I’ve always been fascinated with the concept of a “clean slate,” a phrase I cling onto most often after bad hangovers with the lie I tell myself — “Never again, now I start fresh.” Slip on my New Year’s Resolution to go to the gym more and eat healthier, I just tell myself “from today I’ll be good.” A clean slate can be granted from a forgiving loved one, or it can be a challenging consequence of moving to a new city or starting a new job.
At this time it is fair to say that the Lakers organization is going through their “clean slate” phase. Kobe is no longer playing for the team, and any team-building decisions, coaching hires or contract extensions that have been made with the “Kobe lens” are no longer justification for what the team does.
From key players to front office, here are some “clean slates” for the 2016-2017 Lakers:
Mitch Kupchak & Jim Buss
This is a clear case where a clean slate is both a welcome development and a scary proposition. The regime generally responsible for the last Lakers championship has also overseen the past couple years of directionless struggle, but now can build the next generation of this franchise after saying a final goodbye to the previous one.
Previous successes have long been forgotten by many fans and commentators, with the last two years written off as the Kobe Farewell. This clean slate started in the summer, and their vision included signing Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng, both capable veterans, and hiring a young and promising head coach in Luke Walton. How their draft picks, free agents, future trades and coaching hire pan out from this moment forward will determine how long the current regime will stay in power. If the Lakers show growth, the clamoring for change will silence. If they improbably regress? The voices asking for their removal will rightfully get louder.
The young, handsome, dashing, perfect, smart, charismatic, brilliant Luke Walton comes to the Lakers with quite a honeymoon period considering the Last Guy but also comes with a 0-0 record as an NBA head coach. What he accomplished in Oakland both as an assistant and interim head coach was undoubtedly impressive, but not definitive proof that he is ready to lead an organization from scratch the way he is being asked to in LA. Luke will have the eager ear of the young core and the respect from the veterans out of the gate earned from his time as a player and for his accomplishments with the Warriors, but that respect is conditional.
For a team that’s not going to compete meaningfully this year, the Lakers have a lot of depth, veterans included, at multiple positions and there will be players that play less than they expect. Does Luke Walton have what it takes to manage that challenge?
The loudest and most obnoxious commentary about D’Angelo Russell came out of his “Snapchat incident” with Nick Young, but it wasn’t the only criticism he received last year. Behind the scenes, rumors about his questionable work ethic and maturity swirled constantly all season, justified or not, and these rumors received mainstream national attention. Many things about last year have simply been written off due to the Last Guy, but it is on D’Angelo to show that all of those criticisms were unjustified.
The blank slate may help in erasing the Snaps, but it also presents him with the challenge of rising to his billing as the No. 2 pick behind Karl-Anthony Towns in a draft that also featured Kristaps Porzingis, Devin Booker, Justise Winslow and more. The first impression D’Angelo has placed on the new coaching staff has been extremely positive, but Russell’s penchant to publicly throw shade at Byron Scott has approached borderline inappropriateness and would lend credence to his maturity issues. On opening night, he starts fresh — with a lot to prove.
Nick Young may very well not make the opening night roster, but for the time being he will be at training camp and will also be granted the clean slate. While I’ve consistently advocated for Mitch Kupchak to officially waive him for his post-Snapchat incident behavior, the fact that he’s still on the roster grants him a second (or third, fourth, fifth?) chance to show that he can be a productive member of this team.
Nick’s best year came under Mike D’Antoni’s offensive system that was very high paced and created open shooting opportunities, allowing Nick to freelance on the perimeter. While I highly doubt Young will have the same freedom or the same minutes under Luke Walton, there is a chance that he can provide some scoring punch off the bench if either injuries hit the roster or the team is in a genuinely cold slump in need of an unexpected boost. In regards to the character issues, the same clean slate that D’Angelo will receive is one that Young is entitled to as well. If Luke Walton is truly committed to changing the culture of the organization and locker room and Nick Young buys in, he is more valuable on the roster rather than just being dead money on the Lakers salary cap.