D'Angelo Russell scored 20 points and Julius Randle added 18 points, seven rebounds and six assists for the young Lakers, who got off to an exciting start in the franchise's first season without Kobe Bryant since 1995.
With a revamped roster coming off the worst season in the 16-time champion team's history, Los Angeles surged in the fourth quarter of an auspicious opener under Walton, the 36-year-old former Lakers forward.
James Harden had 34 points, a career-high 17 assists and eight rebounds for the Rockets, who lost in former Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni's debut on the Houston bench.
LOS ANGELES -- Jack Nicholson looked on from his usual courtside seat beside music legend Lou Adler, each donning sunglasses, as always. NBA commissioner Adam Silver stood along the baseline, a hand over his heart. Fans packed the Staples Center stands around them, leaving few empty seats. And as a young woman, aglow in a spotlight, began belting out the national anthem, one of those fans shouted down into the darkness, “We love you, Kobe!”
But for the first time in two decades' worth of season openers for the NBA’s glamour franchise, Kobe Bryant wasn’t anywhere to be found. The Los Angeles Lakers icon retired in April after 20 seasons in purple and gold, having won five NBA championships. On Wednesday against the Houston Rockets, the Lakers played their first regular-season game since then without him and won 120-114.
Instead of focusing on Bryant, as the Lakers had all last season during a whirlwind farewell tour capped by an unforgettable 60-point finale, the team highlighted its promising youth during a pregame video tribute. “The time is now!” it touted between highlight clips. And when first-year coach Luke Walton was introduced, the crowd roared its approval, with many fans howling “Luuuuuke” as they had during his eight-and-a-half years (and two titles) as a Lakers player.
Those same young players lived up to the pregame hype, electrifying a crowd that turned delirious in the final minutes after several key plays helped the Lakers seal an impressive win –- no small feat for a team that notched only 17 wins last season. Third-year shooting guard Jordan Clarkson carried the Lakers home with 25 points off the bench –- including several late buckets –- and second-year point guard D'Angelo Russell scored 20.
“The guys really fought,” Walton said. “A big part of what we are trying to do here is develop this identity, this culture. We keep using [that] word and learning how to win games is part of figuring out who we are and it’s a skill at this level.”
Walton, who at 36 is the NBA’s youngest head coach, had several family members on hand for his head-coaching debut with the Lakers, including his three brothers, mother Susie and father and NBA legend Bill Walton, who sat in on his son's pregame media session, wearing a purple and gold Lakers shirt in the back of the room, beaming from ear to ear.
While Bill looked on with pride, Luke, who spent the past two seasons as an assistant coach with the mighty Golden State Warriors, discussed taking over a rebuilding team that posted a franchise-worst 17-65 record last season and has missed the playoffs for three straight seasons, a franchise-long drought.
“Fans are smart,” Luke Walton said. “They know that it takes time. After every dynasty ends, there’s always that rebuilding process -- maybe not with the Spurs and Patriots, but with every other team that’s ever played.”
He added, “It’s not like we’re rebuilding from the first step right now. [The Lakers have] put in some pain already.”
Indeed, the Lakers’ historic slide has netted them three consecutive lottery picks: forward Julius Randle, the seventh overall pick in 2014; point guard D’Angelo Russell, the second overall pick in 2015; and Brandon Ingram, the second overall pick in 2016. The Lakers consider these players, along with forward Larry Nance Jr. and Clarkson, the cornerstones of their future.
“We’re building toward being great again,” Luke Walton said, “and I think we have pieces here that can make that happen.”
Bryant, speaking Tuesday during a Facebook Live discussion hosted by the Wall Street Journal and concerning Silicon Valley and his post-career ambitions, was asked if he would be checking NBA scores now that the season had begun.
“I have no championship on the line,” Bryant said. “I have absolutely no reason to check the scores.”
But even if Bryant has moved on, his presence was still felt Wednesday. Russell told ESPN’s crew before the game that he spoke with Bryant on Tuesday and told him he was ready.
“He told me I looked ready,” Russell said. “Coming from him, that was great to hear going into opening night.”
After the game, Luke Walton admitted being pleased with his first win as Lakers coach, but he then praised his players’ effort and placed the game in context.
“Tonight is a baby step,” he said. “It’s just one game. But it’s a step in the right direction of what we are trying to do.”
Said Randle: “It’s just one game. It’s not the dang Super Bowl.”
It was just one game, but it offered signs of hope. One such sign: After watching Bryant dominate the ball throughout his farewell tour, the young Lakers played freely Wednesday, especially in the new selfless culture that Walton is trying to build.
