Think back on NBA history. Try to remember rookies who stepped in and immediately altered their franchise’s outlook.
Prospects who had early success like James Worthy, Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant joined at least borderline title teams. Tim Duncan may have to a certain extent, though he did so mostly because of some pretty ridiculous luck. Some might mention Michael Jordan, though he didn’t reach the second round of the playoffs until his fourth year, enduring two sweeps along the way. Even LeBron James failed to make the playoffs in his first two seasons and was eliminated early in his third trip to the postseason before finally famously taking the world by storm in his fourth.
The lesson: entrusting the entire organization’s outlook to a rookie without much help from elsewhere on the roster isn’t ideal and rarely works out for either side.
Next season, the Lakers’ young core of D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle look forward to something no Lakers rookie has ever gone through before: the pressure of immediately altering the course of an entire organization. Will the pressure make diamonds, or crush an exciting group of kids under it completely? The Lakers desperately hope for the former as all season, you can imagine potential free agents will be watching from afar.
The Lakers’ offseason has played out fairly well, especially when you consider Mitch Kupchak & Co. had to recover from again being passed up by the top targets of the summer. Both LaMarcus Aldridge and DeAndre Jordan looked at San Antonio and Dallas, respectively, and saw better situations where they might have a better chance at contending perennially.
Russell, Randle and Jordan Clarkson represent the Lakers’ best and, if we’re being completely honest, only asset Kevin Durant might look at with some promise moving forward when he’s a free agent in one year’s time. Sure, the Lakers offer financial flexibility to bring in someone else the following summer, but hasn’t that been their claim this year and last? And look how that’s turned out.
Instead, Durant and anyone else interested in playing for the Lakers will have the opportunity to watch three fifths of the ideal starting lineup compete this weekend in the Las Vegas Summer League.
Fortunately, though, these guys have each other to lean on. We’re operating under the assumption Randle is essentially a rookie, as he played all of 14 minutes before his leg shattered. I won’t go so far as to say the pressure in any way, shape or form led to that tragic injury, but as an English grad, it’s hard not to see some sort of irony there. There was Randle, attempting to hold the franchise up on his albeit broad shoulders, then, CRACK, there he went.
Just as Kobe has multiple times, Randle sat there in a heap on the ground understanding what had occurred looking forward to a long and arduous recovery program. Again, there is no possible correlation between the weight of the franchise and the Lakers’ broken bones and torn ligaments, but I can’t imagine it helps much, either.
In terms of basketball responsibilities, the roster is now somehow littered with players who can create for themselves and, more importantly, others. Clarkson’s stellar rookie season means he’ll have some momentum as he prepares to play alongside Russell, who did pretty well in his lone season at Ohio State, where he carried a mediocre Buckeyes team to a fun run in the NCAA Tournament. He’s been there before, and would seem ready to do so again.
Lakers fans, there’s your backcourt.
The aforementioned Randle, who by all accounts has blown away the coaching staff and front office alike with his work ethic and skillset in workouts this summer has also been there before. In his one season at Kentucky, he carried a young team all the way to the National Championship game despite have under-performed for much of the regular season. Again, he’s been here before, and he’ll have a pretty perfect counterpart in Hibbert, who looks to make up for any of Randle’s defensive deficiencies.
Hibbert has been inconsistent for long stretches, but he’s immediately better than anyone Randle might have played with last year. That’ll go a long way in easing any increased organizational pressure Randle might feel.
Add to that trio and group of veterans up and down the roster who have all been here before and that Kobe guy has done well carrying this organization. Sure, he hasn’t always been the greatest mentor to young players, but one would think he understands what exactly is at stake here. One thing Bryant has always respected has been work ethic, something these kids seemingly have in droves.
At the end of the day, the Lakers and this core find themselves in quite the precarious situation: their success is directly linked to each other. Not just this season, but also for the foreseeable future.
Yes, it’s quite the weight; but it is nice to think Russell, Randle and Clarkson can share the burden.