LOS ANGELES -- The most important aspect of the Los Angeles Lakers' season just vanished.
Kobe Bryant's return was the headline and Byron Scott's homecoming to coach his favorite childhood team was a prominent theme of opening night, but both are more representative of the Lakers' glorious past than their uncertain future. Rookie Julius Randle was the one growth stock, the player to cultivate into the next star.
The Randle project came to an abrupt halt after less than 14 minutes of playing time. Randle went up for a shot, landed on the baseline and stayed down near the basket support while play continued on the other end. When play stopped, Lakers trainer Gary Vitti came out to tend to Randle. Then came a paramedic. Then they brought out the stretcher. Randle was wheeled back for X-rays that showed he had a broken tibia in his right leg.
"It is heartbreaking," Scott said.
There's no official word on the next step (surgery is expected) or an estimated return. The need for a stretcher gave a pretty strong hint.
The present is now paused for the future of the Lakers. Randle is the only player on the roster to whom the Lakers have rights in 2018-19. He and Nick Young (currently sidelined with a thumb injury) are the only players on the books for 2016-17. In sports, hope is the only tolerable alternative to expectations, and at the moment, the Lakers don't have a grasp on either.
At the moment, the only reason for optimism in Lakerland is they could actually be bad enough to get a top-five draft pick, which would enable them to retain one of the picks they'd traded to the Phoenix Suns for Steve Nash (the same Steve Nash who has been declared out for this season because of a lingering back injury). One NBA observer I talked to was ready to proclaim the Lakers the worst team in the Western Conference.
What will the Lakers miss seeing while Randle is sidelined?
"Growth," Bryant said. "Growth. Not only shooting the ball, but handling the ball and being a point forward and initiating the offense."
The Lakers have usually fared well in the rare times they have dipped into the draft lottery. Their past two lottery picks, Eddie Jones in 1994 and Andrew Bynum in 2005, eventually played in the All-Star Game.
But Randle represents a bigger opportunity. He was the No. 7 pick in a highly anticipated draft. He was the Lakers' highest draft choice since they landed James Worthy in 1982, with a No. 1 overall pick they acquired in a trade.
In a sad coincidence, Worthy's rookie season ended with a broken leg. At least Worthy got 77 games in before it happened, averaging 13.4 points and shooting 58 percent -- good enough to make the all-rookie team.
All we have in the books on Randle so far is one field goal on three shots, two missed free throws, a turnover, a foul and no rebounds. Still, he had made an impression on Bryant throughout the Lakers' preseason
"He was progressing just fine," Bryant said. "He's improved leaps and bounds having confidence in his jump shot."
It became evident early on in the Lakers' 108-90 loss to the Houston Rockets on opening night that Randle progress reports were going to be the only thing to check on with this team. Bryant established early on that he remains a scoring threat with 16 first-half points. And the Lakers reminded us that they are a long way from addressing Scott's concerns about defense, allowing 62 points by halftime.
The Lakers offense lacks floor-spreading shooters. When Jeremy Lin is denied driving lanes, there isn't much left for them to try. Bryant can get his shot, but not easily. They sometimes forget about Boozer.
Randle needs to be more assertive, the type of confidence that would surely grow in time. That's the precious commodity he won't get soon. Instead of growth, it will be recovery. Instead of progress, they have doubt.
It was such a depressing scene at Staples Center. The Lakers fans who'd stuck around with the Lakers hopelessly behind in the fourth quarter barely stirred in the final minutes.
They'd come to celebrate Kobe and boo Dwight Howard, and they saw their hero and villain converge when the two jawed after Howard swung an elbow at Bryant. That moment soon became an afterthought. So did Bryant's 19 points in 29 minutes.
Afterward, Bryant said the words Lakers fans had yearned to hear since he suffered his second major injury of 2013: "I feel completely fine."
On this night, they were small consolation.