The King has come to Los Angeles, and everything is going to change.
Say goodbye to the plucky upstarts who have won our hearts — but very few games — over the past five years, store away your memories of the never-ending rebuild, and get ready for a new chapter in Laker lore.
Now, this is going to be... different.
Tuesday, the Lakers said goodbye to Julius Randle, the team’s longest-tenured player, and the last active player who had shared the court with Kobe Bryant (although Luke Walton and Brian Shaw remain on the bench).
Perhaps more significantly, Randle was the last remnant of the 2014 draft class. The team’s 2014 and 2015 draft picks — Randle, Jordan Clarkson, D’Angelo Russell, Larry Nance Jr., and Anthony Brown — are now all gone. The first two years of the rebuild have been almost entirely wiped away, not counting the assets gained from the trades of Russell, Clarkson, and Nance. It is the clearest indicator that the Lakers are moving on to a new phase of team-building.
Randle’s departure is a tough pill to swallow as the Lakers were unable to extract any value from his contract, a fact made even more disappointing since his new team, the New Orleans Pelicans, signed him at the same annual value that the Lakers gave to former Pelican Rajon Rondo.
Watching Randle come back from breaking his leg in his first NBA game to become a bruising force who inflicted gobs of pain on opposing players in the past year was a delight, and it’s a shame that his journey will not continue in Los Angeles.
Brandon Ingram, Ivica Zubac, and Luol Deng are now the longest-tenured Lakers. What a world.
In addition to lacking some familiar faces in purple and gold, the new recruits are not exactly in the same mold as the lovable cast of one-year fliers who have graced Staples Center the past few seasons.
Since Kobe’s Achilles injury set the team on a rebuilding path, the Lakers have stocked the roster with players looking to quickly rehab their value, or those acquired in salary dumps. They have not only lacked competitive talent, but also any great antagonists for opposing teams and crowds. Lance Stephenson and Rajon Rondo immediately change that dynamic.
Stephenson’s signing would have made more sense had Los Angeles signed his good buddy Paul George in free agency. As it stands, Stephenson has been one of the most boisterous NBA heels in recent memory, ironically providing a low-level foil to new teammate LeBron James for most of his career.
His new backcourt-mate Rondo, now on his sixth team in five seasons, hasn't exactly won a great deal of admirers from afar in the latter half of his career either. Laker fans will struggle to reconcile watching a former Celtic champion switch sides, and his bug-eyed intensity figures to grate on all nine other players on the floor at any given moment.
The style of play in L.A. will presumably change with the roster as well. Walton has emphasized passing the ball 300 times per game since he became the head coach, and the team’s inability to reach that target will likely not be aided by the presence of James and Stephenson. The two of them both come from below-average passing offenses and play at slower paces than the Lakers did this past season, with Stephenson in particular being known as a player who dribbles the air out of the ball.
So yes, the Los Angeles Lakers won’t exactly look like what we’ve grown accustomed to when the 2018-19 season tips off.
No longer will the Lakers enter most contests as underdogs, or deal with not having the best player on the floor. No longer will the team not have someone to throw the ball to to make free throws at the end of a close game or find value in moral victories.
Los Angeles has been in this rebuild for five years now, waiting for the light at the end of the tunnel that would signify a return to contention. We’ve grown comfortable rooting for losing teams with no stakes, finding amusement in the minutia and Twitter roasting that entertains us but doesn’t necessary lead to wins.
But this was always the end game. LeBron James was the end game.
The kids are no longer front and center, but here we are. Welcome to the next great Laker team.