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"I'm not surprised," James Worthy says of the Los Angeles Lakers, the team that most everyone else would pencil in as the NBA's most unexpected winner in the season's first month. "I predicted 34 [victories for the season] when no one was giving them much of a chance."
Worthy would know. The 55-year-old has been a mainstay on the team's broadcasts since 2012 and last year joined the Lakers' coaching staff in a player development role. We caught up with the Hall of Famer at the Los Angeles Auto Show, where he appeared on behalf of Volkswagen, to discuss this year's edition of the team, Kobe Bryant, how the game has changed, and how the league today compares to when he played.
VICE Sports: As of this conversation, the Lakers are a game above .500. What were your expectations going into the year?
James Worthy: Having worked with the guys a little bit last year, I knew they were eager to learn and to turn things around. Now that they have their own chance—Kobe is no longer around—and that young core of players, they get to create their own identity. I think they were obviously tired of losing and tired of being under that microscope, and they wanted to do something about it. I think they understand that they needed to play for each other and play for the brand, the Laker brand. I think they're starting to understand that.
Well, that brings to mind the D'Angelo Russell quote from earlier this year about Kobe sort of holding the process up. Do you think that was a fair statement?
There was no question that his dominance overwhelmed the process of young players. After Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, after that last chance they tried to win a championship, then a plethora of injuries, I think this last year was really a Kobe year. I think these young guys recognize that and they weren't mature enough to handle it. When Kareem retired after playing 20 years, we were mature enough to handle it and and still win. I don't think these guys were. But I think now that Kobe's gone, they've got to create their own thing.
It's easy from the outside to look at a player and say "It's time to go." You've been on the other side of it. There's always that cliche of "When you know, you know." How true is that? Was that your experience?
For me, it was easy. It just wasn't fun anymore. I probably could have played a couple more years, maybe. But when the fun leaves, when you don't want to get up and go to work anymore, to me that was my time to start considering. When I couldn't do some of the things I used to, I knew the end was near.
Do you think Kobe ever fully reached that point?
Some guys never get it. He's a different makeup. Magic Johnson had that makeup. They're never going to stop playing. They always think they can perform. Not too many athletes could do what Kobe did—[injuries to his] Achilles [tendon], a knee. It's in his blood. He never went to college, so all he knew was to compete. Compete to the end, like a gladiator. That was his mentality.
What's the biggest surprise that you've seen through this point of the year?
I'm surprised at just how well they've gathered together this early. The synergy. They're still young and they're on a learning curve that's really fast right now. So I'm shocked that they got it in October, November. I expected maybe by December, January. But they've latched onto something.
So now that they have, do you think expectations should be adjusted? Or do things still need to be about big picture, let these guys learn how to play together?
Week to week. Short-term goals. They haven't gotten to that point to where they can start thinking about that. It's a long growth process and they've already exceeded what we've all expected this early. Now it's a matter of repetition. I think once they get that under their belt, the confidence is just going to continue to increase and they're going to want to win. Once you start tasting what it feels like to win, they won't settle for anything else. But I think their goal should be month to month, week to week.
There's always such a temptation to look at a young group like this and kind of expect progress to be linear. They're this much better in their second year, this much better in their third year. It always doesn't work that way. What's the biggest challenge for a young team to go beyond just improving, and really make that leap to becoming a contender when the time comes?
Like I said, repetition. Really understanding how to connect with one another. San Antonio, it doesn't matter who they put in the system. It's all the same. Golden State is kind of like that now. They just need to understand that what wins games is defense, and they've already improved in that area. They get down and dirty defensively. Got to have that. And they've got to share the ball. They had 36 assists the other night. The bench I think is the best in the NBA as far as averaging points. So if they could just learn how to repeat and not look too far ahead, recognize and recover quickly—you lose a game, you don't have to wait a week or two to fix it; you've got to fix it the next game. I think they're getting there.
How much of that is coaching versus the players learning how to buy in for their own sake, no matter who's in charge?
I think most of it is the buy-in. Committing to the philosophy and committing, in a lot of cases, without even understanding it yet. I think that's where they are now. When you lose, you just get tired of it. [New coach] Luke [Walton's] really good at communicating—young, surfer boy, kind of gets in there with them. Plays the rap music, he's in there (laughs). That's been a big plus. But I think, regardless, after what they experienced last year, all the trade rumors, I think they were going to come back and correct some of it this year anyway. But Luke has helped a lot.
