Preview: Lakers open post-Kobe era against Rockets

This is a preview post for a basketball game, so I should probably start by talking about the game itself.

The Los Angeles Lakers will host the Houston Rockets to begin the 2016-17 season on Wednesday night. The game should feature plenty of scoring, as both teams are projected to struggle mightily on defense this season. James Harden is still the Rockets’ leader, but the team around him looks vastly different after the departure of Dwight Howard and the hiring of Mike D’Antoni in the offseason. The Lakers, meanwhile –

You know what? That’s enough about the game.

Wednesday night is so much more than a game for this franchise. It will be the first time since April 25, 1996 that the Lakers will play a game without Kobe Bryant on their roster. And if the end of the Mamba era was such a (deservedly) huge event six months ago, the start of a new one should be just as important to the fans of purple and gold.

Think on this for a second: It’s been about six years and four months since Kobe pumped his fist in front of the Staples Center crowd as confetti rained down while the Celtics trudged off the court and a certain phrase about possibilities was erased forever from the minds of Lakers fans. Six years is a long time, sure, but it’s felt more like sixty.

When did you know it was going to be this bad? When Steve Nash broke down? When Dwight left? When Kobe’s Achilles snapped? When Byron Scott was hired? When Julius Randle’s leg snapped on an opening night just like this one? “Basketball reasons”?

For so long, one of the premier franchises in all of sports has rarely been able to catch a break. There have been glimpses of light at the end of the tunnel, but they’ve been few and far between.

Until now. The light is growing stronger, and would you look at that, we’re actually moving toward it. It gets brighter each time the surfer dude with the curly hair steps on the sideline, and each time he heaps so much praise on his players that it feels like cool, soothing water after the scorching negative reinforcement of his predecessor.

Luke. No, Luuuuuuuke. The guy who has bled purple and gold ever since the moment he was the cheerful rookie in ’04 among a team of grumpy veterans. The guy whose likability is only matched by his basketball intellect and love of the game. The guy who just spent two years embedded in a team that is revolutionizing the NBA as we know it.

The light gets brighter each time they step out onto the court. A bunch of fearless kids ready to take on one of the brightest spotlights out there and fill the shoes of all-stars and hall-of-famers past. Ivica, the blocker. Larry, the freak. Julius, the bulldozer. Brandon, the swingman. Jordan, the underdog.

D’Angelo, the leader with all the ice he needs flowing through his veins.

I could go on about this group’s potential, but Anthony Irwin already did a better job than I ever could:

Look at L.A.’s history as a sports town. If we watch you grow to greatness from day one, you’re an icon. Kobe had an entire day devoted to him. Magic has become a mogul. Just wait ’til Kershaw hangs ’em up. If we get to watch an entire group of kids grow up to something close to those levels (a tall order, I admit), man, the closeness the city might feel to this team could be magical.

If there’s one positive to be gleaned from watching the Lakers over the past few years, it’s this: any doubt as to who runs Los Angeles as been erased. This city is not a Dodgers town, no matter how rich they are or how many playoff runs they make. It’s not Kings or Ducks town, no matter how many Stanley Cups they win. It’s not an Angels town, no matter how otherworldly great Mike Trout is. It’s definitely not a Clippers town, no matter how much better on paper they are than their rivals across the hallway. And the Rams haven’t even begun to enter this conversation.

No, Los Angeles is a Lakers town. You want proof? The greatest L.A. sports moment of 2016 was the Lakers’ 17th win, which came in their 82nd game, also known as Kobe’s farewell. No Clayton Kershaw playoff save or electrifying Aaron Donald sack could ever come close. Even after the last few seasons, the Lakers still own this town. And if their reign can survive the last two seasons, it can survive anything.

It’s a brave new world, and for the first time in seemingly forever, the Lakers will be exciting again. No, they’re not making the playoffs this season. They may not reach that point next season, either. In fact, there’s a nonzero chance that it may take several more years for this franchise to become a contender again.

But the Lakers are nothing if not exciting, and wouldn’t you know it, these young guys look pretty darn exciting. It’s time for a new chapter to be written in one of the greatest stories of professional sports, and no matter how it ends, chances are it will be spectacular one way or another.

So buckle up. It’s time to turn the page on the Lakers of our adolescence, even if Metta World Peace is still technically on the team for some reason. This is a new beginning, and it sure as heck looks like the beginning of something special.

But even if it’s not, the Lakers will endure. They’ll still dawn their timeless jerseys and hang the sixteen championship banners over posters of Clippers role players. And the City of Angels will still be behind them, rooting (and sometimes cursing) them on, every step of the way.

Long live the Los Angeles Lakers.

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