Here we are, Lakers Nation. It’s Draft Day. It hasn’t been easy, but we made it. Let’s take a moment and reflect on what brought us to this point, as after all; it’s the journey that allows us to truly appreciate the destination.
The 2015-2016 NBA season was far from kind to the Los Angeles Lakers. The team won a franchise-worst 17 games, while a Kobe Bryant-less future crept ever closer. Bryant was the main attraction for two decades, but as he prepared to ride off into the sunset, the Lakers understood that they would need to find a new reason for fans to tune in night after night, a new reason to hope, and finding it wouldn’t be easy.
As the losses piled up, the only thing keeping the focus on Los Angeles was the Kobe countdown. Where once title aspirations were the driving force, now a prolonged goodbye to one of the games all-time greats was all that kept the ship afloat. NBA supporters across the globe took the time to appreciate a virtuoso on his farewell tour, but there was always that dark cloud on the horizon, that uncertain future leaving fans and franchise alike to wonder when–and if– the good times would ever return.
Then a funny thing happened. Just when the sky looked impossibly dark, with the Lakers limping to the finish line under a mountain of losses, everything changed. That old familiar feeling returned, that amazement and wonder that led us to believe that greatness was always just a play away. For one night, that Lakers magic made a comeback.
On April 13th, Kobe Bean Bryant put on the “Golden Armor”, as he calls it, for a final time. In a game that somehow more than lived up to the hype, the 37-year-old exploded for 60 points and led the Lakers to a comeback victory over the Utah Jazz.
Keep in mind, this was not the Kobe we had seen for much of the season. He struggled night after night, waging a personal war against his body, MacGuyvering it back together time and time again as he tried to hang on until the end. He had spent the waning weeks of the season wrapping his body in so many ice packs that he looked like a mummy on Halloween, a reminder of the toll that years of playing through the pain had taken.
Yet there he was, down the stretch in the fourth quarter, exhausted but still standing, willing his team to victory one last time. The Golden State Warriors set the single-season record for wins that night with 73, breaking what was thought to be an unbreakable record. It didn’t matter because the night belonged to Bryant.
Kobe had spent a lifetime getting the absolute most out of his God-given talent, preparing himself mentally and physically with a relentless obsession. He didn’t compete against other teams; his only real opponent was the limitations of the human body.
The world stopped and watched in amazement as Bryant poured every last bit of basketball he had left in him onto the court that night. He walked off with nothing left, having given all he could to the Lakers and their legion of fans for 20 years.
As incredible as the moment was, Bryant didn’t just cement his own legacy: with his final gasp on the Staples Center floor, he breathed life back into the organization. Fans were buzzing for weeks, unable to believe what they had seen.
For the first time in what felt like ages, watching a Lakers game left us awestruck.
To their credit, the Lakers seized the momentum that and made a move that they hope will pay dividends in the future. With the buzz of Bryant’s parting shot still in the air, on May 1st Los Angeles brought in Luke Walton as their new head coach. Byron Scott had been the steward of Bryant’s final years, but now it was time for a new direction, a new feel to the team, and that meant new leadership.
Walton, one of the most sought-after coaches on the market, promised to bring elements of the Warriors’ high-octane system with him. He is a new-school coach with new-school ideas and philosophies on how the game is played. His approach to building team chemistry will also be a marked departure from the old-school stylings of Scott, representing a shift in the thinking of the organization.
Young Lakers like Jordan Clarkson, D’Angelo Russell, and Julius Randle have already expressed their approval, each of them excited to play for a coach that can match their playing style and speak their language.
With optimism running high, Lakers Nation collectively held their breath as the draft lottery results were revealed on May 17th. The Lakers would only retain their pick if it fell in the top three, but with Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram sitting at the top of almost every draft boards and a relatively weak draft behind them, every team was praying to land either first or second.
Fortunately, the ping pong balls bounced in the Lakers’ favor, and the team ended up with the coveted second overall pick. Now, with Ingram likely on the way, there is no question that momentum is building behind the purple and gold.
They have a team stocked with young talent, a highly-regarded coach, and a mountain of cap space to use chasing free agents this summer. If all goes well, the team’s fortunes next year could look very different than the last.
The new era of Lakers basketball has begun, and it started with a spark, a final gift from the man who personified the previous one. Making it back won’t be easy, and it won’t happen overnight, but the future of the Los Angeles Lakers is looking brighter every day.
Happy Draft Day, Lakers Nation.