LOS ANGELES – Most of these young Lakers had grown accustomed to the Staples Center cheering on Kobe Bryant’s farewell, a separate season within the franchise’s most lost year of all. They had grown accustomed to the cheering of wayward, contested shots on the way out the door, on a young team trying to say hello when a legend was saying goodbye.
As the final seconds bled away on a 120-114 opening-night victory on Wednesday over Houston, something had changed here. Everyone was cheering an ambitious young coach molding an ambitious young group. They are a long, long way from the Showtime Lakers, but everyone could see: Finally, they’ve started on the way somewhere now.
“I’ll tell you what it felt like: It felt like a home game,” guard D’Angelo Russell told The Vertical outside his locker on Wednesday night. “Last year, we had Kobe and the fans. We had some diehard Lakers fans, and Kobe fans. But we had so many guys who didn’t have identities for the fans to recognize. But today, it felt like a home game.
“You go to Utah, or Houston – and they’re rooting for their team. Here, this is the home of the NBA. People come to the see the show, too. Don’t get me wrong: They’re all Lakers fans, they’re incredible, but they want to see the show, too.”
Russell is 20 years old and blossoming into a worthy No. 2 overall draft pick: He had 20 points. Julius Randle had 18 points, seven rebounds and six assists. Jordan Clarkson had 25 points. And the youngest of them all, Brandon Ingram – who sits in Bryant’s old locker stall – delivered flashes of his gifts, bringing the ball up the floor at 6-foot-9, guarding James Harden and making hard shots seem so, so easy.
The Lakers aren’t a playoff team this year – nor next. Yet it’s clear that Luke Walton is successfully selling the values of selflessness and hard play, cultivating a system where there had largely been dysfunction and chaos. The Lakers are growing talent, placing a premium on player development. All in all, the Lakers are rejoining the modern NBA now.
On the first full night of the league’s schedule, there were superstar performances everywhere. Anthony Davis dropped 50 points. DeMar DeRozan had 40. Russell Westbrook closed out the 76ers in the final minutes, totaling 32 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists. And here at Staples Center, in Mike D’Antoni’s souped-up Rockets offense, Harden had gone for 34 points and 17 assists.
Commissioner Adam Silver was watching courtside at Staples, fully aware of this unmistakable NBA truth: The league is always stronger, always more vibrant and relevant, when the Los Angeles Lakers matter. Now, they have two years to develop this young core of Russell and Randle, Ingram and Clarkson, for the free-agent class of 2018.
In two years, two sons of Southern California – Indiana’s Paul George and Oklahoma City’s Westbrook – can become free agents and consider coming home. In their recent state of disrepair, the Lakers have been fully unappealing to superstar free agents. Kevin Durant wouldn’t take a meeting with them. The Lakers called the reps of Memphis’ Mike Conley on July 1, only to be told they wouldn’t be seriously considered. Miami center Hassan Whiteside passed, too.
Now, the Lakers are starting the climb out of a dark place. There are no easy fixes, no saviors to rescue them. Those days are long gone. They played tough-minded ball in the final minutes, made stops and found a way to make the Staples Center loud again, found a way to inspire a noise for something bigger than a one-man show, a farewell tour.
“We have the talent,” Russell told The Vertical. “We have the coach. We can do some things this year.”
This is how a franchise starts again, how it hits the reset button and starts the long journey back to relevance. There will be a lot of losses at Staples Center this season, but these won’t be wasted nights. The Lakers have a coach, young talent and a roadmap to start on the way to mattering again. It’s been too long here, and the franchise has a long, long way to go. Anyway, this felt like the start of something on Wednesday night, not the end.
For the Los Angeles Lakers, that’s progress. For the Lakers, no more endings, no more goodbyes. Something’s started here again. Yes, this was progress.
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