Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press
The last time the historic Los Angeles Lakers punched a ticket to the Western Conference Finals, Kobe Bryant, Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer were the names prominently featured in the postgame report following a second-round sweep of the Utah Jazz.
The most recent NBA appearance of any of those three came from D-Will on June 12, 2017.
A 10-year drought between conference finals berths wouldn’t be noteworthy for most franchises. For the Lakers, a decade without this level of success feels like an eon.
“I know what my name comes with,” LeBron said after the game. “And it comes with winning.”
Prior to LeBron’s arrival, L.A. did plenty of losing. It appeared in the playoffs for three straight years following the 2009-10 campaign, but things quickly deteriorated after that. From 2013-14 to 2018-19, there were no trips to the postseason. And the Lakers’ combined winning percentage was tied with the New York Knicks for the worst in the league.
From their title in 2010 to now, they’ve had seven head coaches. Mitch Kupchak, Magic Johnson and now Rob Pelinka have all had a chance to run the front office. Magic’s departure from that job gave us the legendary “I’m not gonna be here” soundbite. Even the organization’s ownership structure was rife with family drama between the legendary Jerry Buss’ children, Jeanie, Jim and Johnny.
For the team with so many Hollywood endings, the last 10 years played out more like Arrested Development. But in 2019-20, everything came together in a season marred, and perhaps inspired, by tragedy.
On January 26, 2020, the world mourned following the death of Bryant, a cultural icon and perhaps the face of one of the game’s most accomplished franchises.
The following day, the leader and face of the current Lakers reacted on Instagram:
“I’m heartbroken and devastated my brother!! Man I love you big bro. My heart goes to Vanessa and the kids. I promise you I’ll continue your legacy man! You mean so much to us all here especially #LakerNation and it’s my responsibility to put this shit on my back and keep it going!! Please give me the strength from the heavens above and watch over me! I got US here!”
It’s been nearly eight months since that post. We’re reacting to NBA basketball in September because a worldwide pandemic necessitated an unprecedented hiatus. LeBron, with the help of Anthony Davis, has indeed put the franchise on his back.
In the series-clinching victory over Houston, James had another near triple-double in 31 minutes. His postseason averages of 26.6 points, 10.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists (in just over 34 minutes per game) are unheard of for a 35-year old.
Regardless of age, month or motivation, this is the play of a basketball legend, something Lakers fans have been spoiled with for decades.
L.A.’s total of 16 championships trails only the 17 won by the Boston Celtics. And those Lakers teams were led by some of the biggest names the league has ever produced.
The top two in NBA history in career win shares—Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain—both won championships for the Lake Show. The third-ranked player, LeBron, could do the same. Shaquille O’Neal (11th), Kobe (16th), Jerry West (20th), Magic (21st) and Pau Gasol (27th) are all in the top 30. When George Mikan retired in 1956, he was first.
The absence of such stars is part of what made the franchise’s recent playoff absence so unusual. Prior to those six straight seasons that ended after Game 82, L.A.’s longest playoff drought lasted two years (1974-75 and 1975-76).
Breaks between superstars were almost nonexistent for this team for most of the league’s history. But during that playoff dry spell, its top five in win shares was made up of Julius Randle, Lou Williams, Larry Nance Jr., Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Jordan Clarkson.
The NBA is a star-driven league, and the Lakers are a star-driven organization. It just took a bit longer for someone to pick up the baton after Kobe famously said, “Mamba out.”
Now that LeBron and AD have it, there’s a chance this team winds up with even more in common with the 2009-10 squad.
Following a 2019 offseason that reshuffled the league and its players in a way that had never been done before, most of the contenders were suddenly led by duos. And the Lakers might have the best one-two punch in the NBA.
LeBron and AD were fifth and sixth in the league in box plus/minus, giving them the best combined rank of any partnership in the league. They were tops, by far, as an assist combo. And their games seem to mesh almost perfectly. One of the best playmakers of all time with a generationally talented big man. Who could’ve seen this coming?
The supporting cast has looked ready for a title push this postseason too. Danny Green has championship experience and remains one of the league’s premier three-and-D wings. Markieff Morris is suddenly starting and playing like the clock was turned back. The same can be said for Rajon Rondo, who’s always been better in the postseason. Throw in Kyle Kuzma, KCP, Dwight Howard, JaVale McGee and Alex Caruso, and it isn’t hard to imagine this team being the last one standing.
Ten years ago, Kobe described the feeling of beating the Boston Celtics in Game 7 as “surreal.” There may not be a more appropriate word for 2020.
In a year that will be studied in future history classes, the vaunted Lakers’ journey to the NBA’s mountaintop might be one event that feels like a return to normalcy.