If you find yourself suddenly enjoying the Los Angeles Lakers, you are not coming down with some weird tropical disease — and you are certainly not alone. This year's Lakers squad is an incredibly fun team even the most jaded among us can't help but appreciate.
It's quite the difference from the past two seasons, when this franchise was busy hitting rock-bottom, then finding a way to do it all over again. And it's definitely a change from the multiple glory years in Los Angeles, when Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal, Pau Gasol, and the rest of the championship-winning Lakers were busy ruining every other fanbase's lives.
These Lakers quickly clawed their way back to respectability. As of Wednesday morning, they sit at 7-5 and seventh in the Western Conference. Last season, they didn't win their seventh game until Jan. 1. Yet there's something more than just newfound success that makes Los Angeles so compelling.
After all, the Lakers have won plenty of games in the past, and no one outside of their fanbase liked them before. In fact, as any L.A. fan will gladly tell you, everyone else in the association hated the Lakers out of pure, unadulterated jealousy. We wanted what they had: rings.
Now, through a perfect confluence of coincidence, excellent decisions and individual growth, the Lakers — the Lakers! — have become one of the most genuinely likable teams in the NBA.
How in the world did we get here?
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The Lakers fired one of the worst coaches in NBA history
Let's not mince words. Byron Scott was on board as head coach over the past couple seasons for one reason: to usher Kobe Bryant through the final days of his career. Scott could be trusted to give Kobe all the minutes he wanted, placing the Black Mamba over the greater good — and nothing more.
That's the choice the Lakers made; so be it. Kobe deserved to go out on his terms. Unfortunately, Scott didn't do much else during his time on the bench in Los Angeles. He alienated the young core rather than doing what he could to develop guys such as D'Angelo Russell. He waged war against his team in the media. He led the Lakers to the lowest depths in franchise history, because he's one of the worst coaches the association has seen.
Scott is 16th all-time in regular-season losses with 647, and this isn't a matter of longevity. Plenty of great coaches have a ton of losses from coaching so many games; Scott, however, has the worst win percentage (.412) of the 20 coaches with the most losses in NBA history.
I'm not saying Scott is the worst coach professional basketball has ever seen. (That ignoble honor goes to Kurt Rambis.) He had success prior to taking the Lakers job, after all — then the game passed Scott by, and he couldn't change with the times.
You could call him a dinosaur, but that's not fair. Dinosaurs dominated the planet before going out in a blaze of glory. Scott ... didn't.
Then they hired one of the best coaches in the game
Not one of the best young coaches. Not one of the best coaching prospects. Luke Walton is already flat-out one of the best coaches in the NBA.
He understands modern offense on a fundamental, almost instinctual level, since that's the game he played as a champion: Pass. Move. Make the right decision. Be a good teammate. And above all, enjoy the game. Success breeds joy, which breeds success. Walton instills both in equal parts on a daily basis. He's a player's coach in the most important sense — he makes them want to be their best and gives them the tools to make it so.
An overreaction a hot start? Maybe, but Walton's experience in 2015-16 counts for quite a bit in my book. It's easy for a cynic to write off his role in Golden State's record-setting start last season. The Warriors obviously had an extraordinary amount of talent. Yet how many head coaches, let alone assistants, could lead a team to 24 straight wins? Steve Kerr, probably. Gregg Popovich, almost certainly. Rick Carlise, Stan Van Gundy, Erik Spoelstra ... perhaps.
Yet those are all hypotheticals. Walton did it — and no one else ever has. He alone lived up to the scrutiny, and he alone kept Draymond Green from sabotaging the team. Only after Kerr took the reins did the Warriors spiral out of control. That's no knock on the former sharpshooter, but a statement on how big of an impact Walton's temperament can have in the emotional grind of an NBA season. He's the new Zen Master, without all that persnickety, passive-aggressive nonsense in the media.
Now, Walton would probably hate all of this. He wants the focus to be on his players, who are clearly very talented. Walton would tell you that all he's doing is helping them to play their best, because that's what a smart coach says to build up his players.
Hogwash, I say. Walton is fantastic at his job, whether he admits it or not.
While we'll never really know how big of an impact a coach might make, one need only look at the night-and-day difference between this year's Lakers and the 2015-16 vintage to know how good Walton is. And he's just getting started.
The Lakers turned Julius Randle into his best self almost overnight
I thought Randle was a big man without a role in today's game. Instead, under Walton's tutelage, he's showing flashes of what he will be at his very best.
I won't even say, "What he can be," or hedge it otherwise. As long as the Lakers don't fire their current coach, Randle is going to become one of the game's difference-makers at forward.
It's a comparison as accurate as it is lazy, but Randle really has that Draymond feel to him as a big man who can look over the top of a defense after making the catch in the pick-and-roll, find the open guy, or make a defense pay by going to the rim.
And that's absurd to say today, as Randle showed so very little of that last season. I honestly thought that was the result of a deficiency in his game; I should have known the real deficiency was on the bench. Mea culpa.
