LOS ANGELES (AP) After years of upheaval and embarrassment, the Los Angeles Lakers are making progress. With a talented young core and stability on the coaching staff and in the front office, this proud franchise has begun the climb back to championship contention.
At least that's what the Lakers are telling themselves after the worst four-year stretch in team history came to a merciful end this week.
Los Angeles finished 26-56 in its first season under new coach Luke Walton. That record is the Lakers' best since their last playoff season in 2013, but it also reflects the current team's sharp decline from a 10-10 start to the season.
''We knew coming down here, the chances of winning a lot of games wasn't very high,'' Walton said. ''But we wanted to get in here and start working with the group and start building relationships and building toward something special, and I think that we did that. We've got a good group of young guys.''
The Lakers won just 16 games after November, and five of those were in an April winning streak that hurt the team's chances in next month's crucial draft lottery.
''There have been a lot of ups and downs that I figured were going to happen,'' Walton said. ''But until you really go through them, you don't really know how to handle it. It's been a great year working with these guys and watching them grow.''
There were positives: Walton's Lakers scored 104.7 points per game in their highest-scoring campaign since 2009, and they made a nine-win improvement from last season, otherwise known as Kobe Bryant's farewell tour.
D'Angelo Russell emerged as their leading scorer with 15.6 points and 4.8 assists per game, while rookie Brandon Ingram showed progress in realizing his tantalizing potential.
But the biggest development of their season happened in February: Owner Jeanie Buss fired longtime general manager Mitch Kupchak and dropped her brother, Jim, from his leadership role while putting Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka in charge of basketball operations.
The Hall of Fame guard and Bryant's former agent will now be able to make offseason moves to shape the Lakers, and the entire front office is vocally behind Walton as its ideal coach.
The Lakers have a foundation. It's time to see whether they can build something.
Here are more things to monitor during another long offseason for one of the world's most visible sports franchises:
The most important day of the Lakers' entire season is still coming up May 16. After posting the NBA's third-worst record, they have a 46.9 percent chance of keeping their first-round draft pick. They must get their name drawn among the top three teams in the draft lottery, or their choice goes to Philadelphia under the terms of their disastrous 2012 trade for Steve Nash. With Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball and Josh Jackson headlining a fine group of available talent, the Lakers have an extraordinary amount riding on those pingpong balls.
BEWARE THE SLENDERMAN
The Lakers were united in their praise of Ingram, the No. 2 overall pick who grew into a steady contributing role - even if he's still growing into his painfully skinny 6-foot-9 frame. After participating in summer league, he'll no longer be a teenager in the fall, and perhaps he'll even get his weight over 200 pounds. Ingram wants to become a leader, and his teammates expect him to be a star.
Nick Young rejuvenated his career under Walton, scoring 13.2 points per game with a dynamic outside shot. Young hasn't decided whether to pick up his $5.6 million player option, but the ever-jovial guard said the Lakers were ''begging me to pretty much stay'' in his exit interview Thursday. The 10-year NBA veteran is considering it, but he also would like to contend for a championship before he's done playing - which probably means he's gone if a good team is interested in him.
The Lakers signed Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov to exorbitant free-agent contracts and then shut them down for the season one month early to develop their young talent. Mozgov is eager for another year with the Lakers, saying he believes rookie Ivica Zubac isn't ready to be a full-time starting NBA center. Deng's future is less clear, but those huge contracts make both veterans difficult to trade.
Metta World Peace says the Lakers ''probably'' won't bring him back. The 37-year-old forward hasn't decided what he'll do next season after repeatedly saying he wants to play for 20 years, but he eventually wants to become a coach.
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