“There are a few teams in the league that play selfless and it doesn’t matter whose night it could be or what’s going on: guys still seem to play for their teammates,” Russell said. “I feel like the better we can do, including myself, on playing for each other, the better it will be for us.”
The Lakers couldn’t have scripted a better start to the post-Kobe Bryant era. Wednesday provided not only an inspired win, but it turned the page to the next chapter in the franchise’s history in exciting fashion, giving fans hope that maybe this rebuilding season might be fun, surprising and worth watching closely.
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's November 14 Playing Through Pain Issue. Subscribe today!
Jordan Clarkson's brow furrows. "Let's get after it," he says. "You hear me?" "Yup, it's over," D'Angelo Russell replies, his eyes narrowing. "I'm gonna light his ass up." The "it" they're getting after? Uh, that's me.
It's a balmy evening at a paintball course in Bellflower, California, and the heirs of a Lakers backcourt relinquished by Kobe Bryant are armed to the teeth and feeling good. They've fine-tuned their craft over the past 12 months in regular games with teammates at Hollywood Sports Park, this world-class paintball facility 18 miles south of Staples Center. It's like a team-building exercise with high-velocity projectiles. And they're about to inflict their team-building all over me.
I owe all of this to former Laker Roy Hibbert, who introduced paintball outings to the team when he signed with LA in the summer of 2015. Now it's Russell and Clarkson, 20 and 24, respectively, who serve as torchbearers of the team's top pastime, which they believe will play a role in building chemistry on a remodeled roster of recent draft picks and league transients, among them free agent signees Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov.
"It gets us talking, trying to get to the same goal of beating the other team, so it all transfers over," Clarkson says. But mostly "it's us bonding, something where we can get away from the basketball stuff and have fun."
FUN HAS BEEN at a premium for the once-mighty Lakers, now division doormats coming off a franchise-worst 17-65 season. Further jangling their nerves last season: former head coach Byron Scott's tough-love brand of tutelage, which often led to pine time for a young core that included 2014 lottery pick Julius Randle.
Will the Lakers' young core develop into stars who value team success?: The four young men looked into the camera all sporting warm smiles. Brandon Ingram wrapped his arm around D’Angelo Russell, while he held onto a basketball. Jordan Clarkson and Julius Randle jumped into the air, both to show off their athleticism and enthusiasm. The message behind their pose during a recent photo shoot with GQ Magazine went beyond the four players showing off their fashion sense as they donned crisp sweaters. For the first time in 20 years, the face of the Lakers is not Kobe Bryant. And unlike last season when the Lakers finished with the worst record in franchise history, Russell, Ingram, Randle and Clarkson all offer hope to an organization eager to relive the familiar feeling of star power fueling championship parades. -- The Orange County Register
Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni looks back on 'turbulent times' as Lakers coach: Mike D’Antoni knew he still wanted to coach. What he didn’t know was if there was anyone left who would hire him to do it. “When I left L.A., I was very real that I might not work again,” D’Antoni said this summer. “And I was fine with that. I’m old enough to go do other things and be fine with it.” -- The Orange County Register
As regular season begins, Lakers keep the focus on progress and teaching: When Lakers Coach Luke Walton walks onto the court where he once played for the start of the regular season, it won’t feel for him like just another game. “The nerves will be running,” Walton said. “But that’s a good thing. I think that’s a good thing. I imagine walking out there tomorrow night at Staples for Game 1 of the regular season will be pretty emotional.” -- Los Angeles Times
Lakers’ Luke Walton “shocked” Thomas Robinson has not stayed long with a team: Of all the things that initially consumed himself with his first head-coaching job, Luke Walton did not think for one second about Thomas Robinson. Walton had other things to worry about, in no particular order. How can he adjust as an assistant coach to a head coach? How will he implement Golden State’s culture with the Lakers given the talent and experience disparity between the two franchises? How much can Walton elevate D’Angelo Russell, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr? How much can Walton revamp the Lakers’ poorly-ranked defense? -- Los Angeles Daily News
The NBA is back. The Cleveland Cavaliers -- yes, it really happened, Cleveland -- are defending NBA champions. Kevin Durant -- yes, it really happened, everybody -- is on the Golden State Warriors.
It's time to ask:
Our 28 experts made their predictions, and only three of them picked against the Warriors: two votes for the Cavaliers and one for the Los Angeles Clippers. The San Antonio Spurs won 67 games last season, and according to our East and West summer forecasts, San Antonio is the only team other than Cleveland and Golden State that is predicted to win more than 52 games.
You probably don't need a refresher, but just in case: In last season's NBA Finals, the Cavs came back from 3-1 down to claim the first title in franchise history.