ESPN Senior Writer
If you think it’s hard to shake off a century’s worth of baseball futility, just try to break away from decades of basketball success.
The Los Angeles Lakers, NBA royalty, had always been the opposite of the Chicago Cubs. That once-pleasant distinction is now their problem, the challenge of shedding the trappings of that rich history when that’s precisely what they need to do to morph into a contending team once again.
So even as general manager Mitch Kupchak sat in a room in Lakers headquarters and proclaimed “It’s all new” with this 2016-17 edition of the team, on the wall behind him were framed pictures of Kobe Bryant, James Worthy, Jerry Buss with Magic Johnson, and Jerry West. On the wall across from him where pictures of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain. The past is ever-present with this team.
“You come into the practice facility and walk the halls, and you see pictures of all-time greats,” said first-year coach Luke Walton, who went to the Lakers’ past four trips to the NBA Finals as a player.
Yet even with Walton’s return to Lakerland, this is as separated as the franchise has ever been from its glory days. Kobe Bryant retired and Byron Scott was let go as coach and in one offseason, there went two central figures from the Staples Center and Showtime eras. For added measure, athletic trainer Gary Vitti, one of the bridges between the two dynasties, retired. Jerry West has been gone since 2000, “The Voice of the Lakers” Chick Hearn died in 2002, Shaquille O’Neal was traded in 2004, Jerry Buss passed away in 2013 and Magic Johnson’s name was taken off the company masthead this past year after one tweet too many. Kupchak, who transitioned from playing to the front office in the 1980s, is practically the only name from the past left in the building.
“I mean, you can’t hold on to everything forever,” Kupchak said.
Every member of the coaching staff except for Mark Madsen is new. Two new therapists and a new strength and conditioning coach will report to Vitti’s replacement, Marco Nunez. There are two new hires for the analytics department. There’s a practice facility under construction a few blocks away from their current site in El Segundo.
“A lot of it’s almost like pressing a reset button,” Kupchak said.
That includes a shift in the philosophy of building the team. No longer will you see the Lakers take the approach that failed them in recent off-seasons: patching together rosters with players whose primary attributes were expiring contracts that would create the salary cap space for the Lakers to pursue a star free agent. After Dwight Howard walked out the door and the likes of Carmelo Anthony and LaMarcus Aldridge turned them down in recent summers, it was time to scrap that approach. Not only had the rules that once enabled them to sign Shaquille O’Neal changed (the Lakers can no longer outbid teams, or offer the same number of years as a player’s current team), so had the landscape.
“You have to have assets; cap room alone is overrated,” Kupchak said. “I think if you talk to teams in the NBA for the last four or five years that have had all kinds of cap room, it’s a stressful situation. Because you’ve got to go out there and pay non-max players, you’ve got to overpay to get somebody, depending on the city. And you might not get somebody. And then you kick the can down the road a year and try to do the same thing next summer.”
That’s why this year, rather than fish for the biggest names in the free agency pond, the Lakers quickly signed Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng to contracts worth a combined $136 million over four years. It’s explained by Kupchak’s one-word expectation for this season: progress. Young teams don’t win in the NBA. Adding those two veterans to the all-under-25 group of Julius Randle, D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, Brandon Ingram, Larry Nance Jr. and Ivica Zubac was designed to make the Lakers incrementally better, faster.
Taking small steps isn’t the traditional Laker way. It’s also a potentially risky strategy for this Laker administration under executive vice president for basketball operations Jim Buss, who had pledged to step down after this season if the Lakers have not returned to contending status. A new name at the top could potentially mean new names throughout the organization, including Kupchak’s job.
“My only goal is to get this franchise on solid footing with young players, free agents and flexibility,” Kupchak said. “And I think we’ve done that.
“I don’t know how many games we’re going to win. But my hope is that as the season goes on, our fans, our partners, the TV audience can watch this team play and see growth and see enthusiasm. Luke is not an experienced coach, but I’m hoping as this season goes on everybody can watch a coach become a good coach. And watch young players develop and grow. And I want to see exciting basketball. That’s my focus. To get involved in anything else from where I sit is counterproductive. And that’s really all I focus on.”
These are different days in Lakerland, when the immediate goals aren’t championships, and the players are guaranteed to hang on the walls one day. How will this play? Well, Denzel Washington is a good indicator to follow. He isn’t so much a hardcore Laker fan as he is a fan of the sport at its highest level. He typically only sits in his courtside seats when he expects a good game. He was there on opening night, and after the Lakers’ high-scoring victory over the Houston Rockets he said, with a touch of surprise in his voice, “I like what I see.”