Anyway, back to Randle. He's not the 3-point shooter Green is, and he never will be — nor is he anywhere close to the Warriors forward's level as a defender. And that's fine; Green is a once-in-a-lifetime guy, after all. But what we've seen from Randle in a dozen games this season is enough to wonder just how high his ceiling could be, especially after his triple-double (17 points, 14 rebounds, 10 assists) in the Lakers' 125-118 win over the Brooklyn Nets on Tuesday.
Man, I was dumb. Anyway ...
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY SportsMark J. Rebilas
And they unleashed their young backcourt
To Scott's credit, he didn't completely shut down D'Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson last season. The Lakers were roughly league average in pace in 2015-16, averaging just shy of 98 possessions per 48 minutes.
The problem is that with such talented young guards, you should be embracing Showtime in Los Angeles. Walton understands that, as the Lakers have pushed the pace to seventh in the NBA this season at 102 possessions per 48 minutes. Four more possessions might not seem like a lot, but think about what that really means. Walton trusts his young team to run, even though that means some mistakes now and again.
Truly, that fast pace combined with the growth of guys like Randle, Russell and Clarkson is at the heart of what makes these Lakers so fascinating. Any possession can become a highlight-worthy moment that sends Twitter into an uproarious spasm of capital letters and onomotopoeia. The only thing better than potential unrealized is that precious moment when hope starts to blossom, but before talent fully blooms. We're there with this team.
Nick Young (of all people) became a leader
In a surprising twist, Jordan Clarkson recently revealed that Young's cheating on Iggy Azalea and the subsequent drama that caused for the Lakers actually helped the team, which hurts my soul but is still something he said: “It definitely brought us closer. Definitely — 100 percent — like it definitely made us closer,” Clarkson said. “Some people had to talk to people, you know, figure out their problems. We did that, everything’s behind us now, and we know what to do.”
Cold-hearted nonsense aside, it's hard to argue with Clarkson. If nothing else, Young is playing his role to perfection as a veteran guard who fills it up off the ball. He's taking better shots, since the offense actually tries to create open looks for 3-point shooters, and he's on pace for a career year as a result.
I genuinely know Lakers fans who aren't sure if they want to trade Swaggy P at this point. That's easily the most telling summation of how far Young has come to start this season.
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Lou Williams started his campaign for another Sixth Man award
This is a little thing, but for the NBA League Pass connoisseur taking in some late-night L.A. action, it's important. Most bench units have you turning the channel as quickly as possible. Williams and the Lakers, though, are nearly as entertaining as the starters.
Through 12 games, Williams is on pace for a career-high in scoring while playing fewer minutes than he has since 2010-11. Like everyone else in purple and gold this year, the 2014-15 Sixth Man of the Year is simply playing at his most efficient — and his very best.
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The Lakers were freed from the albatross that was Kobe Bryant
I honestly mean no disrespect to Kobe the basketball player here. Although I've admittedly done my fair share of trolling of the legend and his fans, this is neither the time nor the place.
Yet as I briefly touched on earlier, Kobe's presence last season was a huge detriment to the rest of the team. He took up precious minutes on the court, and he enabled a coach who had no interest in compromising with a new generation that he (wrongly) considered entitled and beneath him.
Kobe undoubtedly provided valuable leadership as he accepted his role as curmudgeon and mentor, in part because he was trying to rewrite the script on the end of his career. I respect that. In sum, though, I think it's pretty clear that the Lakers would be better, sooner had they handled Kobe's final seasons differently.
I think any rational Lakers observer would admit that, and the reality of the situation doesn't take away from what he did last year, particularly in his final game. Somehow, the Black Mamba added to his legacy until the very last minute in one of the greatest spectacles we'll ever see.
There's a broader issue at play here as well. Kobe's retirement freed up fans of other teams to like the Lakers. That guy who used to tear your heart out if you rooted for any of the other teams in the NBA is no longer there to hurt you.
And if you rooted against Kobe for other reasons, you're probably happy he's gone, too.
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Brandon Ingram's arrival symbolizes the future
In a parallel universe — a dark, hopeless void where despair and misery are all humanity knows — a ping pong ball took a slightly different bounce, and the Lakers lost their 2016 NBA Draft pick.
Instead, L.A. kept that precious resource, which turned into Ingram and everything he represents. Regardless of how good he eventually becomes, Ingram encapsulates this incredible new hope for the Lakers — the shining light at the end of a miserable tunnel.
But most importantly, the Lakers aren't a threat
Make no mistake: the minute the Lakers are on the verge of championship contention, NBA fans will turn against them once more. One cannot fight one's nature.
For now, D'Angelo Russell & Co. have a long way to go, and that makes them endearing. Everyone likes rooting for an underdog, particularly when they play such an entertaining brand of basketball.
Still feels weird to enjoy the Lakers, though. Still feels weird.