The new Laker train has left the station

9609628-julius-randle-stephen-curry-tarik-black-nba-preseason-golden-state-warriors-los-angeles-lakersAfter years of clouds and rain in Laker-land evinced by repeated injuries, echoes of “we want Phil” chants, an extended playoff drought, lottery picks, and the ongoing duel with Philadelphia’s 76’ers over annual losses the purple-and-gold finally have a chance to climb out of the Pacific Division’s cellar this season. The franchise still does not have enough money to buy back its former glory, despite Jim Buss’ determined pursuit of that ghost while he gently eased Kobe Bryant and that $48 million contract out of the gym. At this point I’m not watching from an overcast city expecting to see playoff glory, even the kind Clippers’ fans are so heartbreakingly familiar with, just a few signs that the meandering string of 60-loss seasons is over, and it looks like there will be some.

The Buss twins’ move towards Luke Walton is a good start since the star forward’s predecessors were placeholders: Mike D’Antoni was hired to bring about a quick turnaround with a quick offense; Byron Scott managed the fall after Jim Buss’ gambit failed. The new coach is an ex-Warriors assistant Steve Kerr described as “the most laid-back guy on Earth” and regularly had music thumping at training camp. It sounded like General Manager Mitch Kupchak would have found an out of control pick-up game if he visited the Lakers’ in Santa Barbara…but there’s something more to consider. Among the team’s big four — Brandon Ingram, D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, and Julius Randle — Clarkson is the only one that could get a beer at LA Live.

The 24-year-old Missouri star was also the sole beneficiary of Byron Scott’s hard-nosed style. It wasn’t easy to see at the time; I thought the coach was right to move Clarkson and Randle to the second team and discourage Nick Young from shooting so many three-pointers, but it didn’t work. What’s evident now is that Kobe’s one-time mentor wasn’t communicating with his charges, so he couldn’t get results. Scott’s style didn’t hold Clarkson back the way it did his peers, presumably because the former 46th pick is a savvy gym rat with experience his younger comrades didn’t have. This is where Walton can make a difference by doing more than cutting minutes and moving struggling players to the bench. According to Clarkson that has meant reviewing film of mistakes on defense and inviting referees to scrimmages to help them defend without fouling.

Even the best coach will have nights when his team stumbles, when the Lakers recurring troubles with fouling, turnovers, and transition defense resurface like they did in losses to Utah and Oklahoma City. This year’s campaign is going to feature a few games like the one against Mike D’Antoni’s squad and a lot of games like its sequels; fans who were on board when Kobe tore his Achilles tendon know that. The season ahead will offer plenty of opportunities: we will find out if the purple-and-gold overpaid for Timofey Mozgof, whether or not D’Angelo takes on some of Nick Young’s bad habits, and see what chance Julius Randle or JClark have at winning the “most improved player” award. It won’t be easy for fans in a championship-starved city to endure for a season or two while this bunch works its way back to the playoffs, but that win against Golden State helps.

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October 31, 2016 · 3:43 am

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