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Enjoy Kobe Bryant while you still can. One of the greatest players in league history, now 37, is on the last year of a mega-max extension and unlikely to earn a similar deal in the future should he choose to continue playing. Various reports and semi-informed opinions have suggested that Kobe could choose to forgo retirement for at least one more season, but either way this figures to be the final season in which the typically dominant guard will be allowed to act as if he's still one of the best players in the sport. After three straight seasons ended by injury, his reputation can't bear much more.
It's a shame, too, because Kobe has always been one of the most continually fascinating players in the league. Even this version of Mamba, as beaten down as he's ever been, cannot help but remain interesting for his strong will and apparent belief that the Lakers should compete for a playoff spot despite being mired in a rebuilding process slowed in part by their icon's need to stay relevant. It's hard to imagine this franchise without him, and it's a fair bet that the Lakers season will be much less interesting if he can't stay on the court past the All-Star break.
That's not to say there's nothing to enjoy on this team besides Kobe. A woeful 2014-15 allowed L.A. to capture the No. 2 pick in June's draft, which they used on Ohio State point guard D'Angelo Russell, blessed with court vision that Kobe himself has termed "astronomical." If Russell can wrest the ball away from Kobe, incumbent point Jordan Clarkson, offseason addition Lou Williams, and basketball gadfly Nick Young, then he should give fans hope for the future. The same goes for second-year forward Julius Randle, who played all of 14 minutes on opening night before losing his rookie season to a broken leg.
This year is definitely a transitional one for the Lakers. While Kobe and head coach Byron Scott stump for old-school values like not resting during the preseason, players like Russell and Randle will require long leashes and an organizational willingness to lose games for the sake of a brighter future. If only due to Kobe, this team is not in rebuilding mode so much as preparing itself for it.
So, although Kobe will remain in the spotlight, the most important aspects of the Lakers' season will be the development of their young players and their ability to hold onto a first-round pick that will be shipped off to Philadelphia if it falls outside of the top three in either of the next two seasons (it's then fully unprotected in 2018). The Lakers and their fans aren't used to playing for draft position, but it's in their best interest to get accustomed to it.
2014-15 season in 140 characters or less:
— Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) January 29, 2015
Did the summer help at all?
Probably, and at the very least set the Lakers on a better course. The addition of Russell stands out as the big win of the summer, particularly given that the Lakers jumped two spots relative to their lottery odds to get him. Although new Philadelphia 76ers big man Jahlil Okafor may have filled the team's biggest need, general manager Mitch Kuphack correctly determined that he couldn't be choosy and took the guy he considered best player available. The Lakers haven't had a rookie this exciting since ... well, since Kobe.
The rest was mostly positive but arguably a mixed bag. Free agent center Jordan HIll left for the Indiana Pacers, who kindly traded downtrodden ex-All-Star Roy Hibbert to Los Angeles in a straight salary dump. Hibbert has lost the form that made him the linchpin of one of the league's best defenses, but he figures to improve what was the NBA's 29th-most efficient unit last season. Reigning Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams is a ball-dominant guard on a team with plenty of those, but he won that award for a reason and should help. Especially if Adam Silver creates new multi-ball rules to drum up additional fan interest.
Kupchak also filled out the roster with notable players, including 32-year-old rookie point guard Marcelinho Huertas of Brazil, who has starred for Barcelona in the Spanish ACB for the past several years. Brandon Bass should be an effective forward, as well, perhaps as a starter. Rookies Larry Nance, Jr., Robert Upshaw, and Michael Frazier all have promise, with the last two potentially serving as excellent role players somewhere down the line.
They also signed some guy named Metta World Peace. Must be a publicity stunt.
Go-to offseason acquisition:
It's usually wrongheaded to place too much responsibility on a 19-year-old, but Russell stands as a key figure for this franchise both in terms of its on-court future and its long-term vision. The Lakers' offseason indicated that the team is looking towards the next few seasons but nevertheless interested in maintaining some semblance of veteran legitimacy with players like Hibbert, Williams, and World Peace. If Russell looks like a future star, it will be much easier to convince a notoriously demanding fan base that refocusing the team around its young point guard is the way to go. That's especially true if the Lakers do not keep their draft pick next summer, because Russell will either be the team's best chance at excellence or a point of attraction for big-name free agents. None of this context is fair to such a young player, but it's long been part of playing for the most consistently successful franchise in league history.
