Broke the deep lethargy within my head
A heavy thunder, so that I upstarted, Like to a person who by force is wakened;
And round about I moved my rested eyes, Uprisen erect, and steadfastly I gazed, To recognise the place wherein I was.
True is it, that upon the verge I found me Of the abysmal valley dolorous, That gathers thunder of infinite ululations.
Obscure, profound it was, and nebulous, So that by fixing on its depths my sight Nothing whatever I discerned therein.
“Let us descend now into the blind world,” Began the Poet, pallid utterly; “I will be first, and thou shalt second be.”
-- Dante, The Divine Comedy, Inferno, Canto 4
They proceed, slowly, out of the blind world, where they have been for two years, awaiting the departure of the Mighty One who did so much for the franchise before leaving, taking the spirits of all those fans he had served through 19 seasons with him to the next level of rapture.
Kobe Bryant has finally departed, his locker now belonging to rookie and first-round pick Brandon Ingram. But Bryant took all that winning and knowledge with him, too, leaving the young Los Angeles Lakers whose careers had been in limbo to finally go forward, to learn on their own the depths of NBA hell without a tour guide.
The Lakers no longer have to put the franchise on hold while Bryant does a victory lap around the league, his two-year, $48 million deal finally off the books. They are now the team of Ingram, D’Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson and of Julius Randle, Larry Nance, Jr. and rookie center Ivica Zubac … with veterans sprinkled in. The days of deferring everything to Kobe, of watching him take 50 shots, as he did in his last game -- a 60-point celebration of, well, Kobe -- are over.
“We’re just trying to stay focused on the process, to be honest with you,” Clarkson said last week. “This is the first time that we’ve been able to kind of learn from our mistakes, play with each other, learn with each other. The last two years that I’ve been here, we’ve kind of had to deal with situations. At the same time, it was all deserved. But now it’s kind of our time to turn the page and just learn.”
The on-court development will also impact the team’s biggest off-court decision: does team president Jeanie Buss keep or fire her brother, Jim, the team’s executive vice president of basketball operations. He was the one who said in 2014 that he would resign if the team wasn’t going in the right direction by the end of this season. Last month, Jim Buss backtracked a little, saying that he meant that was only where the Lakers were “supposed to be” by the end of this season, and that everyone has to see where the team is by the end of the year before making judgments.
ESPN.com reported a dinner between Jeanie Buss, her longtime close friend Linda Rambis (now a team executive and the wife of former Lakers’ coach and player Kurt Rambis), and Lakers Hall of Famer Magic Johnson at the team’s game at Staples Center last Tuesday with the Denver Nuggets. Maybe it was just dinner. But everything is magnified now.
“I think she is still gathering information,” one friend of Jeanie Buss texted Sunday night.
The Lakers’ slide in the standings under first-year coach Luke Walton -- a not-unexpected development given the relative inexperience of the team’s core -- isn’t helping lessen the tension. After starting 10-10 and igniting hope, the Lakers have been increasingly unimpressive, losing 22 of their last 28 games, including Sunday’s franchise-worst 49-point loss to the Mavericks -- a game where Dallas led by as many as 53.
“This is the first time that we’ve been able to kind of learn from our mistakes, play with each other, learn with each other."
Yet falling through the standings -- at 16-32, only Miami and Brooklyn are worse than L.A. this morning -- isn’t the worst thing for the franchise, even if it doesn’t help Jim Buss’ status going forward.
The Lakers will keep their 2017 first-round pick, in a Draft that’s going to be full of potential impact players, if they finish with a bottom-three record this season. Otherwise, the pick will go to the Philadelphia 76ers, finalizing the Lakers’ Draft pick commitments from the Steve Nash trade in 2012 (the 76ers got the rights to the pick from Phoenix in the three-team trade in 2015 with Milwaukee that sent Brandon Knight from the Bucks to the Suns, and Michael Carter-Williams from the Sixers to Milwaukee).
There’s additional risk to the Lakers for doing well this season.
