The signs of Fall are all around in Los Angeles; the leaves are falling, another football season has arrived and fans here are watching the Bruins and Trojans, the Dodgers got kicked out of the playoffs, the Kings and Ducks are on the ice, and there is still no NFL franchise in town. Welcome back to the land of make-believe Laker nation. Yup, the 2015-2016 season is officially underway and there are enough stories to build a movie around. How will the team stack up in the West with all of its young talent? What will Kobe Bryant’s 20th, and potentially final, season look like? What will it mean to the team’s playoff aspirations? And their future? There has been a lot of excitement in El Segundo, the kind dreams are made of. “We’ve not had this kind of activity every day…with the kind of energy for as long as I’ve been here,” General Manager Mitch Kupchak said. But that talent hasn’t been tested yet. They will be when they run into the better teams in the conference, like Golden State, San Antonio, and the Clippers; but that leaves a lot of room for their core — D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, and Julius Randle — to learn from what goes wrong, build on what goes right, and improve with time. And a little help from an “average” Kobe Bryant.
The trick is that help from Bryant will mean deferring to his teammates; but he didn’t win five championships, an MVP award, and take third place on the all-time scoring list deferring to anyone. Kupchak would be one to ask, and he expects Bryant to “try to do as much as possible,” if his teammates are not up to speed. Nothing new there. It’s what Bryant has done for 19 years, so with his legacy on the line and $25 million on the table it would be more surprising to see him take a step back, though his injuries may force him to. The playoff picture is where the Lakers’ future starts to look fuzzy. For a franchise that has measured its success in championship terms the prospect of sitting out another postseason is giving way to some grumbling in the front office. The reason for Jim Buss’ pledge to step down if he fails to lead the team to the conference finals in three years is known only to him. Kupchak rejected the idea. “If I agreed we would have traded our picks for veteran players,” Kupchak said. “But we didn’t.” Maybe the “we want Phil!” chants got into Jim’s head. But his statement been enough to lure Jeanie into the mix by promising to hold Jim to that standard if he falls short. The shadow of 16 Larry O’Brien trophies on their shelf is following the team. Stay tuned.
As to the future…it won’t be determined by what happens this year. It could be a lot of fun for fans, maybe even bring 40 wins, but it’s only a step on the road back to respectability. The rebuilding project cannot truly begin until after Kobe Bryant retires. It sounds terrible, almost dismissive to note, considering what he has brought to the Lakers — and the league — but that contract and everything that goes with it leaves the team in transition. The next generation will have to take over at some point. It would be great if Randle, Clarkson, and Russell are the ones to validate the front office mantra of “flexibility” and kick some butt while they’re at it. They might even lure the kind of marquis free agent the front office has been chasing. Either way, the clock is ticking and Mitch Kupchak knows it. “We don’t have the luxury of a 10 year rebuilding program,” Kupchak said. “That is why we have maintained a lot of the flexibility we have with our cap going forward.” The kind of flexibility to lure a Kevin Durant to Tinseltown? Maybe. The future begins tonight at Staples Center, so lift a glass Laker nation as another season begins for the purple-and-gold with the “93rd-best player in the league” leading the way.