The Lakers are slowly evolving into a more forward-thinking, scrappier organization after years of depending on big-name superstars to propel them to titles. The problem is that much of the franchise still harbors beliefs that impede this process. Byron Scott's ongoing war with advanced analytics has been well documented, but offseason issues such as a bungled first meeting with LaMarcus Aldridge point to larger problems concerning how the organization views its place in the broader NBA landscape. Some of these ideas can be explained by the Lakers' continued reliance on Kobe, which isn't totally shocking given how much he has accomplished for the team and his massive popularity in the city. (It's also true that Hibbert and others were obtained at very good terms.) But there seems to be a disconnect between the more sensible people in the organization, like Mitch Kupchak, and those who continue to believe that the Lakers are always on the brink of a title.
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That's not to say that the latter group is always wrong, because the Lakers have proven time and time again that they really can get a hold of one franchise-changing player more easily than other clubs. Rather, the problem here is that there seems to be an inconsistency of vision within the organization. It could clear as soon as Kobe leaves the team, but for now it appears to have the Lakers in two different modes at once.
Contributor with something to prove:
Kobe Bryant obviously has nothing to prove in terms of his full career — he is arguably the greatest Laker ever and comfortably one of the 10 best players in the history of the sport. However, two years in the wilderness have put him in an awkward position as he enters what could be his last NBA season. At a very old 37, Kobe cannot reasonably be expected to play like a superstar, but he also last had a relatively healthy season when he was at least close to that level. On some level, his own pride and his broader reputation demand that he goes out on a high note.
It's not clear that he can do so with this Lakers team, but it would be reasonable (and very fun) to see Bryant look like his old self in a handful of contests this season. A few epic performances would allow Kobe to hang it up on his own terms.
Potential breakout stud:
Julius Randle's opening-night injury stood as a massive disappointment for a Lakers team looking for any semblance of hope for the future. The good news is that he now returns to the lineup alongside several other nice young pieces. With Hibbert focused on defense and Carlos Boozer out of town, Randle will be given every opportunity to prove himself as an adept low-post option. He will experience the growing pains of any rookie because, no matter the technicalities, that's what he is. But the potential is there for him and Russell to develop chemistry and bring the Lakers into their next era.
Kobe plays 60 games and puts up enough 35-point nights to retire on decent terms, Russell challenges for Rookie of the Year and looks like a future star, Randle cements his spot in the starting lineup, Hibbert improves the defense enough to be not-terrible, Williams and Young do not fight over the ball, Clarkson adjusts to a less ball-dominant role, Scott doesn't last past June, and the Lakers luck out in the lottery to keep a top-three pick.
If everything falls apart:
Kobe suffers another season-ending injury and decides to come back for another season, Russell struggles to establish himself, Randle looks more like a role player than a starter, Hibbert can't help the defense without adequate defenders around him, Clarkson can't take on his lesser role, Williams and Young can't even fight over the ball because the other guards take it from them, Scott is literally shot in the back at a team-building paintball outing, and the Lakers end up having to give the No. 4 pick to the Sixers.
Kelly Dwyer's notoriously unreliable crystal ball:
24-58, 14th in the West.
Read all of Ball Don't Lie's 2015-16 NBA Season Previews:
Atlanta Hawks • Boston Celtics • Brooklyn Nets • Charlotte Hornets • Chicago Bulls • Cleveland Cavaliers • Detroit Pistons • Indiana Pacers • Miami Heat • Milwaukee Bucks • New York Knicks • Orlando Magic • Philadelphia 76ers • Toronto Raptors • Washington Wizards
Dallas Mavericks • Denver Nuggets • Golden State Warriors • Houston Rockets • Los Angeles Clippers • Los Angeles Lakers • Memphis Grizzlies • Minnesota Timberwolves • New Orleans Pelicans • Oklahoma City Thunder • Phoenix Suns • Portland Trail Blazers • Sacramento Kings • San Antonio Spurs • Utah Jazz
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