It sometimes feels like they never left, but throughout the last decade the Los Angeles Lakers slipped into the sort of NBA irrelevance usually saved for rebuilding teams in the southeast.
The glitziest franchise in the NBA, the one that throughout history has subsisted most on individual, transcendent, cinematic talent, is suddenly paving its way back to relevance with a collection of diamonds in the rough.
The next Kobe Bryant, it turns out, is Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. KCP embodies these post-Bryant Lakers: a little unrefined, but living on length, and unafraid to occasionally brush with stardom – the emphasis on occasionally.
Caldwell-Pope isn’t the Lakers’ future, though, although he may stick around. The future is Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Lonzo Ball, a sprinkling of Larry Nance Jr, and possibly, depending on the week, Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson.
At times Randle looks like the best sort of monster. He’s got stronger over the off-season, now a figure of momentum and immensity rolling to the rim. He bulldozes down the lane with subtle grace and obvious conviction, strong enough to absorb contact and finish the way he wants to without being knocked off balance.
He’s a wonderful passer, a force in transition, and the rare, special big man that can defend star guards on switches without being made to look a fool.
When Randle is ‘on’, the Lakers become the best version of themselves. Randle’s intensity and ‘on-ness’ were the driving force behind their two best victories of the year – the national TV triumphs over the Wizards and Sixers.
And yet, there are entire quarters when you forget he’s on the court, where he looks disinterested, floating into the basketball ether of wasted talent. He is, though, surely too great of a talent to let go in the summer.
Incredibly, the two ‘surest bet’ Lakers seem to be Ingram and Kuzma. A few months ago, Ingram was only an idea of a good player and Kuzma was a 27th pick in the draft. Fast forward and now both are highly capable 16+ PPG scorers, gazelles who feast at the rim, clean the glass, and add a feathery touch.
Kuzma is a revelation, a lean body accelerating to the rim as though magnetised to it. He has hops as well as real pace, and when he lays it in, he always seems to still be ascending.
Ingram is not quite as graceful or effortless, but he is more interesting. He is the better passer and more nuanced talent, a player with gears, and many still to be unlocked. He is the most tantalising talent on the roster, and the one, you suspect, with the greatest chance of becoming a star.
That player was supposed to be Ball, and it might still be. But the saviour is looking more like Ricky Rubio. Ball will endure in the NBA – his athleticism, vision, passing and rebounding mean that he will find a way to help teams win. But there is a defined ceiling on guards who cannot score at will, let alone score efficiently. At the moment, nothing on the scoring front is at will for Ball – everything is ‘against will’.
He looks petrified out there, the lines perpetually blurred between selflessness and fear. He has no inclination to score, and no idea how to. Even his collapsing-the-defence assist to set-up Ingram’s game-winner against the Sixers was the product of hesitation when the trigger needed to be pulled.
Barring you-know-who arriving in free agency, to extend the L.A. ceiling to somewhere meaningful, that trigger will have to be pulled. Right now this is a ‘nice’ team with ‘interesting’ pieces. But Ball is the hinge upon which the future will turn, and as talented as Ingram, Kuzma and Randle are, the next few years for the Lakers will be seen through the prism of Lonzo and his strange release.