Thursday, April 16, 2015

Lakers Franchise Worst Season Finally Over (4.15.15)

It's finally f****** over.

82 games, 61 losses, the worst season in Los Angeles Lakers history, expired.  

The caustic dread of winning can finally be let go.  The numbness of losing can be forgotten, and hopefully, lead to a catharsis of sorts as the Lakers have an 83% chance of nabbing a top-5 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft.  

83%, that's what this entire season has been all about.  Either the Lakers land in the top-5 of the draft, or their pick will go to the Philadelphia 76ers, and this season will be even more of a worthless endeavor.

There was a time for optimism, but that came shattering down in the fourth quarter of the first game of the season.  Julius Randle broke his leg, and it was clear, this season was going to be a purgatory of sorts.  

Despite the lack of hope, and the terrible product on the court, I watched every single minute of the first 43 games, aka, the games (mostly) featuring Kobe Bryant and his (gulp) 37% shooting (after starting the first 27 games, Bryant sat out 8 of the next 16).

Since then, I've had every single game on, but my focus waned.  Simply put, for the final 25 games or so, the game was on in the background, and I'd only really start paying attention if the score was close entering the fourth quarter.  I'd perk up if I heard Stu Lantz get excited, but other than that, watching Jordan Hill isolations, Jeremy Lin turnovers, and Wesley Johnson clanks was just too much to take.  It was nice to watch Jordan Clarkson play meaningful minutes and develop into a possible All-Rookie First Team guard, but watching his emergence always carried a stinging edge, as Randle should have been doing the same damn thing.

Oddly enough, I enjoyed watching those first 43 games.  The Lakers were just 12-31, but Bryant showed that he still had a lot left in the tank. I felt that he displayed enough to prove that a halfway decent supporting cast around him could at least lead to a competitive race to the playoffs in the gauntlet known as the Western Conference.

But, then it happened, again. Bryant went strong to the rim, flushed home a two handed dunk, and tore his rotator cuff.  Another basketball play that Bryant has made thousands of times, another season ending injury.  Father time truly is undefeated.  I thought Bryant had a chance to take him 12 rounds, but it seems he can't get out of the 10th.  

Bryant can still be very productive, and I really love his transition to that of a playmaker, but long gone are the days of 50-point explosions and carrying a team on his back.  Bryant needs help, and despite his erosion, he definitely has the tools to make others better.  The best moment of the season had to be Bryant dishing out a career-high 17 assists against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.  However, it is clear, a caving defense on a soon to be 37-year-old perimeter player is just too much to overcome without surrounding talent to keep the defense honest.  

Sadly, Bryant won't be receiving that help this summer.  Sure, another top draft pick, Randle, the emerging Clarkson, there's some real pieces there, but it won't all come together anytime soon, and Bryant is doomed to one last hellish season.  For a player that went to seven NBA finals in a stretch of ten seasons, this sort of ending must be preordained.  The man won his first championship at the age of 21, something only Magic Johnson can relate to (and possibly Kawhi Leonard if his career plays out as it should), but his last meaningful playoff game came at the age of 33.  

There will be no Duncanesque renaissance, no Michel Jordan "Last Shot," Bryant's end will be, sadly, irrelevant (much like Jordan's Wizards tenure in fact - I remember watching Allen Iverson hug Jordan after blowing him out and hanging 35 on him, to Jordan's 15; it was such an odd moment, the love was profound, but the insignificance of the game clouded the celebrated ending, especially considering how Jordan called it quits the previous time).  

Assuming guys like LaMarcus Aldridge, Marc Gasol, DeAndre Jordan, Robin Lopez, and Greg Monroe aren't signed by the Lakers this offseason, Bryant's Lakers won't sniff the playoffs (if you are paying attention, I purposely did not mention Rajon Rando, his lack of shooting/spacing ability just won't work with the Lakers, and stunting Clarkson's growth would not be wise).  Hell, with Bryant's recent injury history, it wouldn't surprise me to see him play about 50 games or so before having to shut it down again.

