A hopeful pause is an improvement for the Lakers. After the circus-like tail end of Kobe Bryant's career and the unwieldy young’n-fest that took them to twenty-six wins last season, they have something like a plan. Or more precisely, they have as much of a plan as the Lakers ever need, which is cap space and a second-tier star (Paul George) who’s almost definitely joining the squad next summer. This scheme wouldn’t come off in Sacramento, but it’s enough for arguably the league’s most famous franchise, which resides in the city where half the league lives during the offseason. LeBron James, Boogie Cousins, and Russ Westbrook are prospective Lakers. They probably won’t all come, but they’re all interested. This would be difficult to explain to people who don’t follow the NBA nor understand the cosmic pull of the Lakers, but it would be pretty shocking if they didn’t get at least one of those three.
This isn’t to oversimplify: Magic Johnson, Rob Pelinka, and company have other business going on in concert with polishing the pitches they’re going to make a little less than a year from now. There’s a possibility Brandon Ingram’s rough rookie season was down to extreme rawness and that he’s soon going to begin to make good on his poor man’s Kevin Durant potential. Julius Randle is still only twenty-two, the age at which he’s either going to settle into perfectly fine-ness or suggest there’s more to his game than rebounding and clever post play. Lonzo Ball, with his bustedly effective jumper and panoramic court vision, is going to be a singular something-or-other, and the process of finding out what starts now. This is all moderately exciting stuff, and if some of it breaks good, it will help the Lakers get to where they always want to be and feel they belong, which is playing every fourth game on national television and competing for titles.
But nobody believes that a core of Ingram, Randle, and Ball will make that happen by themselves. This Lakers season is about developing talents who will become secondary players in the next one. The goal is not to be abysmal—Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Brook Lopez are around, if only for this year—but playoff hopes are slim. Luke Walton is going to see what he’s got from the twenty-two-and-under set and then he’ll likely have to tear up everything next year and build a new offense around George and whoever else shows up and suddenly renders the Lakers able to once again reclaim their idea of themselves.
This is by turns enticing and frustrating. The latter due to a well-founded sense from small market fans that the Lakers don’t entirely deserve this and the former because, hey, we like fresh arrangements of stars, even if the Lakers being great again isn’t novel by itself. And, facing up to reality, Los Angeles is one of the only places this sort of thing can happen. If we like superteams and find them interesting, the Lakers—along with a handful of other franchises: the Heat, the Rockets, the Warriors, the Clippers, the Knicks if they could ever get their house in order—are a means to an end. The league’s owners can write provisions into their collective bargaining agreement with the players that protect the Bucks and Thunder and keep them viable as title contenders if they draft well and get a little lucky, but it’s always going to be hard for them to hold onto talent and even more difficult to acquire more of it. There probably won’t ever be another superteam in Cleveland after LeBron leaves or retires. That’s depressing or not, depending on where you’re sitting, but it’s mostly just a fact of NBA life.
I personally don’t begrudge the Lakers their decades and decades of success. I prefer when they’re competitive even though all that really comes down to is I’m used to stars wearing purple and gold and something seems off when the franchise is starting Nick Young and Timofey Mozgov. You could have parked those Kobe-and-Pau teams in New Orleans and I would have enjoyed them roughly the same amount, but there was something special about them being the Los Angeles Lakers. Prestige is like that: almost illusory and almost real. The Lakers are lousy for a few years and it feels like an anomaly. If the Nets are bad—well, they’re the Nets. You can realize the idiocy of this phenomenon and still be gripped by it. I’m ready for the Lakers to reoccupy to the pedestal they’ve been perched upon for the better part of the NBA’s history. I’m ready for people to complain about it. That’s part of the experience. There’s satisfaction to be found in the restoration of old orders. It’s like how you can smell your home again after you’ve been off on a vacation. And the Lakers’ futility has been, for some, a dalliance in paradise, but you’ve got to return to daily life sometime.
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