If the Lakers have to give their 2017 first-round pick to Philly, they’ll also have to give their 2019 first-round pick to Orlando, a final payment for the deal that sent center Andrew Bynum to Philly in 2012 -- a four-team deal with the Nuggets and Magic that brought Dwight Howard from Orlando to Los Angeles. But if L.A. can keep its 2017 first, it can satisfy its obligation to the Magic by giving Orlando second-round picks in ‘17 and ‘18, and keep the ‘19 first-rounder.
There is no conflict inside the team’s locker room, though. Losing corrodes, and Walton hates it even as he understands it’s unavoidable at this stage of the team’s rebuild. Walton came from Golden State, where he was Steve Kerr’s right hand man, to instill some of the values he learned from his playing days with the Lakers. He was a rotation player as the franchise won championships in ‘09 and ‘10, and learned lessons from the Warriors, too, where he won another ring in ‘15 and got to the Finals last season.
“We all know we’ve got a young team here,” Walton said to reporters after the Lakers lost a close game down the stretch to Detroit. “Down the stretch, we’re playing teenagers and 20-year-olds and 21-year-olds, and this is a grown man’s league. And are we good enough to win? Absolutely, we are. But it takes making mistakes.”
The mistakes start on defense, where the Lakers are last in the league in defensive rating -- 110.5 points allowed per 100 possessions -- and 27th in points allowed (110.5 per game). Opponents shoot 48 percent against them -- the worst in the league. Per NBA.com/Stats, opponents score 47.5 points per game in the paint against L.A., second-worst in the league to the Oklahoma City Thunder and score 18.7 points per game off of Lakers’ turnovers (28th in the NBA).
The Lakers struggle with on-ball pressure. And it hasn’t helped that Nance, Jr., part of the team’s best five-man unit defensively (with Clarkson, Lou Williams, Ingram and center Tarik Black), missed the last 15 games with a knee injury before returning Sunday against Dallas. The potential for a long and athletic defense, especially with Clarkson and Ingram on the ball, is there, but it seems so far away.
“You’ve got to value the little things,” Russell said. “The little things are what gets us off to bad starts. It’s what doesn’t allow us to be the best we could be that day. Every day, it’s something little -- missed box out assignments, missed defensive assignments. Just little things like that that add up. It’s never necessarily missing shots or making shots; it’s more just the little things. And the more we value that, I think it’ll speed the process up.”
The jury’s still out on Russell as a floor general and leader almost two years after the Lakers took him second overall in the 2015 Draft. He has a lot of work to do to build trust in his locker room (and this has nothing to do with the Nick Young business last season). (Now, Russell’s going to be slowed further by a sprained right knee.) His fearlessness and self-confidence is necessary in a league full of killer point guards, but he hasn’t accomplished enough yet on the floor to warrant it.
There is still a sense among some in the organization that Russell is still not getting the ball to teammates on time and is still looking too much for his own shot. He says he’s learning the importance of doing just that. He picks Luol Deng’s brain as the two sit together on the team plane about the dos and don’ts of the game.
“Honestly, I’m slowly realizing, like, I don’t know, a routine,” Russell said. “A lot of times, we come out, the ball’s in my hands, and everybody’s looking for me to get guys going, not necessarily just going (myself). And then let everybody follow my lead. Hitting here, swinging it there, making sure he’s getting it, getting there. And then, if it doesn’t work, then everybody’s like, all right, now they’re looking at me instead of being the other way around, me just being aggressive from the gate.”
Walton’s relentless positivity is necessary in so many areas. There is talent on the roster, but it’s young, and young just doesn’t win in this league. Nance is already a YouTube sensation with his highlight-reel dunks. Randle, averaging 8.5 boards per game in less than 30 minutes, is also entrusted to make decisions with the ball, and he’s holding up his end. Among power forwards, only Draymond Green and Blake Griffin are averaging more assists than Randle’s 3.9 per game. He isn’t a stretch four by any means (shooting 23 percent on 3-pointers), but he does a lot of other good things.
