The Los Angeles Lakers are champions once more.
Ok, so it’s only a Summer League title, but the league’s glamour franchise has had a rough go of it lately. Losing games, missing the playoffs, Steve Nash’s back, Kobe Bryant’s Achilles, Dwight Howard’s everything, Dr. Buss’ passing…the list goes on and on.
So it’s understandable if Lakers fans celebrate their 2017 Summer League title a bit more than they should. This is a franchise that has won at the highest levels. Los Angeles fans have tasted ambrosia but been forced to survive on Ramen over the last few years.
It may not be a “real” championship, but it feels good to eat again.
Still, Summer League exists to allow draftees to get their feet wet before being thrown into the deep end. It exists for almost-was players to prove that they still could make it. It exists for assistant coaches to get some reps at the helm without hurting the team’s record.
In the grand scheme of things, a Summer League championship doesn’t mean a whole lot because most teams don’t have winning at the top of their priority list in Las Vegas.
And yet, for the Lakers, it matters.
It matters that a kid named Lonzo Ball helped create a culture based on selflessness and ball movement in an environment where every player is fighting for themselves.
Just like he has done at every stop along the way, Ball was the Pied Piper of Passing, leading the team down the path to victory. If that transformative ability bleeds over to the regular season, the Lakers are going to find themselves having a lot of fun running with Ball.
No one is putting Summer League MVP on a serious list of Ball’s accomplishments when he someday hangs up the hightops, but for a Lakers team begging for a superstar, it’s a real sign of hope for the future.
It matters that 27th overall pick Kyle Kuzma made Summer League second team and actually had a strong argument for first team. His three-point shooting and defense were both well above what was expected coming out of college, and while he still has to show he can perform at this level again NBA-caliber athletes, he looks like potentially the steal of the draft.
His play also makes the highly-criticized D’Angelo Russell trade look a bit better, since the pick used to select Kuzma was one of the main assets the Lakers received in return for the 27th overall pick.
Even more important, Kuzma had instant chemistry with Ball, becoming his favorite target on highlight-reel outlet passes that looked more like something out of the NFL than the NBA. Ball-to-Kuzma touchdown passes should be a blast for the next decade.
Moreover, despite playing in only one game, Brandon Ingram showcased everything the Lakers could have been hoping to see. He was an unstoppable scorer on the offensive end, a pterodactyl-winged defensive terror on the other, and his passing ability in the open floor was a revelation.
Ingram’s work ethic is already impressive, and the leap forward that he flashed in Summer League adds legitimacy to the tales from the training room about his dedication.
It’s easy to see why Magic Johnson considers him and Ball to be the faces of the franchise.
It seemed that almost everyone in purple and gold showed flashes of brilliance, exceeding expectations at every turn. Alex Caruso played so well that the Lakers rewarded him with a two-way contract before the tournament was even over, and his outburst against the Sacramento Kings with Ball on the bench will forever exist as Las Vegas Summer League legend.
Thomas Bryant showcased his unique set of skills, blocking shots and draining threes while looking like every moment was the greatest of his life. Matt Thomas was a human flamethrower, scorching the nets so bad that Bobby Drake was sweating.
Vander Blue got better with each game, flashing the scoring ability that made him the D-League MVP last season but then making real strides as a playmaker as the tournament went on.
When all was said and done, the Lakers stood alone, hoisting a trophy. It was a familiar scene, and one that has been absent for too long. It may just be Summer League, and the swarms of fans of 29 other teams will dismiss it as such, but that would be a mistake.
For months now, the tide has been turning. After the final buzzer sounded, Johnson proclaimed that the Lakers were back.
It may be a bit premature to say that, but there is little doubt that they are well on their way.