October 21, 2016

LOS ANGELES (AP) After a half-decade of excruciating decline, the future has finally arrived for the Los Angeles Lakers.

Kobe Bryant is gone. A talented young core is in place. Luke Walton is in charge, and the promising young coach has the luxury of time to rebuild a 16-time champion franchise in ruins.

''It could be multiple seasons,'' Walton said. ''It could be six months. You just never know. It's part of what's fun about sports - to see what you can do as a group. How good can you be as a group? It doesn't matter what other people say, or the expectations that they have. The only thing that matters is how much we believe we can do.''

The near future might resemble the recent past for the Lakers, who are coming off the worst season in franchise history (17-65).

While Walton is receiving rave reviews from his players for the Lakers' new up-tempo approach, that hasn't translated into victories during the preseason. Most prognosticators expect them to stay near the bottom of the Western Conference, likely extending their franchise-record playoff drought to four years.

But the excitement of the new is still strong with the Lakers, who clung to Kobe and the past for several years after it was advisable.

In fact, the Lakers essentially have been waiting five years to start the process that finally began in earnest this summer.

After NBA Commissioner David Stern rejected a trade that would have landed Chris Paul with the Lakers in December 2011, they were swept out of the second round of the playoffs for the second straight season in 2012. Dwight Howard and Steve Nash couldn't stop the slide, and the Lakers then produced the three worst seasons in franchise history.

Lakers basketball hasn't been much fun since 2013, when Bryant's health no longer allowed him to dominate. Bryant's binary assessment of the franchise as either a champion or an utter failure was shared by coach Byron Scott, which meant the Lakers constantly felt like losers.

The championship clock is off, and the fun is back. The Lakers are practicing to music, and they no longer need to worry about letting down the living legend in their midst.

D'Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson and rookie Brandon Ingram are free to grow into whatever their talent allows, and the Lakers intend to let them percolate.

''Patience will be very important,'' Walton said. ''Not only for me and the rest of the coaching staff, but for the players, the fans, everybody. I think it's important we set our foundation, our goals, and not let whether we're winning or losing games take us from that path. Obviously you make adjustments as you go, but we've got to stay the course and pay attention to the big picture.''

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Here are more things to know going into the Lakers' season:

NEW VETS: The Lakers have a promising seven-player core from the past three drafts, but they paid top dollar to sign forward Luol Deng and center Timofey Mozgov in free agency before trading for Jose Calderon. While Mozgov fills a major deficiency in the middle, the Lakers are hoping Deng's veteran savvy and hustling style rub off on his teammates. ''For me, it's a different role,'' Deng said. ''It's a new beginning, but it's also a new system that I really like.''

D-LO'S RISE: With the ball-dominating Bryant gone, Russell will be in charge of the Lakers' new offense, which should bear a strong resemblance to the schemes used by Golden State. The 20-year-old point guard will be asked to advance in his development, increasing his assists from 3.3 per game while keeping up his steady outside shooting, which improved down the stretch. Oh, and he should probably stick to minimal use of social media, too.

INGRAM ARRIVES: The No. 2 pick in the draft carries constant comparisons to Kevin Durant on his skinny shoulders, but the Lakers will be cautious with Ingram's development under minimal pressure. He already might be one of the Lakers' better defensive players, and he'll get plenty of outside shots in Walton's sets. He also appears to be adjusting well to the pro lifestyle heading into the 82-game grind.

PEACE IN OUR TIME: Final roster decisions haven't been made, but Metta World Peace is hoping to stick around for a 17th NBA season. He is four months older than Walton.

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