Los Angeles Lakers are 2 Games Over .500 and Doing the Unexpected (Take that ESPN)

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Larry Nance Jr. posterizes David West.

We are 12 games into the young NBA season and the Los Angeles Lakers have so far managed to not only to be competitive, but to also shock the naysayers who expect this team to finish with under 30 wins…if that! The Los Angeles Lakers under new head coach Luke Walton are 7-5 and have won 6 out out 8 games since starting 1-3. They are doing it with an assist-driven, high tempo offense that keeps defenses on their heels. They are exciting, putting down at least 2 highlight dunks per game and that’s being modest! They are at times playing lockdown defense en route to clutch victories against Houston, Atlanta, Phoenix and Brooklyn and blowouts against Golden State, Sacramento and New Orleans.

This team has by no means crowned a “superstar” or an “alpha male” as of yet. At times D’Angelo Russell has shined in plays like his barrage of threes in the first quarter against Brooklyn and continues to develop into the head of the snake. Nick “Swaggy P” Young has accepted Luke’s challenge and has developed into an effective defender and has regained his shooting touch. Lou Williams has developed into the Lakers’ closer in many of these games and is providing an scoring punch off the bench. Jordan Clarkson is getting ever more dangerous and seems as though he can get his shot anytime he wants to. He too has taken defense much more seriously this year. Julius Randle may be the strongest Lakers player as he notched a triple double already in their last game against the Nets. He is the closest to the total package with developing on-ball defense, an almost indefensible inside shot and great passing ability. That issue with finishing at the basket is almost a non-factor this year.

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Mozgov with one of his many monster dunks! 

Larry Nance is truly the heart and soul of the team and does a little bit of everything. His defensive presence and ability to finish with STYLE in the paint is huge in these games. Timofey Mozgov is proving his worth, altering shots and clogging the paint on defense, while finishing ally oops and being a problem for defenses on the interior. Brandon Ingram is so far ahead of the curve as a rookie, with clutch blocks and clutch plays in games where Luke Walton is comfortable enough to leave him in during crunch time. Tarik Black really had a coming out game against Nets, being tenacious on the glass and creating nasty, NASTY dunks off of great inside passing. All of this taking place as Luol Deng continues to find his footing with this team. Perhaps the biggest reason for their success is that nobody feels the need to be the “Alpha Male”. They share the ball, share the passion, share the blame and share the success.

The Lakers once had an “Alpha Male” named Kobe Bryant. In fact, we are only a few months removed from his stellar 60 point swan song that left Staples Center abuzz even as this capped a historically awful season. While we hate to relive the past (at least the bad memories), we know that this very Kobe Bryant when on his game is the main reason the Lakers hoisted up the Larry O’Brien trophy 5 times and were in playoff and or championship contention during his 20 years as a Laker. However, we would be remiss if we didn’t highlight how things came to a grinding halt on that fateful day at Staples Center against the Golden State Warriors. Although we argued and we hoped, that would mark the rapid decline of the greatest since Jordan.

So as we bridge the gap between the Laker legend and the Lakers youth, the question we ask is, “Where does Kobe fit in all of this?” It would appear to be a stupid question if not for the constant conversation about his last two dismal years, particularly in the wake of drafting the Lakers future stars D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson and Julius Randle. Last year, they brought in the young cocky point guard D’Angelo Russell to hopefully take the torch and run alongside Randle and Clarkson back toward Lakers glory. Of course we know that this was the same year that Kobe would declare this to be his last ride. Then the goal changed from youth development and winning games in the process to keeping Kobe healthy, celebrating Kobe and oh— let’s develop the youth.

So the question becomes, “Did Kobe help develop the young guys and does he have a hand in this year’s success?”

I’m so glad you asked! The answer is yes and no. There is wide speculation on if Kobe even gave the young Lakers and even the old ones (Like Nick Young) any advice or if he had talked to them at all. Some say that Russell pointed out not having guidance from the ones that were supposed to guide him. We already know of his level of confusion under Coach Scott last year. There are mentions of Kobe not really interacting with the team. I have also seen Kobe be somewhat of a coach on the floor during games and rallying the troops when they had those very few victories. So the first issue is whether or not Kobe taught the kids. Well whether or not he had two words to say to D’Angelo Russell is not really on Kobe. To be perfectly honest, when you’ve been in the league as long as Kobe has and have worked as hard as he has and has also had the accolades that he’s had, you don’t necessarily have any obligation to say anything to a rookie no matter how great they expect him to be. Should he teach them? Of course, but obligation? Nah. It seems to make perfect sense to me for a player of D’Angelo Russell’s current NBA status to have to work for such a position that a Carmello Anthony has, such as texting back and forth with Kobe like BFF’s.

