Thank goodness for Jordan Clarkson. Wait. What?

If I’d have told you, when the season’s schedule came out, that the thing I’d be looking forward to the most when the Lakers and Knicks played a Sunday day game — originally scheduled to be on ABC — was the second round rookie’s play, you’d have thought I was making some sort of a sick joke. After all, this is Lakers vs. Knicks. Kobe! Carmelo!! Derek Fisher and Phil Jackson returning the Knicks to prominence!!! Yeah, not so much (at least not yet).

With Kobe injured, Carmelo battling a nagging knee issues, and Derek/Phil stewarding one of the worst Knicks’ teams in history, this game got dumped from ABC and is now just a regular game between two bad teams broadcast on local TV as a prelude to today’s Super Bowl. So, I’ll say it again: thank goodness for Jordan Clarkson.

The rookie guard starts his 5th consecutive game for the Lakers and is showing signs of being a real player in this league. In the four contests leading up to this one, the rook has squared off against Tony Parker, Derrick Rose, and John Wall and held his own in each match up. There are still major strides to make and his learning curve is steep, but those things were to be expected when he was drafted out of Missouri. What he has, however, are things no other point guard on the team currently does: a combination of youth, athleticism, and a quality that makes you want to zero in on him when he’s on the floor. And while Lin is the better player, it is Clarkson who is capturing the imagination of Lakers’ fans as a potential building block for the future.

So, for the time being and with Julius Randle hurt, Clarkson becomes the young player worth turning in for. With Kobe Byrant out as well and the team shifting into rebuild mode more and more with every passing game, keeping tabs on Clarkson’s development is actually one of the more tangible things to do while watching the games. How is he managing the offense? Is he able to navigate the 2nd level of a defense? How is his court vision progressing? Can he start to make his jumper with more consistency as defenders play off him? Is he learning from his mistakes? These are questions we seek the answers to and the game experience is what will provide the answers.

As an aside, while I have been hard on Byron Scott for a lot of reasons and still disagree with some of the decisions he’s making (Ryan Kelly playing a lot of SF and Tarik Black — if healthy enough to play — getting DNP-CD’s are two examples), I think he deserves some credit lately. When Nick Young was playing with poor effort, he benched him in the game against the Rockets. He has inserted Clarkson into the starting lineup, removed Price from the rotation, and found a workable rotation for his big men (though, again, at some point I would want to see Kelly slotted appropriately and Black return to getting minutes). His players are, for the most part, playing hard in the face of long losing streaks and being outmatched from a talent standpoint almost every game.

He has his flaws as a coach and a full analysis on how he’s done this season will involve several things I’d call missteps, but his recent responses to injuries via lineup changes and rotations adjustments have been solid and are more indicative of the process you’d want from a team rebuilding. I’d like to see a bigger push in that direction, but those things may be coming soon without his doing should the Lakers dive into the trade season.

In any event, there is a game today. And I’ve been able to get through almost this entire preview without discussing a single item regarding the actual Lakers/Knicks game. Which, considering the quality of the teams, is exactly what I’m thinking this match up deserves.

Where you can watch: Early 11am start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM Los Angeles.

The Bulls visit the Lakers tonight and they come in flashing some of the determination, grit, and, most of all big victories, that had many installing them as the eastern conference favorites to reach the finals. They are winners in three of their last four games, with all three of the wins coming against strong Western opponents — San Antonio, Dallas, and Golden State. Their most recent win against the Warriors was one where they played with Jimmy Butler (though the Duns were missing Andrew Bogut), but were still able to gut out an overtime victory when Derrick Rose hit a clutch game winning jumper in the closing seconds.

Rose and (especially) Butler are two key reasons why teams are so high on the Bulls, but the reason most see them as a true threat is due to the addition of our old friend Pau Gasol. The Spaniard has thrived in Chicago as an anchor in the pivot, putting up strong numbers and having the type of impact those who still believed he still had something left in the tank thought he was capable of. The Bulls have offered him exactly what he needs to thrive — space in the post, a defensive scheme that limits some of his weaknesses, and teammates who compliment him on both sides of the ball — and he is taking advantage of it all.

