April 13, 2016.
The day that the Los Angeles Lakers and its adoring fanbase expected to shed many tears, watching Kobe Bryant don the purple and gold armor one final time, turned out to be by far the most exhilarating moment of a dreadful 17-win season, the worst in franchise history.
Bryant replaced tears of sorrow with those of joy, giving the NBA one last jaw-dropping performance, hanging 60 points on the same franchise that he hoisted four airballs against in crunch time of an elimination game as an 18-year-old rookie. The moment he launched the basketball to the other end of the court to Jordan Clarkson for the game-sealing dunk served as the final play of Bryant’s career, officially closing the book on a 20-year era filled with success.
You could not ask for a better ending from an individual standpoint for Bryant on that April night, as he led the comeback in his 60-point finale with yet another clutch performance. The defining moment, however, was his embrace of Larry Nance, Jr. followed by Clarkson, Julius Randle and D’Angelo Russell, almost as if to say, “It’s your turn, now.” The script was written perfectly for that night, and it has cascaded into the early offseason events.
Immediately following that magical night came the violent tug back to reality that was the possibility of Byron Scott returning for his third season as the head coach of the Lakers. Reports started to circulate that he may be given a chance to coach without the distraction of his former teammate’s farewell tour, but the rumors became nothing more. General manager Mitch Kupchak and vice president of basketball operations Jim Buss elected to part ways with their friend, seeking a fresh start with a new generation. With Scott and Bryant gone, the Lakers had officially cut ties from its past.
The dismantling of the Scott experiment absolutely had to be done after hitting what the team hopes is rock bottom. After watching the win total continue its plummet over the course of the last three seasons, it was not simply a matter of getting rid of the problem, but rather a massive shift in the mentality.
In the summer of 2014, Scott was considered for the vacant head coaching position along with a few other retreads that sullied the entire process, which lasted all the way into July, well after the beginning of free agency. Two years later, the Lakers wasted no time, as their mindset had taken a complete turn. This time around, they valued upside and potential over experience.
Enter Luke Walton, a 36-year-old assistant coach considered by many to be the most coveted coaching candidate on the market this summer. The former Laker player was sitting pretty as the lead assistant for the defending champion Golden State Warriors, filling in for half the season in Steve Kerr’s place en route to a historic 73-9 season. Walton could practically choose any available job he wanted to, and he chose the Lakers.
For the first time in years, the Lakers’ front office had a decisive plan and executed it to surprising perfection. Their vision for the future of the franchise aligned seamlessly with that of Walton’s. Los Angeles was ready to evolve and adapt to the modern style of basketball, emphasizing motion, floor spacing, ball movement and three-point shooting, and they found the perfect man for the job.
After ridding themselves of one of the worst NBA coaches in several years, the Lakers turned to one that is the complete opposite in so many regards. Instead of being held back, the young Lakers will now be empowered to be themselves with a coach that will cater to them and help them grow.
However, as exciting as landing a top coaching candidate was, it was just one step in a large process that is one of the biggest offseasons in the history of the Lakers.
For any coach to reach the lofty expectations that come with being in Los Angeles, they need talented players. The Lakers were off to a good start, especially considering how bleak their future looked from an asset standpoint just two years ago. Last year’s lottery was crucial in a loaded 2015 NBA Draft class, and the Lakers came away with their hopeful franchise point guard in Russell. But coming away with a top-two pick in this year’s NBA Draft could be the one that officially solidifies the young core of the Lakers and gives them a foundation strong enough to truly build off of and start the trek back up the mountain.
Having the opportunity to draft LSU’s Ben Simmons or Duke’s Brandon Ingram would be the only prize that would seem immediately satisfying after suffering through another agonizing season. The vast majority of teams that had entered the lottery in the No. 2 slot in years past had watched at least one team leap them and take their place, knocking them down to either third, fourth or fifth in the draft order. Just last year, the New York Knicks fell from second to fourth, something that would leave the Lakers empty-handed this year.
As NBA Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum revealed the order, one-by-one, our hearts continued to pound harder and faster with each one, until he revealed the Phoenix Suns logo on the card for the fourth pick. A collective sigh of relief was let out before remembering what the grand prize was: A top-two pick. And as Tatum announced the third pick belonging to the Boston Celtics, nothing else mattered. It was like Los Angeles buried a game-winner at the buzzer. They were getting their chance at the ultimate reward in this draft, reaching a potential turning point in the rebuilding process.
The Lakers did not end up with the top pick, but they ended up in arguably the best position you could ask for. With the joy of having the No. 1 pick comes the pressure of getting it right. At No. 2, the decision will be made for the Lakers, making their jobs easy on draft night. Whether it ends up being Simmons or Ingram, the team and its fans should be ecstatic and satisfied either way.
It fit the theme of everything that has happened for the Lakers since April 13. Everyone entered that night with modulated expectations, hoping Kobe could give us all one last 30-point game or so, and he gave us 60.
Buzz started to build around the idea of Scott being retained as head coach, striking fear amongst the fan base, yet the Lakers ended up with the coveted Walton. Finally, many people, like myself, entered Tuesday night prepared to lose the pick, and now Los Angeles is about a month away from ushering in Simmons or Ingram to a new era of Lakers basketball.
Heading into a critical 2016 offseason, the Lakers had a long list of objectives they would need to accomplish in order to make it a truly successful one. First, a proper farewell to Bryant needed to be engineered, setting the standard for how a team should treat a star that brings them unmeasured success and endless memories. Then it was time to find a new head coach, one that was a long-term option, helping the Lakers set their past aside and adapt to the modernized NBA. Finally, a little luck needed to bounce their way, giving their new sideline leader another major piece of the puzzle.
The offseason is still young, but you could not ask for a better start for the Lakers. Plenty of work is left to be done, but little by little, Los Angeles is erasing the doubt that they brought upon themselves. A little over a month ago, the franchise was in one of its darkest hours. Now, the excitement and optimism is back. The front office has a long checklist of goals for this summer, but to this point, they have nailed each and every task on that list.
Since April 13, everything has been perfect for the Lakers, and the future looks bright once again.