No NBA champion has ever faced the amount of adversity the Los Angeles Lakers have this season. It’s impossible to put into words what this title means, but the story of how we got here isn’t one I, or any other Lakers fan, will ever forget.
This season tipped off under normal circumstances. With a ton of hype surrounding the new duo of LeBron James and Anthony Davis, the Lakers were expected contenders in the Western Conference.
Los Angeles opened the regular season winning 24 of its first 27 games, yet many critics pointed to a weak schedule. The Lakers would lose their next four, including a loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, and the Los Angeles Clippers on Christmas Day.
They would go on to win 12 of their next 14, heading to Philadelphia for the final game of a road trip. In a 108-91 loss to the 76ers, James passed Kobe Bryant for third place on the NBA all-time scoring list. What was a monumental night for Lakers fans would turn into a nightmare in just one day.
On Jan. 26, Bryant and his daughter Gianna passed away in a helicopter crash along with seven others. The team found out on their flight home from Philadelphia. Words can’t describe what Bryant meant to the Lakers franchise and basketball as a whole. In my column after the tragedy, I paid tribute to Bryant in a letter detailing his impact on my life as a Lakers fan.
This loss was felt nationwide, but especially in the Lakers’ locker room. The mission for the rest of the season was evident… win one for Kobe.
As play resumed, the Lakers would return to their winning ways, winning 13 of 17. This stretch included back-to-back wins over the Bucks and Clippers, which launched James into the MVP conversation that had been dominated all season by reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.
However, the Lakers hit another roadblock, as the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the NBA season, and the Lakers hot streak, for the foreseeable future. After a nearly four-month break from play, the NBA resumed in a bubble format. In addition to a unique atmosphere, the team was also very outspoken in support for social change as protests against police brutality continued throughout the nation.
Many questioned whether the Lakers’ regular-season success would translate to the bubble. These doubts were magnified by Los Angeles dropping five of eight bubble matchups to end the regular season.
The doubters were quick to pick the red hot Portland Trail Blazers to upset the Lakers as the eighth seed in the west. Los Angeles made quick work of Portland in five games and advanced to face the Houston Rockets.
Again, the doubters said Los Angeles would be sent home by a smaller, faster Rockets lineup. Again, Los Angeles advanced in five games.
In the Western Conference Finals, the Lakers faced the Denver Nuggets, who had just ousted the heavily favored Clippers in seven games after starting the series down three games to one. The doubters said Denver was too deep for the Lakers. The Lakers won in five games.
Enter the NBA Finals. For the first time in 10 years, Los Angeles was back to basketball’s brightest stage. The doubters were quick to pick a young Miami Heat squad, who had won the Eastern Conference by upsetting the Bucks and Boston Celtics.
While Miami certainly gave the Lakers their toughest series, James and company clinched the franchise’s 17th NBA title in six games last Sunday night.
It seems improbable that this team could win a title in the face of such adversity. On the surface, the roster looks like James and Davis, alongside a merry band of misfits.
However, the supporting cast is what ultimately powered this team to glory. The inspired play of veteran guard Rajon Rondo brought additional leadership to the floor. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope provided lockdown defense at points that allowed the Lakers to thrive in their transition game. A rejuvenated Dwight Howard brought size to complement Davis in the frontcourt. Alex Caruso brought hussle and court vision that earned him a Game 6 start.
As for the two stars, there is no question James and Davis are the best duo in the NBA. Davis dominated on his way to his first career NBA title. If he can continue to stay healthy, the future of the franchise is safe in his hands. As for James, he has now won his fourth NBA title and a fourth Finals MVP.
At 35, James still was able to show why he is the best basketball player alive. His ability to take over a game and close down the stretch has not aged a day.
While more titles are not out of the question for this group in the near future, now is the time to take in the moment. The last time the Lakers won a title, I was 11 years old sitting on my couch, watching Bryant conquer the Celtics in a seven-game thriller of a series. A lot of bad Lakers’ basketball has followed since that last title, and the loss of Kobe is still hard to think about.
However, it brings me great joy to think of Kobe looking down on this team, as the Los Angeles Lakers are once again NBA Champions.