On Monday, at his first Lakers media day, California native Brook Lopez struggled to restrain himself.
“I’m doing my best not to geek out but I’m doing that internally right now,” Lopez said. “But I’m trying to be as cool as Brook Lopez can be, which isn’t very cool.”
Perhaps that excitement caused him to say this a few minutes later: “We absolutely believe we can be a playoff team.”
Lopez is new with the team, but he isn’t the only one entering the 2017-18 Lakers season an optimist. On paper, the Lakers are a better team than the one that finished 26-56 last season and earned the No. 2 overall draft pick, with which they selected point guard Lonzo Ball.
But from the top of the organization, no such pressure is being put on the Lakers — not yet. Instead, for the second consecutive year, their leadership goes into the season preaching patience and development in the hope that this will be the last season when such moderate goals will be enough.
“All I want to see is them grow and taking their game to another level,” said Magic Johnson, the Lakers president of basketball operations. “I am a realist. Look the West is tough, awfully tough and we got a lot of babies that got to grow up real fast. I think this team has the talent to contend for a playoff spot but if we don’t it is not going to stop us from having a good season.
“All I want us to do is have a good season where free agents look and say, ‘Oh man, I can see myself in that lineup and with that team,’ and we can step up to another level.”
Starting Tuesday, the Lakers will have four days of training camp, complete with two-a-day workouts. They’ll play their first preseason game Saturday in Anaheim against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
The Lakers enter training camp with 20 players, 14 of them with guaranteed contracts. That 15th roster spot will be at coach Luke Walton’s discretion, general manager Rob Pelinka said.
“Our emphasis is going to be defense, defense, defense,” Walton said. “The guys that are committed to playing defense are going to have a better shot than guys who aren’t putting in that same effort on defense.”
In deciding which players to add to their roster, defense took precedence this summer for a team that ranked 30th in defense last season. They didn’t want to just add better defensive players, they wanted to add players who could teach good defensive habits to their young roster by example.
He finds reasons for optimism based on what he has seen from his new teammates.
“A lot of guys were here every day [over the summer] even on the weekends when I would come here trying to get treatment,” Caldwell-Pope said. “A lot of guys were working. I didn’t even realize coach had to lock the gym up to keep guys out.”
The question that could not be answered at media day was whether that work will translate to the regular season.
“It’s hard to tell at this stage,” forward Julius Randle said. “Nobody comes in with a bad attitude. Everybody’s close when they come in. It’s hard to tell at this stage because we haven’t played too much together other than pickup. But everybody looks great. Everybody’s excited. It’s always high energy. Everybody’s excited, they look great, everybody’s been working hard this summer.”
With no lottery pick to worry about at the end of this season because the first-round pick goes to Philadelphia or Boston, the Lakers can purely focus on improving and winning. Obstructing them from winning, though, will be a monstrously competitive Western Conference.
After an arms race that stretched from summer into fall, the Houston Rockets and the Oklahoma City Thunder turned themselves into possible threats for the Golden State Warriors. Houston added former Clippers All-Star point guard Chris Paul and Oklahoma City added former Eastern Conference All-Stars Paul George and Carmelo Anthony.
Even the teams that lag behind the top of the conference have gotten better, such as Minnesota, New Orleans and even Sacramento.
As the Lakers prepare to face the Western Conference gauntlet, Pelinka views that as an opportunity, not something to fear. He thought back to his 9-year-old son’s AAU experiences for a metaphor.
“Exposure to a level up of competition is the best way to actually grow as a player and to increase your skills,” Pelinka said. “I love and relish the fact that the West has gotten so incredibly strong at the top. I think it’s the perfect way for our young, hungry, scrappy core group of guys to grow and to get better and to get a taste of what it means to be great.”
Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli