Whether the Los Angeles Lakers organization or fans of the franchise wanted to fully admit it when the process of transitioning away from being dependent on the exploits of Kobe Bryant began, these current struggles and difficulties should have always been at least somewhat expected. Growing pains with a young core are not a surprise, especially when you have such a long-term franchise player moving on, but even more so given the special circumstances surrounding this 2015-16 Lakers group.
Even throughout the obvious struggles, this is still an organization that would never openly acknowledge being in the midst of a full-on “tank-mode” stretch, but this bit of reality has become painstakingly evident to even the most casual outside observer over the past two-to-three seasons. Although conventional wisdom may have favored embracing the youth movement a bit more from the start, the front office and coaching staff made it obvious this season would be about Bryant’s farewell tour, first and foremost. To a certain degree, that’s both honorable (considering what Bryant has meant to the organization, city and game) and understandable from a business perspective given the team’s financial investment – especially over the past few seasons.
Put simply, while it is completely understandable for a franchise to want to maximize one of its most profitable assets in history before he’s gone, the rest of the roster and overall progress moving forward has clearly been in a holding pattern throughout the final chapter of Bryant’s illustrious career. The idea that the next leader or “face of the franchise” should have already been identified from this young group is about as preposterous as anyone expected this team to somehow compete for upwards of 30-35+ wins this season.
Following a recent drubbing at the hands of the Utah Jazz, coach Byron Scott offered these sentiments to the media regarding the young players: “You have to show that you deserve to be here and you understand what wearing the ‘purple and gold’ is about. I don’t think a lot of guys in that locker room understand that right now… I don’t look at any of those guys as being our next ‘Kobe.’”
Bryant, himself, has reiterated as much during recent media sessions.
Quite frankly, that’s precisely what we were all sold on this current regime of staff and veterans being able to do. We were convinced Scott’s staff would not only assist in smoothly transitioning from the Bryant era, but also find a way to reestablish a certain culture and organizational pride that seemed to dissipate over the past few years. Whether it was ultimately a bit of a fool’s task, this is what was promised and that simply has not taken place. In fact, if established players and veterans have struggled to wrestle team control and on-court influence away from Bryant even down the injury-riddled final stretch of his career, then essentially indicting a group of 19-to-24-year-olds for not being able to hit the ground running and snatch the ball from his hands is a bit silly – especially when those players are still attempting to get adjusted to simply playing at this level, let alone figuring out how to turn their individual results into overall team success.
The idea that this most recent incident between second-overall pick D’Angelo Russell and the well-traveled reserve Nick Young is a reason to immediately ship Russell out of town is about as knee-jerk a reaction as you can have. Aside from the very obvious notion of not throwing the baby out with the bathwater, let’s all settle down and acknowledge that players with actual star qualities and skills aren’t necessarily falling off trees up and down Figueroa Blvd for these Lakers. While the immediacy of social media may invoke frenzied reactions from fans and analysts specifically looking to play on the faux outrage, shock and horror (until the next batch of shenanigans take place), the Lakers would be wise to ride the wave and see their young and talented player through the difficult times before jumping to action.
Without going into all the salacious details of prior incidents from around the league (let Google be your friend), let’s just say the old stories surrounding R&B singer Toni Braxton and the Dallas Mavericks, rumors about Jason Richardson and Steve Nash or what supposedly took place within that Indiana Pacers locker room from a couple seasons ago make this current story, while understandably bewildering to the parties involved, somewhat ‘tame’ or even ‘mild’ by comparison. Make no mistake, Russell will absolutely have his work cut out for him in terms of repairing his image within this locker room and around the league, but let’s just not go overboard in judging what needs to be done in the short term. He’s talented enough to overcome the incident, but whether he will be mature and mentally tough enough to withstand the pressure will eventually tell the most about his future.
All of that to say, while the young core in Los Angeles may still have a ton of room to grow, develop and mature from both a personal and professional standpoint (particularly in Russell’s case as a point guard and hopeful leader), let’s take a step back from the malaise for a moment and truly assess where the organization is as we sit just seven games away from the end of Bryant’s run.
The jury is still out on guys like rookie Anthony Brown (injured) and sophomore big man Tarik Black, at least somewhat due to a lack of playing time and consistent opportunities, but these Lakers do have four intriguing pieces in Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr. and the aforementioned Russell.
Clarkson (15.5 points per game, four rebounds per game, 2.5 assists per game) is quickly establishing himself as a scorer at this level, but needs to continue working at bringing it on both sides of the court and doing more than racking up points on a consistent basis. Even though he can be a bit turnover prone at times (2.5/1.7 assist-to-turnover ratio this season), he’s also a capable playmaker and a finisher in the open court. He still may not be a dead-eye shooter from deep, but he’s definitely improved as a three-point shooter and is currently at a respectable 35.1 percent from beyond the arc for the year. We probably haven’t seen enough of him alongside Russell in the backcourt together to fully assess how successful that pairing can be, but the results have been somewhat promising – at least from an offensive perspective.
Randle may be still be limited in what he can do offensively, but he is already clearly one of the league’s top young rebounders at this early stage (tied for 14th in double-doubles with 33 so far this season). Currently averaging a double-double (11.6 points, 10.2 rebounds) in just his first full year of action, Randle must also continue to work on shifting from primarily exerting his efforts on the offensive end to a more balanced attack. The right hand, jumpshot and counter moves are things you expect him to eventually develop, given the progress he’s already shown and an evident willingness to improve and succeed. While he still may pick up an occasional offensive foul or get himself into precarious positions when attempting to attack against length, Randle has already done a very good job of adjusting his pace and tempo and figuring out more effective ways to attack against defenders actively looking to limit his left hand.
Nance Jr.’s success may have come as a surprise for those who didn’t happen to watch a ton of Wyoming Cowboys or Mountain West Conference basketball over the past few years, but his high-energy and ‘constantly moving’ style of attack plays well at this level. Nance Jr. may not have “star” potential per se, but his unselfish nature, ability to utilize his athleticism and agility at multiple frontcourt positions, and willingness to do the dirty work on the court is encouraging for a team that will also need dependable role players moving forward.
Russell may currently be in the spotlight for unenviable reasons, but if the recently turned 20-year-old truly has what it takes to succeed at this level then an incident of this magnitude might strangely speed up the maturization process of a young man that was also described as “19-going-on-14” by his head coach last month. If Russell truly has ‘ice in his veins,’ then he’ll embrace the challenge head-on and come out a better teammate, professional and even player on the other side of things. His 13.2 points per game, 3.4 rebounds per game and 3.3 assists per game are good enough to place him toward the top when it comes to a discussion about his contemporaries among first-year point guards, but the Lakers desperately need him to take the next step across the board and develop from being a promising talent into a franchise-type player.
Whether at the forefront of the ultimate reclamation project in Los Angeles or in being used as catalysts in future transactions that ultimately bring in the next “face of the franchise” for the purple and gold, the Lakers absolutely need to cultivate the assets they currently have. Everyone – from players to staff to the front office – will likely and justifiably have their role assessed once the season comes to an end as of April 14, but the same process will also take place across at least half the league. As we sit just 28 quarters of basketball from the end of Bryant’s career, this franchise may not have that “next” guy, but that doesn’t mean the the cupboard is completely bare – regardless of the doom-and-gloom portrait social media and sports talk pundits may attempt to paint.
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