But, wait! Such season ending injuries, ironically, may actually extend Bryant's career.  With 55,000 career minutes on his odometer, 8,600 of which are playoff minutes (which should count as double), is it possible that the 4,400 minutes played in the past three seasons may actually be a good thing for Bryant (3,000 of which were in 2012-13)? Is it possible that there could be a Duncanesque renaissance?  It certainly won't be next season, but the season after?  Bryant could finally shut up his detractors that have been dogging him for taking a two year, $48.5 million extension by taking a Duncan/Nowitzki deal in 2016-17, likely a one or two year deal on the cheap if he feels confident the Lakers can sign a superstar free agent and contend for one last run.

There certainly will be options for the 2016-17 season.  Kevin Durant will be available in the summer of 2016, as will Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Al Jefferson, and mid-to-upper tier guys such as Goran Dragic, Danilo Gallinari, Thaddeus Young, and Mike Conley, and if they opt in for 2015, LeBron James, Kevin Love, and Brook Lopez, and if they opt out for the 2016 season, Chris Paul, DeMar DeRozan, and Chandler Parsons.  That's a whole lot of talent that will be available in one summer.  

Question is, will Bryant make it past his 20th season?  He's given numerous indications that 2015-16 will be his final season, but I interpreted many of those comments as jabs at the front office to put some talent around him in a hurry.  Assuming Randle turns into a real player, the Lakers land a promising rookie in the draft, Clarkson continues improving, and Bryant shows he still has enough in the tank, the Lakers would really be a prime spot for a marquee free agent (odd to say, considering the Lakers have always been a prime spot for marquee free agents).  Not even the stink of Jim Buss could deter free agents if those scenarious play out.

If patience is something Bryant is willing to practice, it could pay dividends.  Bryant certainly can't feel great about Duncan stealing his title as the "Best Player of His Generation," especially when it came so late in the game.  Bryant held that title for so damn long, and then Duncan made two Finals runs, and beat James and the Miami Heat to match Bryant's five rings.  Add up the years of 50+ consecutive wins, the years of steady playoff runs, and the title of "Greatest Power Forward of All-Time," and Duncan has pulled off an upset of sorts.  In my eyes, Duncan can't touch Bryant's sheer magnetism, he can't touch repeat championships (a real knock in my eyes), and he can't touch seven Finals appearances in ten seasons, but in the eyes of others, Duncan's consistent winning, and his latest championship at the age of 37 have put him over the top.  No doubt, the competitive drive of Bryant has to be churning.  Bryant has mentioned his envy of Duncan's consistency, from teammates, to coach Popovich, to the front office, so I'm quite sure he would like to prove that he can age just as gracefully.

Overall, Lakers fans that stuck with this team over the past couple of seasons can lay claim to being true fans.  We've finally experienced the torment that every single franchise has had to undergo at one point or another.  We've suffered the downturn.  We've rooted for lottery odds. We've been disappointed by Clarkson game winning layups.  No franchise has stayed up for so long, missing the playoffs in consecutive years for the first time since the 1974-75 and 1975-76 seasons isn't so terrible.  We no longer have Mike D'Antoni parading the sidelines, at least that's a positive (Bryon Scott has taken some hits, but his player development of Clarkson, Tarik Black, Ed Davis, and Jabari Brown cannot be overlooked, and the effort he got from his squad despite the losing record was admirable).  We have some young talent that may potentially serve as a damn good nucleus for years to come.  And we still have Kobe.  

At the very worst, next season will be our final terrible season in a long time.  At the very best, the Lakers may turn this thing around and jump right back into contention in less than a year (come on Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook riffs, I'm counting on you Oklahoma City media!).  Either way, this crappy season is over, and for the first time all season, great basketball will be on every night (at least in the Western Conference).  Enjoy the playoffs everybody, we'll be back there soon enough.