Los Angeles Lakers Have Nowhere to Go but Up in Western Conference

LOS ANGELES — Despite last year's disappointing 17-win campaign and a 2-6 preseason record in October, the Los Angeles Lakers are an optimistic bunch, enjoying their honeymoon under rookie head coach Luke Walton.

"He connects to us really well. He keeps practice fun and loose, so no one has a problem learning when he's teaching," said guard Jordan Clarkson. "We've all got respect for him because he knows what he's talking about."

The challenge for Walton will be keeping his team engaged if (and when) the losses pile up. The Lakers will be better than they were a year ago, but even if they double their win total, that's still a hefty 48 losses.

The Lakers start 2016-17's regular season on Wednesday at Staples Center hosting the Houston Rockets, another team with a new coach, Mike D'Antoni. Houston won 41 games last year, barely beating out the Utah Jazz to earn the eighth and final playoff berth in the Western Conference.

The Lakers were dead last; To make the postseason, they'll need to surpass at least seven teams. But second-year guard D'Angelo Russell believes the Lakers will be a threat this season.

"When we match up against teams, we can really compete and finish games," he said Monday. "I felt we competed last year, but we never finished the game. A lot of games we lost by buzzer-beaters, or one play determined the loss. This year, I feel we're better at finishing games."

One team the Lakers won't catch is the Golden State Warriors, a 73-win squad before adding All-Star forward Kevin Durant. They represent the class of the West, if not the league itself.

The Lakers also aren't anywhere near the San Antonio Spurs (67-15) or Los Angeles Clippers (53-29). Both should reach at least 55 wins with their veteran talent.

The next tier would include the up-and-coming Portland Trail Blazers (44-38) and Utah Jazz (40-42), along with battle-tested fran...

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