Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
On the heels of a surprisingly solid draft day haul—and a series of Plan C roster moves that followed striking out on free agents LaMarcus Aldridge, Marc Gasol and (even) Greg Monroe—Los Angeles Lakers fans are starting to feel a bit optimistic these days. Sure, ongoing banner-or-bust expectations and a three-year municipal surrender to Billy Crystal will likely keep the the team's most hopeful die-hards hush-hush; nevertheless, it's time to celebrate a looming return to relevance (or, at least, intriguing adequateness) for what promises to be Kobe Bryant's last dance, and moreover, a freshly-paved path to the future.
Yes, let's conjure a return to eighth-seeded glory, even if Byron Scott is still the coach and Jim Buss still looms as the franchise's front-office noisy Chet Stedman, asking, begging, pleading his sister to "give me one…more.""Wanna get nuts? Let's get NUTS."Laker Nation, here are your new champions: Roy Hibbert, Eastern Conference Finalist, LeBron stopper and most dominant, rim-barricading big-man in the whole wide world. Well, 24 or so months ago. Lou Williams, Sixth Man of the YEAR. Brandon Bass, a literal NBA CHAMPION! (Okay, not actually, but he did play in the East Finals in 2012; AND he was 2005 SEC Player of the Year!)And while we're at it, why stop there?Jordan Clarkson? His 17-5-5 post All-Star game averages is 2010 Rajon Rondo, only with three-point range, and without the hard-headed obstinance and Denzel Washington-movie hatred. Include Julius Randle to trade for Boogie Cousins?! No chance. Orange Julius lost 15 pounds during his injury-wasted rookie season, can shoot threes, is a prototypical stretch-4; he's untouchable.D'Angelo Russell? He's Harden 2.0, but shiftier, and with way crazier eyebrows. Robert Upshaw? Hassan Whiteside meets Yao Ming. Anthony Brown? Anthony Morrow, but bigger, better. Larry Nance Jr.? Larry Nance, Senior.
As for Kobe? Maybe his rotator-cuff goes all-Henry Rowengartner and he is back, and more venomous than ever.
OK, so it's easy to get carried away with the collective cult of the best-case, even if every Angeleno outside of this Aldridge-adoring frontman believe any one of the following scenarios to be about as realistic as the Lakers moving to San Bernardino.But, at the same time, maybe reality actually lies somewhere in the chasm, between the dark and gray True Detective-expected truth, and the fantastically outrageous and Disney-imagined impossible.For starters, take Hibbert, who for a time seemed on track to join Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo and Patrick Ewing in former Georgetown center lore. He's only 28. He's playing for his next contract, amid a TV money-fueled salary cap explosion and NBA free agency gold rush. He's a dozen or so months removed from being embarrassed by Pero Antic running him ragged above the three-point line in a seven-game, first round near-shocker, and a few dozen days removed from the post-Golden State title eulogy being written for slow-footed centers.All of that should be fuel for Hibbert's motivational fire. Moreover, while the NBA's smallball trend is real, teams don't play against Draymond Green at center for 82 games in the regular season. Big men can still matter. Especially when coached by throwback-minded Scott, who could—could—stubbornly swim against the stream of the pace-and-space wave offensively by pounding the 7-foot-2 big man in the post.
Will Hibbert (who, as @Hoya2aPacer, now needs a new twitter account, to boot. Maybe @Hoya2aPacer2aLaker?) be able to make the case to 'Save the Center' and play his way into the stratosphere of—wait for it—Omer Asik's 5-year, $60 million deal? Obviously, the league isn't betting on it. But maybe the Lakers can capitalize on a new market inefficiency.For the near and medium term, there's Russell. The reason he eventually crept ahead of Okafor in the consensus pecking order was his his star potential, even if his projected range falls between Harden and Eddie Griffin. Sure, there's a 40-percent chance he busts—whatever that actually means—but his skill, shooting, size and ability to facilitate offense in tandem with Clarkson, a glaring absence last year sans Mamba, offers promise. Interchangeable, dynamic, 6-foot-5 guards are not a dime a dozen.
Neither are 7-foot rookies with lottery-level talent who average 7-blocks per 40 minutes in college, like Upshaw. His ability and potential star-turn are well-chronicled, as are his off-the-court issues—he's got a few—and dual dismissals from Fresno State and Washington. Still, Upshaw's emphatic he'll make the team come October, and he gets an immediate chance to show his worth: he opens Las Vegas summer league with a Friday-Saturday 8:30 p.m. ET double-bill against Minnesota's Karl-Anthony Towns, and Philadelphia's Jahlil Okafor. And bonus points loom if he conquers the Kristaps Porzingis-led New York Knicks on Monday.
Meanwhile, Kupchak summarily proved his mettle as one of the best in the business, the tough-to-swallow Kobe-extension albatross aside, and kept the 2016 window—and dare, one exec say, the Westbrook-and-Harden Plan—wide-open in the process. The towering GM admirably and skillfully cobbled the open-market dredges, avoided potentially-handcuffing, long-term big-money risks (re: Tobias Harris), added winners in Bass and Hibbert, and somehow (seriously, why choose the Lakers, Sweet Lou?) enlisted Williams for a friendly if not below-market three years, $21 million.His imperative seems to be finding a way to be gracefully, if non-threateningly competitive now—ironically similar to Danny Ainge's gradual, hopeful rebuild in Boston, minus the long-term assets—and they've done exactly that.Kupchak's X-factor, if you're willing to generously call it that, is Bryant, of course; and fresh off a majestically inefficient yet amazing to watch 22-5-5 average line in 35 games. (Though not many 35-year-old two-guards, ever, can post those numbers following two consecutive season-ending surgeries, on the heels of an auto-biographical documentary release.) Yes, the man that Nance Jr. calls 'Sir' is rounding towards his end of days. And unlike the Spurs' ever-blurry line before retirement, Bryant's body has paid a steep price.But Kobe's revised supporting cast now—two high-lottery picks, two battle-tested posts, a high-usage but most-effective microwave off the bench, and three rookie fliers of which, bet at least one sticks—feels twice as talented, if equally as defense-deficient. And, sure, with maybe twice as many questions, including Hibbert's antiquated-ness, Randle's leg and foot, and Bryant's everything.Could all of the above shockingly equate to doubling last season's win total, .500-ball respectability and a faint whiff of the Jazz and Suns, gazing, and even toying with the playoffs? Stranger has happened, though maybe not for Showtime in recent memory.Hope in Lakerland may not spring eternal or postseason-bound at present, but it should, at a bare minimum, spring severely interesting in the years that follow. Starting right now.