Pau’s return to Los Angeles, then, is a bit bitter sweet. For me, personally, I am happy to see him playing so well and contributing on a team that has a chance to contend for a championship. On the other hand, I miss watching him nightly on the team I root for; I miss watching the exquisite passing, great feel for the game, and ability to act as the hub of an offense from the low post. Fact is, though, is that it was time for him to move on. The fact that things are going well for him, but so poorly for the Lakers does sting, but does not erase the good memories he provided during his time with the team.

With that, one has to wonder how fans will respond to Pau in his first game back at Staples Center since leaving in free agency. If Byron Scott has his way, Pau will be welcomed back as a former championship contributor should. Via ESPN’s Baxter Holmes:

And Lakers coach Byron Scott said fans owe Gasol one thing: “A standing ovation,” Scott said. “This is a guy that was here that helped to win two championships. He deserves that. Pau was a great player when he was here and is still a great player. He’s having a lot of success in Chicago. But I think fans should show him the respect that he deserves.”

Byron and I agree wholeheartedly here.

As for the actual game, considering who the Bulls have beaten lately and the fact that the Lakers have lost 9 straight games, I am not expecting anything different than what I wrote in leading up to the Wizards game. This is even more true with Jimmy Butler expected to return tonight to a lineup that already features Rose, Pau, and Noah. The Lakers simply do not have the front line talent to deal with these caliber of players, which is even more true with Nick Young (who hasn’t been playing great, but can explode on any given night to improve the Lakers’ chances) already ruled out with his sprained ankle.

In saying all that, there are a few things I’ll be monitoring tonight, specifically how a few Lakers fare in their individual match ups against their Bulls counterparts.

The first, of course, is Jordan Clarkson facing off against Derrick Rose. There may not be a more “trial by fire” position in the league for a young player than point guard. Clarkson has already had to defend Tony Parker and John Wall and be defended by Patrick Beverly. Tonight he faces Rose who, while not at the level he was when he won the MVP a few years ago, is still a load to deal with. I’ll be interested in seeing how Clarkson deals with the pressure Rose puts on him defensively. I’ll also be interested in seeing how he manages against a Bulls defense that is typically very good at dealing with perimeter players who love to attack off the dribble.

Secondly, I really do want to see if Ed Davis, Jordan Hill, and Tarik Black can hold their own against Pau, Noah, and Taj Gibson on both ends. The three Bulls are the superior players, no doubt. But the Lakers’ trio offer solid games of their own and have an ability to do damage in the paint on the glass and as release valves when slashing/diving/cutting around the rim. I am interested in seeing what, if anything, they do against a very good front court duo like what the Bulls offer.

Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time on TNT. Also listen live on ESPN Radio 710AM Los Angeles.

 

The Lakers are 1-11 in their last twelve games. They have lost eight games in a row – their longest streak of the season. Their last win was 18 days ago against a Magic team who is also quite bad. The team is currently 21 games under .500 and 13.5 games back of the 8th seed in the Western conference. Oh, yeah, and Kobe Bryant is set to have surgery on his torn rotator cuff on Wednesday, which will almost surely end up sidelining him for the rest of the season.

The details of the win-loss record and streaks will change over the course of the season, but the general feel of despair that comes from the words in that paragraph above will not. The Lakers are a bad team and will continue to be a bad team. They have not shown to be particularly well coached nor play particularly well for longer than half a game on most nights (and that might be generous). The only things still worth truly watching for this season are the following:

  • Jordan Clarkson, Ryan Kelly, and Tarik Black’s development as potential rotation players.
  • What moves, if any, the Lakers make leading up to and at the trade deadline next month.
  • Whether or not the Lakers end up with a record that makes keeping their top-5 protected draft pick in the upcoming draft a strong proposition or a coin-flip.

Some might argue that there are some other things to include in that list, and I’m willing to entertain them. But for me, that’s about it. I’m not looking for any major breakthrough in philosophy from Byron Scott. I’m not looking for Jordan Hill or Ed Davis or Jeremy Lin to suddenly start out-performing their season norms. This is it, you guys. 38 more games of this.

