By Don Wanlass
The roller coaster ride that was the Los Angeles Lakers has come to an end — an uneven, uphill climb to the playoffs, followed by two exhilarating playoff series victories and a steep, downhill fall during a 4-0 sweep by the Denver Nuggets in the NBA Western Conference finals.
After a 2-10 start, just making the playoffs was an accomplishment for the Lakers after missing the playoffs entirely in 2021-22. Defeating the Memphis Grizzlies and the Golden State Warriors was like frosting on a cake.
And while the sweep by the Nuggets was a tremendous letdown, the Lakers and their fans should be satisfied with their overall season while looking forward to what next season might bring.
We learned a lot about the Lakers this season. We learned Austin Reaves is a bona fide NBA player, even if he wasn’t drafted by any team two years ago. We learned Darvin Ham can lead an NBA team and convince millionaire NBA players to play defense.
We also learned that the Lakers aren’t yet a championship caliber team. General manager Rob Pelinka did a good job of rebuilding a team on the fly at the February trade deadline, but the Lakers still need a few more pieces to match up with a Denver team that had too much firepower for them in the conference finals.
In his post-playoff sitdown with the media May 23, Pelinka indicated that he wanted to bring back the core of this year’s team.
That means resigning Reaves and Rui Hachimura, who are both restricted free agents. That means the Lakers can match any offer made to them.
The Lakers still need a point guard. D’Angelo Russell was a decent replacement for Russell Westbrook in the regular season, but he wilted under the bright lights of the playoffs.
After averaging more than 13 points a game against the Grizzlies and Warriors, Russell fell off to 6.3 points a game against the Nuggets and lost his starting job to Dennis Schroder in Game 4.
Russell and Schroder are both unrestricted free agents. If I were the Lakers, I would be looking to resign Schroder, who is a much better defensive player and brings intensity at both ends of the floor every night.
Russell is too streaky and — like Westbrook — doesn’t play as well when sharing the floor with LeBron James.
James may have hinted at retirement after the Game 4 loss to the Nuggets May 22, but he has $47 million on the table for next year and still has dreams of playing with his son, who could be only a year away from the NBA.
No matter what happens in the offseason, James and Anthony Davis will continue to be the foundation of the Lakers. Keeping both of them healthy for an 82-game schedule may be impossible, but they carried the Lakers a lot farther this season than I thought they could.
A player to keep an eye on next season for the Lakers is Max Christie. A second round draft pick out of Michigan State last year, Christie spent most of the season playing in the G League, where he averaged 14.3 points a game playing for the South Bay Lakers.
He is only 20, but the Lakers are high on his ability and expect him to grow into a productive offensive player.
The Lakers need a better backup for Davis than Wenyen Gabriel. Mo Bamba, who was acquired at the trade deadline, might be able to fill that role, but he hurt his ankle shortly after arriving from Orlando and appeared in only nine games with the Lakers, none in the playoffs.
The Lakers actually have a first-round draft pick (acquired in the Patrick Beverly trade — they will pick 17th) and they also have the 47th pick in the second round.
The Lakers scouting staff has proven it can find gems — Reaves being Exhibit A — without having high draft picks.
So the Lakers have a rosier future now than they did at this time last year. That could all change if James decides to retire but I don’t think that will happen.
James doesn’t want his last series to be a sweep at the hands of the Denver Nuggets, even if the Lakers had a chance to win all four games.
In the end, they could neutralize Nikola Jokic, but they couldn’t stop Jamal Murray, especially in the fourth quarter.
That was the biggest difference in the series with Denver.
YOUTH MOVEMENT: The Dodgers expected the 2023 to be a season where they got younger. However, they didn’t think it would be by the end of May.
Fans got a glimpse of the Dodgers young pitching depth this week when Gavin Stone and Bobby Miller started back-to-back games against the Atlanta Braves, the team that had the best record in the National League coming into the series.
That was before Stone, Miller, and the Dodgers bullpen quieted the Braves bats and the Dodgers continued to hit the ball, rolling up 16 runs in the first two games of the series, both wins.
Stone started the series opener May 22 and got lit up for four runs in the first inning. But he gave up only one more run in his four-plus innings and the Dodgers bats got him off the hook in an 8-6 win.
The next night, Miller did even better than that. He gave up a first-inning run and then blanked the Braves for the next four innings. He struck out five and walked only one in his Major League debut, an 8-1 Dodgers win.
Stone and Miller have joined the starting rotation because of injuries to Julio Urias and Dustin May. Urias has a hamstring injury that might cause him to miss two or three starts.
May has a flexor tendon issue in his throwing elbow and is out until after the All-Star break.
Ryan Pepiot and Michael Grove, two other members of the Dodgers’ youthful arms brigade, also have been bit by the injury bug, which means Stone and Miller both have chances to make their mark.
Stone was the team’s minor league pitcher of the year last season when he was a combined 9-6 at three different levels of the minors with a 1.48 earned run average.
Miller comes from the same draft class as Stone. He was the Dodgers’ first-round pick in 2020. Stone was drafted fifth.
Miller is bigger and throws harder. Stone is more of a complete pitcher at this time.
In three minor league seasons, Miller is 10-10 with a 3.79 ERA, but he can reach 100 miles an hour on the radar gun and also has an outstanding changeup.
After a bad weekend in St. Louis, where they lost three of four, Stone and Miller have helped right the ship before a weekend series with Tampa Bay that closes out a 10-game road trip.
The Dodgers are starting to find consistency at the plate, scoring five or more runs in eight of their last nine games. Their pitching staff hit a rough spot in the road in St. Louis last weekend en the Cardinals scored 32 runs in four games, but Stone and Miller helped right the ship in Atlanta
Stone and Miller will need to provide stability to the starting rotation for the short term while the other Dodgers starters get healthy. They join centerfielder James Outman and second baseman Miguel Vargas as products of the Dodgers farm system who are making a difference at the big league level this season, something that every championship team needs.
THE BEST EVER: Jim Brown, who died May 19 at his Los Angeles home at the age of 87, was the best running back in the National Football League ever. Before there was Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith or Walter Payton, there was Jim Brown.
At 6-2, 232 pounds, he could outrun you or run over you, it didn’t much matter.
In nine seasons in the NFL, he led the league in rushing eight times. He averaged more than 100 yards per game and 5.2 yards per carry. In 118 career games, he scored 126 touchdowns.
And he achieved all that playing in 12- and 14-game seasons.
Jerry Rice, who played 16-game seasons, took 303 games to score 208 touchdowns, the all-time record in the NFL. Running back Adrian Peterson, who is tied with Brown on the all-time scoring list with 126 touchdowns, played in 184 games, 66 more than Brown.
Brown quit during the prime of his career, choosing to make movies rather than endure the pounding he took as an NFL running back.
Along with Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, he was at the vanguard of professional athletes getting involved with the civil rights movement and he also made a name for himself with his Amer-I-Can program that worked with at-risk youth in underserved areas.
But it was as an athlete that Brown really stood out. At Syracuse University, he was a four-sport player. He was an All American in football and lacrosse and also competed in track and basketball.
He became a legend with the Cleveland Browns, leading them to the 1964 NFL title. Check him out on YouTube. They don’t make running backs like that anymore.