“I don’t see why we don’t contend for a playoff spot,” he said. “But our young players have to grow beyond their years and we have to stay healthy.”
Before I focused solely on writing about the NBA, I worked in public relations. One of – if not the – top priorities was to temper clients’ expectations, which is exactly why I was slightly taken aback when Mitch Kupchak made his comments on the Lakers’ playoff hopes. Why go there?
When the Lakers’ summer league team went to Las Vegas, the talent on the team and these undo expectations informed what many thought would be a nice showing. The end result, however, was a summer league that, in many ways, played out like a microcosm of what we’ll probably see this season.
I was there for those first few games. The atmosphere in each of them was incredible, though I’m not sure it was worth the effect losing in front of those record-breaking crowds had on the players, many of whom not even old enough to partake in Las Vegas’ more notorious activities.
Here’s D’Angelo Russell after last night’s game, via NBCLA’s Shahan Ahmed:
Russell: "Lakers are not used to losing. When we lose, it's not like we let ourselves or the team down. We let the whole Laker nation down."
— Shahan Ahmed (@shahanLA) July 16, 2015
A group of kids shouldn’t bear this kind of pressure for a group of exhibition games with only a handful of practices together under their belts, yet, throughout social media, there were the #SummerLeagueChamps slogans weighing on every turnover, every missed shot.
Let’s compare this week’s activities to how this season will probably go.
Thanks to an overhaul of the roster centered on youth, fans lined up to watch the Lakers’ future play together for the first time ever. Jordan Clarkson had reportedly gotten stronger and improved his jumper – making him nearly unguardable in theory. Teammates raved about Julius Randle’s strength and the aforementioned Russell’s passing ability. Combine those guys with role players like Tarik Black and Jabari Brown and expectations reached a fever pitch despite these guys having only shared a court for roughly a week.
Thousands flocked to UNLV’s Thomas & Mack arena to watch their team compete for the most worthless of titles. When they failed to do so, boos even rained down from the rafters. Yeah, that’s great for confidence.
Because the team struggled so mightily in terms of wins and losses, however, it became too easy to ignore the development they displayed from Friday to last night. The summer league title means a exponentially less than these kids’ development. This should go without saying, but alas, Lakers.
Now, let’s predict the narrative surrounding the start to the regular season.
Heading into training camp, we’ll hear plenty from practice and workouts how players have “added muscle” or “improved on their jumper” which will get the conversation around the team going. Then, as training camp rolls on, the reports of how veteran teammates are impressed by the young guys’ progress will really get fans going. Right before the season, we’ll probably hear talk of playoffs again, overlooking how nearly half the starting five partook and couldn’t scratch a .500 record in Vegas only months prior.
Sound familiar? I’ll go out on a limb and predict a slow start and some irritated fans to go with it. I repeat, however: wins and losses this season come a distant second in terms of priorities to overall development. In other words, I’d much rather watch the team struggle early and hit some kind of stride midway and later into the season compared to watching the team slug out a 35-40-win season where the team plays at relatively the same level all year. There’s a difference between the two.
Which brings me back to my point, and it’s something I’ve written before: we have to make a more concerted effort to temper our expectations consistently. Optimism if fun, and much of what drives conversations about sports nowadays comes from the unknown of player movement. This issue with the unknown is, fairly obviously, we have no idea about it. So, why let what we don’t know get in the way of enjoying what we’re watching?
The summer league in Vegas was a blast and it’s something I’ll never forget. We got to watch firsthand as the foundation upon which the Lakers hope to rebuild was introduced to everyone. Could they have played better? Sure. Should that cast a shadow on the flashes they showed? Not even close. So, now that we’ve experienced what hype can do to our perception of actual performance, use caution as we prepare for the season.