DimeMag

Why Every Basketball Fan Should Care About This Season’s Los Angeles Lakers

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The 2015-16 NBA Season starts soon, preseason hoops are in full swing, and playoff prognostications have begun in earnest. Since season previews can get bogged down by team-specific minutiae, and we cover every basketball team, we’re providing our readers reasons why you should care about all 30 teams in the Association.


DIME MAG’s 2015-16 NBA Season Previews


Most of Southern California will care too much about this team, and give the Clippers a complex in the process. That’s not fair, but the world isn’t fair, so Clippers fans should chill. You live in Southern California. Life could be worse.

The Lakers are important to a lot of people, but the discernible absence of them on Twitter the last couple of years has been like when you’re sitting next to a crying toddler on a long flight and all of a sudden their angelic parents slip them a teaspoon of some organic sleeping aid. That might be an overly harsh assessment of their fan-base (and it wouldn’t be my first time), but they’re just not very good and yet the networks thrust them down our throats on the regular.

We wonder why.

Julius Randle is intriguing, and D’Angelo Russell’s pass-first mentality has some merit, even if it’s couched in his inability to knock down an outside shot. Roy Hibbert might be the answer for their stunning lack of rim protection last season, but there’s only one reason — and one reason only — the 2015-16 Lakers matter.

Bean. Vino. Mamba. Whatever ridiculous moniker you use to supplant Kobe Bean Bryant in your everyday conversation, he remains one of the more polarizing forces on the planet. Like Bernie Sanders, but with an Italian/Philly/Southern Cali — rather than a Brooklyn — lilt to his vernacular (that’s a roundabout way of saying, he’s accent-less). A lot of people seem to irrationally hate him; they think he’s a cocksure, ball dominant, egomaniac who thrives on demeaning teammates and competitors alike. Some even throw out 2003 and that Colorado hotel room.

Others, and we’d put ourselves in this category, have grown to really admire how thought-provoking he’s become off the court and how he’s mellowed — just a tad — on it. He’s not shooting death daggers at his teammates quite as much, and he seems to relish this opportunity to teach and preach rather than scowl and prowl.

But how will he actually perform this season, and is there any way in hell he’s able to just walk away when the year is up?

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Focusing on the strengths, weaknesses, and general prospects of a single player is never the best way to assess an NBA franchise. Basketball is a team sport, after all, and sweeping schematic shifts of the league in general have ensured that every player on the court matters at all times.

The same goes true for team-building. Possessing elite players will always be the surest way to lasting contention, but leveraging the impact of those luminaries to its maximum is what wins titles – and that’s done by surrounding them with ancillary pieces who fill very specific roles. But achieving that unique cohesion is a process, one that takes multiple years to complete and involves nearly as many valleys as peaks.

The Los Angeles Lakers, after a season of treading water, have begun it. D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, and Jordan Clarkson represent a promising young core that points this franchise in a more positive direction than its been headed for half a decade. Even if they don’t develop into upper-echelon starters, the presence of those three youngsters will ensure the Lakers are taken more seriously on the free agent market going forward – where they’ve fallen woefully short each of the past three summers.

This season is just the first step on Los Angeles’ road to competing for titles. Individual development is what 2015-16 should be about for the Lakers, and the coaching staff, upper management, and even some fans finally seem willing to accept the inevitable growing pains that will come with it.

For partisan and nonpartisan basketball fans around the world, though, this season represents something much different in Los Angeles: the last chance to see Kobe Bryant play in the NBA.

There’s no guarantee that the future Hall of Famer will retire come April. But Bryant’s much-maligned contract expires at the end of the year, and his objectively poor performance in 2014-15 suggested his time as an impact player is definitely over. Even if the 37-year-old wants to keep grinding beyond this season, will he accept a new reality as a glorified role player? And if not, will the Lakers – or any team, for that matter – be comfortable allowing Bryant to play like his younger self?

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Those are important, depressing questions that certainly deserve scrutiny. But at least for the beginning of 2015-16, we hope the hoops world will be content with simply watching Bryant instead of pondering his uncertain future – or even bemoaning his inevitably substandard play.

To expect a 20-year veteran who’s recently been ravaged by injuries – no matter his legacy, skills, or reputation –  to make a consistently positive impact is unrealistic. More likely than Bryant regaining anything close to his peak form is another season cut drastically short by health woes. A right knee bruise has already kept the five-time champion from multiple exhibition contests; Byron Scott would be extremely luck if that type of injury is the only one from which Bryant suffers once the real games tip off later this month.

Which is exactly why these first few weeks of the regular season must be cherished. Bryant should be more physically fit than he’s been in years, and he’ll have yet to smell the stink of playing for a losing team. If he were to ever briefly enjoy a blast from the past, wouldn’t it be in late October and November?

We doubt it happens. But like every basketball fan who ever had the pleasure of watching Bryant play the game over the last two decades, we’ll be watching just in case – and hoping he proves us wrong.

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There’s no way this ends well, right? MJ didn’t adjust well to retirement, and Kobe so closely resembles MJ it’s impossible not to compare the two. Will Kobe retire, wait a couple years, then buy into the Hornets and suit up to ruin a No. 1 pick?

We really hope not, and not because we’re one of those Mamba sycophants among the younger millennials who never sentiently saw MJ during his first three-peat. No, MJ is still the GOAT, but we’ve really come to admire Kobe right as he’s gone under the knife so many times over the last three years. It’s humbled him just enough we can now root for him without having to take a shower.

The Lakers aren’t making the playoffs this year. Even their owner acknowledges that’s not where they’re at as a franchise right now. Kobe doesn’t think that way. He thinks like a Tyger, but his corporeal shell is more Lamb. That’s what Father Time does. Youth is wasted on the young or some other aphorism that you don’t care about. But Kobe is almost a walking aphorism about competition at this point.

Dylan Thomas wrote an obnoxiously famous poem about what Kobe’s 2015-16 season is turning into. As mentioned above, Bean couldn’t even survive the preseason without getting banged up, and that’s a bad sign. The chances he plays even 60 games this season is a prop bet we wouldn’t take.

But our feelings have flipped so severely, we really hope he does. The Lakers have some fun younger pieces, and Byron Scott seems to have shirked his anachronistic anger towards the three-point line. Hibbert will make them better on the defensive side of the ball, and Randle’s little lefty just inside the paint tugs at the heartstrings because you can see some Lamar in those movements.

Despite all this, the Lakers have won so often and with so many different dominant players that to feel any sort of sympathy for their fan-base is an insult to Timberwolves, Hornets, Nuggets*, Clippers, Grizzlies, Pelicans and Raptors fans in the world.

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But Kobe Bryant is one of the greatest players of all time, and you really don’t want him to go out like this. Maybe he’s got one more big f*ck you to the ravages of time. Maybe he’ll stay healthy throughout this season and drill a couple more game-winners so we get to see that lower jaw pop out just one more time with that right arm poised perpendicular to the court.

One thing we do know, and forgive us for again ripping off poor liver-addled Dylan again, but Kobe never does anything gently. We don’t expect that’ll change when he’s finally forced to say goodbye to the game he’s played at such a high level for so long. Rage is something Bryant can get behind, and that anger that was once such an annoyingly self-aggrandizing characteristic is now the very thing we’re hoping can salvage him from a tepid swan song. Go ahead and rage Kobe; we appreciate that about you now and this year was always more like a dirge, anyway.

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