Fittingly, Lakers star Kobe Bryant sits in front of a sign that reads "Showtime: Brace Yourself" as Bryant speaks about a project at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on July 18, 2014 in Beverly Hills, California.
Kobe Bryant will be back. Is that positive enough for you? It’s time to push aside the negativity and promulgate the truth about the 2014-15 Los Angeles Lakers.
The biggest difference between the 2013-14 Lakers, which finished with the worst record since the team moved to LA, and the 2014-15 Lakers is a man that goes by one name: “Kobe.” Yes, one of the best players in the history of the game may be 35-years-old (and turning 36 before the season starts) but the last time no. 24 actually played a season, he averaged 27 points, six rebounds and six assists.
To put those numbers in perspective, Nick Young led the laughingstock Lakers with 18 points per game. The last time Bryant averaged 18 or fewer points in a season, Del Harris was still the coach and Eddie Jones was starting at shooting guard. To what extent Bryant’s knee fracture and Achilles injury have hampered the superstar remains to be seen, but his intellect, knowledge and experience are ineluctable.
As much as the season of failure was pinned on former coach Mike D’Antoni, the 2014-15 Lakers had more wins than losses a month after opening night. Then, the injuries hit. Lakers athletic trainer Gary Vitti still probably wakes up in a cold sweat from nightmares of players queuing up for treatment. At one point during the injured season, the Lakers’ medicine man turned to reporters as they received one of the never-ending injury updates and joked with a look of genuine disbelief that the only people not on the injury table were media members (I promptly told Vitti about my ankle/Achilles injury which didn’t make him feel any better...p.s. follow me @shahanLA).
Okay, so a healthy Bryant alone is a massive improvement from the season to forget. However, he is not alone.
The Lakers have not had a consistent point guard worth talking about since Derek Fisher, who truthfully was more of a leader than a traditional point guard. The 2014-15 Lakers have Jeremy Lin, who can handle the ball, shoot from the outside and score the basketball. With Steve Nash aging (already aged is likely more accurate), Lin’s inclusion automatically improves that position and gives the Lakers another backcourt scoring threat.
Rookie Jordan Clarkson also seems like he was an intelligent pick-up, and the young point guard with a Filipino following stood out during the Lakers’ involvement in the NBA Summer League.
Yes, the Lakers lost Pau Gasol. However, at his age and with his weakened knees, Gasol was visibly slower and less effective on both ends of the floor. Gasol remained a champion and a true professional even after he announced his departure to Chicago, but the Lakers’ acquisition of Carlos Boozer is not nearly as significant of a drop-off as many made it out to be. Boozer also cost the Lakers a whole lot less money.
With rookie Julius Randle adding tenacity and fresh hunger to the team, the Lakers could easily argue that they have upgraded the front court from a season ago. For anyone wishing to point to Chris Kaman’s departure as a downgrade, the bearded giant spent as much time lying across the bench as he did running up and down the floor.
Jordan Hill, who will likely see time at center if not start there, should actually earn consistent playing time to finally prove his true value. With big power forwards helping on the boards and in the lane, Hill’s undersized stature may not be as exposed as one would think. Worth remembering, the 2013-14 Lakers ranked sixth from the bottom in rebounding and defense was non-existent. Honestly, how can they possibly be worse?
Young played well and entertained fans in a painful season, but Xavier Henry and Ryan Kelly also provided brief sparks of electricity. Having all three players back is a positive move. Assuming all three can stay healthy and show improvement, the Lakers can look to build on the few bright spots in the darkest of seasons.
Wesley Johnson played out of position for the vast majority of his lone season in LA, but his athleticism still shone through. Like Hill, Johnson will finally get the opportunity to prove what he can do without being undermined by the coach’s philosophy. Can he be the defensive specialist he was meant to be? Playing small forward is already an improvement on Johnson being constantly outmatched at power forward.
Also worth mentioning, the 2014-15 Lakers will likely practice and play something resembling defense. D’Antoni is gone (hold for applause). For all his flaws (and there were many) it is impossible to blame D’Antoni for the injury curse that took hold of the Lakers.
The 2014-15 Lakers may not look like they’re built to contend for a title, but they don’t look like a team contending for last place either. Hopefully, the injury spell is broken, the Lakers are no longer an embarrassment and, most importantly, “Kobe” is back.