With that, it’s the opponents who become the most interesting part of most nights that the Lakers play. Tonight that is probably more true than most others as the Wizards come to town. In the past, that last second would be followed by some sort of sarcastic snicker, but those days are long gone. These Wizards are currently 30-15 on the year and have the 2nd best record in the East. They are powered by John Wall, but have incredible balance with Bradley Beal, Nene, Marcin Gortat, Paul Pierce, and Andre Miller all offering strong contributions.

But, really, Wall is the main attraction. After all, he does things like this:

And, THIS:

AND THIS:

I mean. Come on, now. Wall is one of the most exciting players in the league and it’s no longer just the league pass junkies who recognize it. Wall will start in the all-star game, beating out more established names like Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade.

And if Wall isn’t enough, there’s always the other guys I mentioned above. Beal isn’t quite at Klay Thompson’s level yet, but he is one of the best up and coming shooting guards in the league. I have always had an affinity for Nene’s combination of bruising physicality and touch/skill all over the floor. And there’s Paul Pierce. Ha. I’m just kidding. I have nothing good to say about Paul Pierce.

In any event. This game will be on tonight. You should watch it to see how Clarkson does against a top flight point guard, to see if Nick Young has a revenge game against his old team, and to watch the other team’s really good players play well.

Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM Los Angeles.

Whatever is left of Kobe Bryant will ultimately result in dividing some of his most loyal fans.

The news that a rotator cuff injury will probably prematurely end another season – third straight – for Kobe brings joy to no one. Not the league, not the fans, opponents or those covering basketball.

Bryant is simply too much of a force of nature in terms of personality and talent. Some of the things he’s done on the floor over the course of his career are born out of an impressive imagination coupled with the bravado to attempt them in-game. Kobe’s mental toughness is perhaps unparalleled, and his will has yet to be broken.

The one time Bryant ever displayed any sign of weakness was in the aftermath of an Achilles rupture a few seasons ago. He appeared saddened and distraught, and yet, the Lakers’ all-time leading scorer quickly quipped that he wasn’t done.

“There are far greater issues/challenges in the world than a torn Achilles,” Kobe wrote in a Facebook post. “Stop feeling sorry for yourself, find the silver lining and get to work with the same belief, same drive and same conviction as ever. One day, the beginning of a new career journey will commence. Today is NOT that day.”

Mortal he is not.

As result, the Kobe book cannot be closed…yet. It feels as though he has so much more to offer as evidenced by his transformation this season. Bryant has looked more like a mentor on the floor and less like an assassin. He’s taking teammates under his wing and showing them the way, instead of barreling through defenders to lead them through it.

The five-time champion is still a fierce competitor, and very few can walk along his path as he so eloquently put it, per The Washington Post’s Michael Lee:

“Listen, man. There are not a lot of players in this league that say, ‘Come hell or high water, we’re going to get this [expletive] done.’ People can look around and joke around about winning, saying they want to win. For me, it’s a matter of life or death. It was that important to me. And if it’s that important to me, I’m going to get there.”

Interestingly enough, that gladiator mentality has slowly taken a different form. Kobe appears far more jovial against his opposition, as the end of his career approaches. This was mostly evident when Bryant kept exchanging pleasantries with LeBron James during a home tilt against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

“Some years ago, both competing for championships, it was a little different,” Bryant said after the loss to Cleveland, according to ESPNLA.com’s Baxter Holmes. “It was a lot more moody. Now it’s a little different. I’ve got a chance to really appreciate the competition and enjoy that interaction. We’ve gotten to know each other really well over the years. It’s good to see him.”

This is a version of Kobe that is foreign to many. I wouldn’t call it a softer side, rather he’s less guarded, and it’s an iteration that I want to observe more with the benefit of additional games.

In the same breath, it’s impossible to look at this future Hall of Famer without openly wondering whether it’s finally time to close the curtain.

Kobe’s bulletproof legacy will not be tarnished by anything that happens the rest of the way, but the feelings of the collective masses might slowly take a different route. The newest memories will never surpass the oldest and most important ones, but they will become the fresher ones nonetheless.

Imagine watching a hobbled Kobe misfiring on multiple contested three-point fadeaway shots and then thinking to yourself “man, those you used to be easy shots for him.” Worse yet, there’s a realistic scenario where Bryant rehabs his most recent injury only to return next season and back up Nick Young.

