It was February 27, 2015. The Los Angeles Lakers were amidst an inexplicable three-game winning streak and the “Team Tank” podcast was in its infancy. While recording, I could hardly find the words to speak I was so incensed.
[Quick side note: Holy crap those old shows are embarrassing. Moving on.]
Thursday night’s victory against the Phoenix Suns was not that — not remotely so.
At the time of that winning streak a couple years ago, then head coach Byron Scott maintained the belief that only veterans could win close games. His being objectively wrong about that with the roster at the time was only part of the frustration.
Veterans won games late as then rookie Jordan Clarkson sat entire fourth quarters, quite literally the worst-case scenario given everything at stake at the time. Not only were the Lakers hurting their chances of keeping their pick, but the players doing so were almost guaranteed not to stick around that offseason, netting the organization nothing in return.
Fast forward to Thursday night as the Lakers won on the backs of D’Angelo Russell, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle and the rest of the young core and the difference could not possibly be more stark.
Youth has been empowered.
The head coach is open to communication with the young core.
When the team is called soft, it’s with the disclaimer that they can get better and the conversations as to how they might have gone beyond manning up.
Did I mention the youth has been empowered?
Over the last few years, even when rookies were on the court late, their job was to get a veteran (usually Kobe) the ball and get out of the way. Thursday night, even as the Suns went on an insane run late in the fourth, there was no crutch for the kids to lean on. If the ship was to be steered away from a game-losing iceberg, the course would be righted by Russell’s icy veins, and it was.
At some point, young teams need to learn what it takes to win. That can’t happen while losses pile up and it especially won’t happen from the bench. Beating the Suns could very well be something we look back on if the Lakers slip down a couple spots and eventually lose their pick.
Lonzo Ball, Markelle Fultz or whoever else you might’ve read about in mock drafts will have to learn these things wherever they wind up. If or when one of those guys get to Los Angeles, it would greatly aid their development to be surrounded by guys with some kind of understanding of what goes into success in the NBA.
Thursday night, we saw Luke Walton find a young crew to finish the game with and stick with that plan even as the game looked to be slipping away. Those on the court who earned the victory will remember that (even subconsciously) the next time that kind of situation arises.
Young players need all the help they can get. A coach showing that kind of confidence is a great start.
Another thing to notice during the course of the game were Larry Nance, Jr. and Randle stepping out to shoot threes even before the last few seconds of the shot clock.
We don’t know for sure quite yet whether that was something the coaching staff specifically asked to see, but if it was, that’s another example of the organization understanding what’s best long-term and putting that ahead of what might win (or not lose) a single regular season game no one will remember years from now.
Losing Thursday would obviously have helped the Lakers’ chances of keeping their pick in a couple months. That goes without saying. So, honestly, why say it, especially with that statement being such an oversimplification?
The Lakers faced another bad NBA team featuring a young core of its own and the more talented group won last night. The Lakers can’t help it if the game turns out that way.
But for those looking at this as a black-and-white situation, nuance is important. Had Clarkson been the driving force of a wing against the Milwaukee Bucks a couple years ago, we would not have debated which items are best to throw at the TV.
I had no problem whatsoever cheering for a win last night alongside my wife and everyone else watching in the cantina we went to because the players I was rooting for have a future with the team. Not recognizing that difference will only make an already tough-to-swallow season basically unfathomable.
With so few wins probably coming the rest of the way, you may as well enjoy good times when you can — especially if it’s what’s actually best for the organization, anyway.