The Los Angeles Lakers are back.
They kick off their 2019-20 NBA season with a marquee matchup against the Los Angeles Clippers and with it, renewed hope of a return to the top has flooded Lakers Nation.
It’s been six seasons since the Lakers have made the NBA playoffs. As the league’s glamor franchise with a worldwide following and a reputation for excellence, each failed season has felt surreal as though something was fundamentally wrong with the game itself. Tanking for draft picks, praying for young players to develop, organizational dysfunction, and a lot of losing somehow became the calling card of the post-Kobe Bryant era, which started the moment he tore his Achilles at the conclusion of the 2012-13 season.
Whether it was a glitch in the matrix, arcane curse, or just terrible luck, the past six seasons have been a struggle for a team and fanbase that had become accustomed to winning. Even the 2018-19 season which saw LeBron James sign-on ended with them sitting at home, marking the first time he had missed the playoffs since he was 20 years old.
Even a King wasn’t enough to return them to the promised land. At every turn, just when the seas begin to part, the other shoe has dropped and sent the Lakers reeling.
And yet, this season, it feels like things are coming full circle. There’s something comfortingly familiar about this season’s team like reuniting with a childhood friend who you lost touch with. Roster construction is certainly part of it.
With two All-Star players in Anthony Davis and James, this team is more cohesive on paper than what fans have seen in recent season. This isn’t the Island of Misfit Toys attempting to ride James to the playoff, nor is it the young teams whose only hope was for Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, D’Angelo Russell, or a number of others to make the leap to stardom.
This time around, there is method to the madness. It may be simple and safe, but general manager Rob Pelinka chose to follow the past recipe for success with James and Davis-led teams: surround them with veteran shooters and gritty defenders, which is a tactic they used when Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal dominated the league as Derek Fisher, Ron Harper, Horace Grant, Glen Rice, Rick Fox, and more gave the team role players who could fit seamlessly.
Fans have already seen the difference in preseason play. Teams can’t park themselves in the paint as easily when shooters like Danny Green are spotting up behind the arc while Avery Bradley, JaVale McGee, Dwight Howard, and Davis are setting the kind of defensive tone that has to make new head coach Frank Vogel happy.
Even when things are sloppy (which preseason often is), this Lakers roster has the harmony and peace that comes with clearly defined roles. Formerly a young team waiting to see how best to deploy young players as their skills developed, the Lakers are now a gritty veteran team where everyone knows exactly what they need to do in order for them to be successful.
As Jared Dudley has been preaching, it’s a team full of players who know how to be stars in their roles.
That doesn’t mean a championship is on the way or that the Lakers are even a lock to break their playoff drought. The Western Conference is a juggernaut filled with quality opponents that will make winning games about as difficult as collecting infinity stones.
The injury bug has been merciless, robbing the Lakers of at least one of their key players for all but 11 games last season, including 27 games missed by James. As the Lakers know all too well, things can turn quickly when injuries pile up.
Let’s also not forget the Lakers have been in this position before with a newly-arrived superstar big man walking into high expectations just one season away from free agency. Last time around, Howard walked away to the Houston Rockets, leaving the Lakers with nothing in return.
Should things go south, the questions about Davis’ future will only get louder.
Moreover, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George pushed their way to the Clippers, creating a true inter-city rivalry for perhaps the first time ever. Los Angeles is still overwhelmingly a Lakers town, but having another contender in the city at the same time is a new experience.
That said, those are all worries for another day. The ceiling for these Lakers would see them contending for a championship and that’s something that one has to gamble on when the opportunity presents itself. The organization has been far from perfect, but they should be commended for putting together a roster full of players that have a chance to bring home a 17th championship.
No more rebuilding, no more tanking, no more waiting for the kids to develop. The Lakers — who have boasted duos like Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bryant and O’Neal, and Bryant and Pau Gasol — can once again feature two of the very best in the league in James and Davis.
The road is sure to get bumpy at times but this Lakers team has the pieces to be special, which is something that hasn’t been true for some time.
For the first time in a long time, it’s starting to feel like the Lakers again.