This might sound ludicrous at first glance, but both are posting similar per-36-minute scoring numbers and shooting percentages this year. Bryant’s been the superior rebounder and playmaker, while Young has been better at avoiding turnovers.

Considering that Kobe will be 37 years old at the start of next season, it’s certainly logical to expect his physical state to deteriorate further. If that’s the case, L.A. could be better off cutting his minutes in favor of Young, who turns 30 in June.

Is there any plausible scenario that exists where Bryant loyalists would accept such a development? I’m not sure whether I or anyone else for that matter is prepared for a world where a healthy but older version of Kobe is no longer the Purple and Gold’s best player.

As terrifying as that scenario sounds, it’s the one Lakers Nation will likely have to face if it truly wants one last chapter, page or verse to be included in the Kobe hardcover. If that sounds like a source of conflict, it certainly is.

As someone with a healthy appreciation for Hall of Fame speeches, I can openly admit that Bryant’s last title (2009-10 season) – the one that broke the tie in ring count between he and Shaquille O’Neal – led me to believe his elocution would surpass Michael Jordan’s jab-heavy Hall of Fame acceptance.

Kobe only becomes eligible for the Hall five years after retirement, which means that calling it quits fairly soon is in order for fans to hear him address all in Springfield as soon as possible.

Therein lies the conundrum with Kobe Bean. One would hope he could make everything happen all at once, but Bryant simply can’t.

Should I stay or should I go?

It’s one or the other, and one would think it will be an agonizing choice.

Kobe’s never done things easy over the course of his career, and it sure looks like his next decision will follow suit. Fans will have a hard time with whatever direction he chooses, but let’s give Kobe a shot to close his career on his own terms.

Until he does, the best thing left to say is…

Thank you for the memories Mr. Bryant.

Luckily for me, I’d say, I did not watch the Lakers/Spurs game live. A review of the film, however, pretty much reinforced what the boxscore told me. The biggest item from that boxscore, of course, was that Jeremy Lin did not play a minute. Lin was hurdled in the rotation by rookie Jordan Clarkson (who enjoyed a fine performance in his first start of his NBA career) with Price serving as his backup. After the game, Lin left his media availability after speaking to one reporter and while Byron Scott was still answering questions of most of the beat reporters. There was some controversy around that, but in reality I don’t make much of it. If Lin didn’t want to speak, I’m okay with it considering he’s typically taken any and all questions all year without any issues.

In any event, we’ll see if Lin’s role changes tonight. One thing we do know for sure, is that the Lakers’ starters will not:

I’d get worked up about this, but honestly, I don’t see much point in doing so. Scott seems to be skewing younger and that’s a good thing. My opinion about how to do this is different, but not so much as to get so upset over:

I should clarify, not worth getting so upset over if you’re anyone but Jeremy Lin. In the lineup Scott played on Friday, Lin was the odd man out and as long as Scott’s love of Price remains at its current levels, that will likely continue. The fact that Lin is stuck behind Price is, to me, at least, comical at best. But, maybe that’s just me. It’s not because Lin has been some all world talent this year that has earned playing time without questions about how it should be deployed or adjusted from game to game. But, simply, that Lin is a better player than Price when you total the sums of their contributions and abilities on the court. The fact that Scott either A). doesn’t see this or B). does see it and plays Price anyway doesn’t much matter — both are wrong and that’s that.

Anyways, when it comes to tonight, the Lakers will play a Rockets’ team that will likely be without Dwight Howard. Dwight is a bit banged up – but the bigger takeaway is that the Lakers, especially without Kobe, have become the team you can rest your best players against and still likely win. If this game had more meaning to the Rockets or if the outcome was seriously in doubt, I’d bet Dwight plays. But, you know, those things aren’t true.

And, so, here we are. I could talk about what I’d like to see tonight, but I’ll probably just write about Jordan Clarkson another time. After all, he’s pretty much the only new thing to discuss when it comes to this team right now. And probably the only “fun” thing worth discussing too. Read those last two sentences again and poor out a cup for the Lakers’ season. This is what it has come to.

Where you can watch: 6:30pm start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM Los Angeles.