Expectations are always high in ‘La-La-Land’ and this summer is no different. Three consecutive seasons of being nothing short of awful have now left the Los Angeles Lakers with an abundance of young talent, but without any clear direction. An almost smug attitude towards the gravitas that their franchise suggestively holds has backfired in recent years, where general manager Mitch Kupchak has had zero luck in tempting big name free agents to play under the bright lights of Hollywood. Long gone are the days when the Lakers could infiltrate fear in the hearts of their opposition with one glance from Kobe Bryant.
Instead, recent years have given way to embarrassing results, with squads containing pathetic players such as Roy Hibbert that wouldn’t even get near the dressing rooms of Phil Jackson’s title winning teams of the millennium, let alone play in one. TV deals have caused historically smaller teams in the league to burst through the ‘huge-market’ bubble that LA and others had been living in for years. Selling the concept of championship contention seems far more appealing than purely just excess attention in cities including Los Angeles and New York.
Due to performing so badly, the consolation prize happened to be three lottery picks in the last three drafts. 2015 marked the first time the Lakers had had a top two selection since choosing James Worthy in 1982. Enter Julius Randle, D’Angelo Russell and Brandon Ingram, the most promising talent on the roster to come out of the drafts, in what feels like an eternity, and suit up in the famous purple and gold jersey.
Russell had a topsy-turvy debut season, where off-court issues distracted from a relatively solid stretch towards the latter end of the year. Randle also impressed, playing 81 games and averaging a double-double and with Ingram coming into the fold, the Lakers do for once finally find themselves in a desirable position. A new head coach in Luke Walton has also arrived with fresh ideas expected, coming off of an outstanding stint filling in for Steve Kerr at the Golden State Warriors, where he oversaw the second best start in league history.
The necessary pieces are there in order for the Lakers to grow and potentially become a perennial playoff team in the mould of the Oklahoma City Thunder. A position this basketball powerhouse has not been accustomed to for many years, after solely making it an objective to chase ready-made stars since the emergence of Kobe Bryant. Patience is key to ensure this and the change in culture that Lakers fans are seeing may allow this to actualise. Walton has already promised an up-tempo game that contrasts heavily with former coach Byron Scott’s lethargic and stagnant style of play, relying greatly on ineffectual mid-range jump shots.
Whether they make a splash in free agency or once again flounder, the youth should be allowed to express their freedom on the court, so that at the very least some progress can be made. Rumours of DeMar DeRozan ‘coming home’ have been rife for a while now, along with the hopeful return of UCLA alum Russell Westbrook to LA in 2017. With a reported $60 million in cap space to spend, these moves should be followed up aggressively, as particularly a player like Westbrook can instantly transform the Laker’s chances in the Western Conference from a middling presence to a genuine force.
However, the chances of Westbrook making the move at this moment in time are slim due to the uncertainty that still remains within the Los Angeles franchise. Therefore the focus on the talented youth is integral in regaining some of the credibility lost in recent years. This subsequently would create an environment that high profile free agents find enticing and difficult to turn down, especially when the location is taken into account. Experienced leaders in the dressing room are vital to mentor players, particularly Russell. Hence, names that are available such as Al Horford, Nicolas Batum and Joakim Noah should be seen as priorities for Kupchak to help construct a productive model for years to come.