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Five Reasons To Watch The Lakers (Not Named Kobe)

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Los Angeles seems to have a love/hate relationship with the Lakers right now. The games still sell out (and at the highest prices in the league) and there are more people walking around wearing Lakers gear than there are writers picketing out in front of Fox. But in every sports bar in the city there are loudmouths saying to nobody in particular, “Kobe is selfish and ruining this team.” The loudmouth sports columnists in town just want to play GM with Kobe trade scenarios. The loudmouths on sports talk radio… well this blogger isn’t sure what they are saying because he’s not listening.

But if Kobe’s “Summer of our Discontent” turned you off to the point you are not watching the Lakers through the first couple weeks of the season, you are missing some fun basketball. The Lakers are getting out and running, their young guys are starting to thrive, Kobe is blending in and the Lakers are winning some big games. Despite a brutal early schedule the Lakers are 3-2 (with wins against Phoenix and Utah). I know most sports fans only pay half-assed attention to the NBA before the Super Bowl, but here are five good reasons to watch the Lakers this week.

1) Ronny Turiaf. In a town built around the blockbuster, Turiaf is the cult movie that everybody would rather watch. He is part legend — he was back on the Lakers squad eight months after open-heart surgery — and is becoming a fan favorite around the league because he simply plays the game with passion and that big heart, something all too lacking in today’s NBA. Rather than try to pen my own ode to Turiaf, I’ll let the boys at the brilliant NBA blog Free Darko tell you why he is one of their favorites:

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Even in its darkest hours, this will always be a league of heroes, both big and small, worthy of celebration. In serious need of breaking into that canon is the mythical beast that is Ronny Turiaf. During his first year and a half in the league, he perfected the role of the bench cheerleader. Now, in just his second full season, this is the year he makes the leap from local fan favorite to league-wide cult hero while revolutionizing what a "hustle player" should be….. Perhaps unfairly based on the überwhiteness of dudes like David Lee, the prototypical energy guy has always been tied to Protestant work ethic, hustling on rebounding and defense, and above all else, selflessness. In essence, playing basketball "the way it was meant to be played" and giving the 11-foot-rim crowd boners. While Ronny undeniably incorporates all those features in his game, he has also injected equal parts swag and absurdity, escaping the banality of those that came before him.

2) The Kids Are Alright. Maybe, if patience can become his new virtue, the pieces that Kobe demands to win a championship will grow right before his eyes.

There are a lot fewer people on the "trade Andrew Bynum" bandwagon these days -- he showed up to camp minus the baby fat, replaced by muscle, and in far better condition. That added the strength means he's pushing back on those other NBA big bodies, getting the ball closer to the basket, scoring more easily (he's shooting 56.1%), plus he's become a rebounding force (he's grabbing 23.2% of the rebounds when he's on the floor, third best rate in the Association). Jordan Farmar has gotten stronger too, and now has a better outside shot to go with it. Then there's the aforementioned Turiaf, also Luke Walton and the rookie Javaris Crittenon. It's a good core, guys who can be parts of a very good team someday.

3) Old-school basketball (like passing and stuff). Phil Jackson isn't channeling Coach Norman Dale, but the Lakers are doing much more passing this year -- 62% of the team's baskets so far have come with an assist. The Lakers are pushing the ball up on the fast break, a situation that is both entertaining and lends itself to ball movement (think 80s Showtime Lakers). But even in the half court offense the Lakers are moving without the ball and hitting the open man.

Even Kobe is getting in the act. In the season opener against Houston Kobe used 43% of the possessions when he was on the floor (a Laker loss). But in every game since that he has been around 22% to 24% -- think about it, in a perfectly balanced offense each of the five guys on the court would use 20%, Kobe is just a little over that lately. And the Laker offense has become very efficient because of it. And more importantly to those paying $2,300 to sit courtside, the new style is more entertaining than the clear-out isolation ball that for too long dominated the Association.

Now, if they would just play some old-school defense...

4) Jack Nicholson is still watching them. So you better be too. You don't want to make Jack angry, you wouldn't like him when he's angry.

5) To see if they can keep it up in a brutal week of games. Tonight it is the 6-1, defending champion San Antonio Spurs on the road (5:30 on KCAL). Tomorrow it's the 6-1 and very upgraded Houston Rockets (6 on KCAL or ESPN). Friday it's the 5-1 Detroit Pistons at Staples (7:30 KCAL or ESPN). Sunday it's a Chicago Bulls team that has a lot of young talent but is off to a slow 1-5 start (6:30 KCAL). If the Lakers can get through their first 10 games 5-5 a lot of people will look and say they are average, but if you've seen the schedule and have been watching, you might know better.

AP photo by Danny Moloshok