You've played and analyzed the game for a long time. What's the biggest evolution that you've seen from your playing days until now?
Three pointers. Everyone wants those three points. It's hard to win when you're scoring a bunch of twos, that's just the nature of the game. There's no more center—the center has got to be Anthony Davis or Kevin Durant or Draymond Green. There's not even a center on the All-Star ballot anymore. It's evolved. It's not as physical as it used to be, a lot more rules that promote scoring because you have a lot of kids that—Kareem, four years of college. Bill Walton, four years of college. I had three. Michael Jordan had three. Now you've got guys that aren't getting that. Larry Nance Jr. got it, he got four years and you can see the difference between he and a Julius Randle, as far as theory of the game. I think that's probably been the biggest change and I think the league has had to adjust to that. They've changed rules, they've moved the three-point line in a little bit. Pulled it back, took away the hand check.
Which all makes for a more aesthetically pleasing product. Do you think that makes for an overall better product, though?
Pleasing and more entertaining, and it correlates with the marketing side of it. The television contracts. International players, they're more fundamentally sound and understand the game theoretically.
Even the ones coming in at 18, 19?
Yes, because they've been playing in teams since they were 14, 15. Different concept. Our kids, they get into the MTV Cribs and they get into pumping up—they're very athletic. And they don't stay in school long enough to understand how to play the game properly. That's what's missing.
I almost wonder whether there's a generation of player that's—I wouldn't say left behind, but assumed to not be effective.
For every one Demar DeRozan who just shoots midrange now, you don't see that anymore. Your game wasn't the three-pointer. You played a different way.
Guys like Wiggins in Minnesota. Complete game, inside, outside, fundamental, methodical. I think you find guys who spent more time in college, they get the overall game.
Well, he was a one-and-done though.
Yes, but he still gets the theory. Garnett got it, Kobe got it. Some guys do get it. But then some guys struggle, and so they end up having to learn. I look at Julius Randle, he's getting the jumper. He's finally getting the footwork. He was always a man amongst boys in high school, AAU. One year at Kentucky—they had like 50 Hall of Famers on that team. Didn't really have to teach him. Now he's come and been very receptive to understanding how to play the game properly.
To play devil's advocate here, do you think some of this is on teams as much as players? Coaches telling them "Don't worry about theory or little things, worry about being able to space the floor because that's what's successful now?"
Unfortunately, yeah. That's what's happened. Except for San Antonio and the teams that win. Cleveland. That's the problem, there's no parity. Guys can shoot the three and dunk, but I'm old school. Nobody plays Atari anymore, either.
How do you think you would have had to adapt your game if you were playing these days? Because you were never someone who shot the three much.
I wouldn't. [On the] fast break, my game wouldn't have changed. When I was the game as a kid, it didn't change that much. When I was watching Oscar Robertson and Havlicheck, all those guys. Somewhere around the mid-1990s, it started to change a bit.
Going back to the parity thing, there isn't much now, but in the 1980s there wasn't all that much more.
I believe it was. It's just the two best teams always [won]. But the [Philadelphia] 76ers were pretty fucking good. San Antonio was pretty good. Milwaukee with Don Nelson, really good. Dallas, we had to beat them in seven games. Utah, one of the best coaches ever to never win a championship. But now, it's going to be the teams with the dominant players. You've got guys chasing championships. I understand free agency has changed a lot but we barely beat Dallas. We barely beat Utah. I just think there was way more parity.
There are going to be people who read that and think "Wait, a minute, James is saying teams didn't have superstars then when it was him, Kareem, Magic all together."
I just feel like there were more teams that had a chance to win championships back then. I don't think that's the case these days. You kind of know who's going to win.
Well, that's why I ask about whether the league is truly better off from a basketball standpoint, the financial and marketing benefits aside.
I don't think the fundamentals are there. But what I think are fundamentals might not be fundamentals today. So that's why I say I still play Atari. So when I watch the game and all I see is one-on-one, there's supposed to be at least four options off of one play. When the game gets down to just iso[lation], that's the product today and if that's what people consider a good product, who am I to argue with that? I just disagree with that.
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