What Kobe did for this young Laker team was show them first hand what a legend looks like. Being in his presence and getting a first look at the greatness that he brought to the table for so many years can charge up a young team. There is something about the rare air that Kobe brought in and actually left on the court after his 60 point ending. When you have been touted as the ones destined to pick up where he left off, that hunger translates into the off-season and on the court. Metta World Peace speaks to this very concept. It was up to the players to actually see the benefit in playing alongside Kobe and take whatever they can from him while he donned the Laker jersey.

While Kobe retired in style, another big thing Kobe did was RETIRE. What Kobe left was a torch that was to be taken, not necessarily by one player, but by the whole team. This young core experienced greatness, and then that greatness left an opportunity for them to create their own greatness. As Kobe was on the court with Russell, Clarkson, Nance and Randle, that ball belonged to Kobe. It was still the Kobe show. It was still Kobe’s game to win or lose. It was Kobe taking all the shots. It was Kobe taking the minutes. When you have great players salivating at their opportunity to do the same while learning on the fly, a hunger develops. Now these Lakers can feast! Luke Walton, who also had the ability to take a wealth of knowledge from Kobe, now can temper this wild urge to take their spot in Lakers glory. Nobody can say don’t shoot it. Nobody can yank them out of the game. Nobody can tell them not to take over in the clutch. Each one of these players, and you can add Brandon Ingram, are free to carve their legacy. As talented as these players were, including Lou Williams and Nick Young, all they needed was one man to loose the reigns. That man was actually Kobe Bryant.

With Kobe Bryant out of the picture, Luke Walton wisely instituted a pass-first mentality and a share-the-ball offense that the players are buying into. Perhaps the biggest reason, besides Luke’s amazing ability to empower his players, is that this represents the antithesis of what they experienced just last year. It’s not that no player is special on the team. It’s that ALL the players are special. It’s that Julius can finish inside, Clarkson can spot up from three or score off the dribble, Lou Williams and drive in the middle for a floater, Nick Young can spot up and drain the three when open, Nance can take a pass from Russell and tomahawk slam and Russell can actually bring the ball up and run the offense. This is their team.

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A teaching moment with Luke Walton.

This year Mitch Kupchak, who has been the center of hate the last few years, made some pretty genius moves in putting together a great mix of young extremely talented players with high ceilings along with some veterans that are pretty strong at their respective positions. Furthermore, none of these players are “too good” to listen and implement what Luke brings to the table. Capping those wise draft picks and free agent signings is picking up Luke Walton. Not because he threatened to use the “pine” (sorry Byron) or decided to humble his rookies. Quite the contrary, Brandon Ingram actually played in clutch moments early in his career when Russell sat down in his rookie year. Luke really is just being himself. He knows basketball. His father is Bill Walton. His championship coach was Phil Jackson. He learned from Phil when injured. He won rings under Phil Jackson. He assisted Steve Kerr (who played under Phil Jackson and came from the school of Gregg Poppovich) and won a championship as an assistant coach. He coached Golden State to 24-0 (No fluke by any stretch).

After all that information, the haters still declared, “THIS MEANS NOTHING”. So here goes nothing. The Lakers sit 5th in the Western  Conference at 7-5. Yes they have a tough 5 game stretch that includes the Spurs, Bulls, Thunder and back-to-back games against the Warriors, who would like nothing more than to embarrass the Lakers right back. However, these Lakers are competitive, which was Luke Walton’s goal. They are a team you actually prepare for. When I say prepare, I don’t mean circle it as an easy win and tell your team not to take them lightly just because they suck. I mean prepare as in figure out how you’re going to slow down Randle, get points around Mozgov, keep Nick Young, Lou Williams and Jordan Clarkson off the three point line and keep Larry Nance and Tarik Black off the glass.

The league and the media respect the Los Angeles Lakers once again. The players are having fun and even Laker haters find that this team is fun to watch too. Welcome to the new era of Los Angeles Lakers basketball.

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