czar.
Together, the young Lakers have been turning heads. They became just the sixth team to defeat the Golden State Warriors this season, setting an NBA record for the biggest upset ever based on win percentage.
Bryant played sparingly that night while the kids did most of the damage. He encouraged them from the sidelines, proud of the way they stepped up in the face of overwhelming odds.
The Lakers followed up that performance by throttling the Orlando Magic, this time with Bryant sitting out completely. In that game, Randle, Russell, and Clarkson each scored over 20 points and dominated the court.
“They had the three best players on the floor tonight” – Scott Skiles
Keep in mind that the Magic employ a bevy of young talent themselves, including Victor Oladipo, Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier, Elfrid Payton, and Mario Hezonja. Skiles’ endorsement is an indicator of what the league is coming to realize: the Lakers young talent is for real.
Of course, these Lakers won’t be picked to win a championship anytime soon, but there is a genuine aura of excitement around them. There is a can’t-miss feel to them, as though looking away for just a moment could mean missing something incredible.
People are beginning to take notice that not only are the young Lakers exciting, they are also a lot of fun. That gives the Lakers momentum heading into the off-season, and something to pitch free agents beyond just the weather and the glitter of Hollywood.
If the basketball gods smile on Los Angeles once again and allow them to keep their draft pick, the Lakers will be in position to get better very quickly with a young, talented group that knows how to put on a show.
There won’t be a dry eye in the house when Kobe Bryant rides off into the sunset, but the future sure looks bright.