Three years ago, the Los Angeles Lakers were in a very different state as a franchise. In fact, on this day, March 8, in 2013, Kobe Bryant had one of his last, great moments of his career by canning a trio of threes in the final minute against Toronto to save the Lakers.
At that time, the Lakers were in a win-now mode with the likes of Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard and Steve Nash on the roster. In the aforementioned Raptors game, the youngest players to make appearances for the Lakers were Jodie Meeks and Earl Clark, both who year 26 years old. The “best” prospects, and I use that term loosely, on the roster itself were Devin Ebanks and Darius Morris.
In the blink of an eye that season, everything changed. As we fast-forward to the present-day Lakers, the only holdover on the roster, sans Kobe, is Robert Sacre.
In the span of three years, the Lakers have completely overhauled their roster and are in an entirely different state as a franchise. Long gone are the days of dreaming of NBA titles as the Lakers look toward a bright future.
Dwight Howard (fortunately) turned down the Lakers, who swapped him out for Julius Randle. Steve Nash retired (many years too late) and the Lakers replaced him with D’Angelo Russell. Pau Gasol darted for greener (and more championship-friendly) pastures and was replaced by Jordan Clarkson.
And the likes of Clark, Meeks, Steve Blake and a younger Metta World Peace have been swapped out for Anthony Brown, Tarik Black, Larry Nance, Jr. and an older Metta World Peace.
With Kobe Bryant’s retirement looming and the future of the Lakers in question unlike it’s been since the summer of 2004, this young core has begun to establish itself and looks ready to lead this franchise into that future.
Since the return from the All-Star break, the young Lakers look like a group ready to break out of the shadow of its Hall of Fame teammate. Whether a new Lakers offense or simply a new “set,” the battle of semantics will still return the same result: the Lakers look like a functional NBA team.
Part of this is due to Byron Scott acknowledging change was needed, especially offensively, while another part that is not as acknowledged has been the development of the core.
Over the last 22 games, which coincides with when he re-entered the starting line-up for an injured Larry Nance, Jr., Julius Randle is averaging 13.3 points, 11.5 rebounds and shooting 46.6 percent from the field. In his last eight games (albeit a much smaller sample size), D’Angelo Russell is averaging 19.9 points, 5.0 assists and firing 49 percent from the three-point line. Over his last 23 games, Jordan Clarkson is 16.7 points, 4.3 rebounds, 2.9 assists and is shooting 42.6 percent from beyond the arc.
Replacing Kobe Bryant with one player would be both impossible and a bad idea. But, together, this trio is taking the weight of the Laker franchise and running with it.
The front office has taken lots of heat, many of it brought upon itself. But with talks and rumblings of clearing house of upper management, it’s important to remember a myriad of factors that have the Lakers where they are now. They swung for the fences with Howard and Nash, struck out and now are bouncing back.
Think back to even two years ago where the Lakers’ best young assets were Robert Sacre and Ryan Kelly. Now, they are two players who could likely be on the chopping block next season.
As much as winning makes everything better, losing makes everything worse, and the Lakers are in a bad way right now. But this is still a franchise that has assembled multiple championship-winning teams. It’s still a franchise that orchestrated trades for Howard, Nash and Chris Paul.
And it’s a franchise that has made some of the best draft-day decisions in recent memory, buying the pick from Washington to select Jordan Clarkson for next to nothing, absorbing Jeremy Lin’s contract for a draft pick that became Larry Nance, Jr. and choosing D’Angelo Russell over Jahlil Okafor, a decision that the jury is still out on but one that looks good one season in.
Admittedly, I pined for the Lakers to consider firing Mitch Kupchak, among others, if they kept Byron Scott around. At the time, the article was written after comments about putting the development of the young players on the back burner for Kobe Bryant’s retirement tour had just come out. There are many things about the article that I still feel strongly about, mainly surrounding the fact that Scott needs to be fired.
But I was wrong.
At the end of the day, this is a front office that has done the best it can with the cards it was dealt. It wasn’t an ordinary deck, filled with a torn Achilles, a free agent turning down millions of dollars to bolt, broken legs, a retiring superstar and a changing climate in the NBA and the salary cap.
Now, it’s a deck filled with a bright future, young talent, cap space, flexibility, and for the first time in many years, optimism for the future.
After relying so heavily on one man for so long, the Lakers have proven they are ready for the post-Kobe Bryant era both on the court and off.