"Down the stretch, we’re playing teenagers and 20-year-olds and 21-year-olds, and this is a grown man’s league. And are we good enough to win? Absolutely, we are. But it takes making mistakes."
Ingram has put good performances together of late -- 15 points and seven rebounds in a win over Indiana Friday; 14 points and five rebounds against the Clippers -- and he isn’t even scratching the surface of the shooting touch that he showed in his one season at Duke. But he’s still feeling his way at both ends.
“He’s figuring it out as far as the defensive end,” Russell said of Ingram. “Once you get that one season under your belt, you come back that next season like a completely different person.”
The better news for the Lakers starts with that ‘17 pick. And, ultimately, someone is going to take their free-agent money. Probably. A couple of changes in the next Collective Bargaining Agreement, officially signed by the league and by the union last week, will make things even harder for teams looking to free agency to make big splashes in the next few years.
We already knew that teams will get a “designated veteran’s exception” similar to the exceptions teams already get for players on their rookie deals. The new exceptions will allow teams to keep vets who aren’t yet eligible for 10-year max deals from hitting free agency. And we knew that “Over 36” contracts will now become “Over 38” contracts, which should help teams with aging star veterans keep them by being able to offer five-year max deals to players who turn 38 at any point during the contract. Those changes will likely keep potential superstar talents like Stephen Curry from ever hitting the open market. Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook, long believed to be a potential Lakers target, already took himself off the 2017 market by agreeing to a three-year extension with the Thunder last summer.
But the new deal also finalizes a bump in the “apron” -- the amount over the luxury tax that teams cannot exceed. Teams that want to use the non-taxpayer mid-level or bi-annual exceptions, or that get free agents in sign-and-trade deals, will now be able to go up to $6 million above the tax level to acquire those players, up from the current $4 million limit. (The max amount above the apron will rise or fall beginning in 2018-19 at one-half the rate of the increase or decrease in the salary cap of that particular season.)
That bump in the apron will give the highest-spending teams even more flexibility to make deals to keep or acquire players. It could in theory help the Lakers, who certainly have and are always willing to spend the money. But it can help other big-spending teams, too.
The Lakers didn’t even go after Durant this summer. Their first pitch and first splash, instead, was giving former Cleveland Cavaliers center Timofey Mozgov a four-year, $64 million deal in the first days of free agency. A four-year, $70 mlllion deal for Deng followed, and the Lakers extended Clarkson for four years and $50 million as well.
Los Angeles can still easily pursue a max free agent next summer, even with the new contracts on the books, but Mozgov hasn’t been an interior force on offense, and Deng doesn’t look like the Deng of old on defense. In the NBA’s new TV-contract soaked world, the deals aren’t indefensible; But they haven’t been very impactful, either, and that’s something Jeanie Buss is considering as she contemplates her brother’s future.
“She’s hearing from enough people that those two signings were not strong enough signings,” said one person who’s spoken with her recently.
There is nothing wrong with the Lakers’ bottom line -- they’re still in the top half of the league in attendance (at 99 percent of capacity at Staples), they’re still the most profitable team in the league, well into their 20-year local TV deal with Spectrum SportsNet, and Forbes still values the franchise at $2.7 billion, second-highest in the NBA to the Knicks, with revenues of more than $300 million, in the magazine’s annual rankings of teams last year.
Jeanie Buss is sharp and patient, and GM Mitch Kupchak remains well-regarded around the league. Walton, beloved in L.A., put a strong, teaching staff together, and will get every chance to succeed. But how long will it take for the Lakers to be the Lakers again?
Limbo was just the first of the nine rings of Hell in the Divine Comedy. It took a long time to traverse Hell and Purgatory before reaching Paradise. “So many streams have filled my mind with gladness,” Dante said as he arrived, “so many, and such gladness, that mind must rejoice that it can bear this and not burst.”
Even then, the highways to Heaven were clogged, the side streets barely passable. It is unclear if Dante, or these Lakers, packed a lunch.
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