ORLANDO – While Celtics fans will have no sympathy for their more bitter rivals, the NBA champion Lakers endured a difficult and stunning descension since beating Boston in that epic seven-game series 10 years ago.
Before this season, the Lakers had not reached the playoffs since 2012-13, a franchise worst six-year skid. They tried to build teams around Kobe Bryant and then pack the roster with youngsters around the aging Bryant. Nothing worked.
The next and most daring move came in signing LeBron James two years ago. The Cleveland Cavaliers had just lost another NBA Finals and James was ready to move on to another challenge. Rejuvenating the Lakers, one of the league’s most storied franchises, served as that ultimate challenge.
Of course, that didn’t work right away, either. The Lakers struggled with James, and then he sustained a significant groin injury and for the first time since his early years with the Cavaliers, James missed the playoffs and he considered that an embarrassment.
James knew the Lakers needed a significant roster shakeup and he strongly suggested general manager Rob Pelinka do whatever was possible to get unhappy Anthony Davis out of New Orleans. Pelinka wanted to add a third star to that tandem but missed out on acquiring Kawhi Leonard and trading for Paul George.
Instead, he filled those salary slots with a bunch of versatile players such as Danny Green, Rajon Rondo; he took a chance on an aging Dwight Howard. He brought on former Celtic Avery Bradley.
So instead of a Big Three, the Lakers were a Big Two with a bunch of complements who accepted their roles. Unlike the Clippers, the Lakers didn’t bicker over who was getting the ball or who was playing the most minutes. Howard and JaVale McGee barely played in the Finals. J.R. Smith was relegated to a cheerleader. Dion Waiters couldn’t make the active roster, but yet the Lakers worked collectively better than any team in the NBA Bubble.
“In free agency last year, obviously we made a run to acquire a max free agent, but we had a counter, we had a backup plan and I knew we had a way to pivot and build a team with the other players we were able to acquire,” Pelinka said. “It worked out. It worked out well obviously. But it was hard work. It wasn’t just happenstance, oh, let’s go sign a bunch of guys. The dynamics of pulling off superstar trades are very, very challenging. They take weeks of hard work, and we were thankful when we acquired Anthony, but we knew the work wasn’t done once we paired LeBron and AD together.”
Two factors worked greatly in the Lakers favor: 1) James returned from injury and reassumed his role as the best player in the game at age 35. James has spent his career as a prolific scorer and above average distributor but he turned himself into a master passer who can take over games when necessary. 2) Davis responded to the pressure of playing in Los Angeles and worked well with James. That dynamic was critical because they never played against each other in terms of competing for the ball or for accolades. They worked flawlessly together.
“I can’t really explain it. There’s just certain things you just know. And any type of relationship, you kind of just feel, you know that vibe,” James said about his relationship with Davis. “You have that respect. You have that drive. Sometimes you can’t explain what links you with somebody, and then it’s that organic. Sometimes, you don’t even try to explain it. You guys ask me about my relationship with AD, the first thing I think about is the respect, the no ego, the challenging each other. We want each other to be better than actually ourselves. I want AD to be better than me. AD want me to be better than him. Every single night, every single day. And we challenge ourselves. I think that’s a part of it.”
The Lakers' championship window is now. James is 35. Davis has an option in his contract to return next season or he could become a free agent. Several players have contract options while others are free agents, so Pelinka will have to do additional roster shaping but the Lakers will be favorites to repeat as champions.
James and Pelinka scored on their collective promise to bring the Lakers back to prosperity after some difficult years. James has continued to one of the greatest leaders in professional sports, though not every player can flourish being his teammate. But the players Pelinka assembled were able to collectively give enough to push the Lakers back to the top.
“What gave me faith is that Rob Pelinka told me he would do whatever it takes to make sure that we would become a winning franchise once again,” James said. “Obviously, championships are not promised, and I don’t expect that. But he said he would do whatever it takes to make this franchise, whatever personnel changes he needs to make, any part of our organization, he would do it, because he wanted to win just as much. This is a historic franchise and to be a part of this is something that I’ll be able to talk about and my grandkids and kids will be able to talk about; their pawpaw played for the Los Angeles Lakers. It’s like playing for the Yankees and winning or playing for the Cowboys and winning a Super Bowl, or the Patriots. It’s like playing for the Red Sox. So to be able to win with a historical franchise is something that, no matter if your mind wavers away, you can always remember what you’re doing it for.”