The Los Angeles Lakers are one win away from an NBA championship, which would be their 17th in franchise history. The Miami Heat have no intention of going away to let the Lakers celebrate, but regardless of whether the series ends with Game 5 or 7, the reality is that the 2019-20 NBA season is about to come to a close.
The ultimate conclusion of a season that is more than one calendar year past the first training camp session, elicits memories of looking back. After all, to steal a line from the surprisingly watchable Brad Pitt-Angelina Jolie spy film “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” (aka sorry Jennifer Anniston), at the end, you think about the beginning.
For this incarnation of the Lakers, the beginning really came when LeBron James announced his arrival in July of 2018. It was then that the team’s trajectory shifted. Instead of rebuilding around young players and praying one or more of them would develop into stars someday, the Lakers needed to win now.
The 2018-19 season was a disaster, plagued by an injured James, inconsistent youth, poor roster construction (surrounding James with non-shooters was a head-scratcher), and a grand plan that never came to fruition. The Lakers’ initial hopes were that they would land not just James but Paul George as well, who was entering free agency after spending the season with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Instead, George re-signed with the Thunder without giving the Lakers a chance to meet with him (then forced a trade to the L.A. Clippers a year later… Not great, Paul). The Lakers were left move ahead with James and the young core of Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart.
Not surprisingly, trade rumors were constant. James, one of only a handful of players who can stake a claim to being the greatest of all-time, wasn’t going to wait around to find out if Ball ever figured out his corkscrew jump shot or Ingram grew into his frame.
The Lakers attempted to trade for New Orleans Pelicans star Anthony Davis at the deadline that year, only to be rebuffed. They finally completed a deal in July of 2019, sending Ball, Ingram, Hart and a plethora of draft picks to New Orleans.
With the young core, save for Kyle Kuzma, all traded away, the 2019-20 season would be a championship-or-bust campaign. The Lakers won a title since 2010 and spent six seasons on the outside looking in on the NBA Playoffs. With James in town, there was no holding back.
Rob Pelinka, fully in charge as the team’s vice president of basketball operations in the wake of Magic Johnson’s abrupt departure, had dreams of not just a star duo, but a trio featuring James, Davis, and free agent Kawhi Leonard.
Instead, Leonard hatched a plot with George to jump to the Clippers while leaving the Lakers waiting in limbo as other free agent targets came off the board.
Sometimes, when we reflect, we can pinpoint the pivotal moment that either pushed us down the path to success or the road to ruin. For the 2019-20 Lakers, that moment was when Leonard shockingly chose to sign with the Clippers.
It was the start of a new Los Angeles rivalry, but also put the Lakers in a difficult position since many of their top free-agent targets were long gone thanks to Leonard’s stalling.
Fortunately, Pelinka had prepared for this outcome.
While three stars was the goal, the fallback plan was to surround James and Davis with veteran role players who could give them the support they needed to contend for a championship. This plan, while not as flashy as combining arguably the most talented trio of players ever assembled, was put into action the second that Leonard turned.
In short order, Danny Green, Quinn Cook, DeMarcus Cousins, Avery Bradley, Jared Dudley and Troy Daniels signed on. Rajon Rondo, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, JaVale McGee and Alex Caruso were inked to new deals to return from the previous season.
These moves surrounded the Lakers’ stars with defense and shooting, and all contracts were limited to a maximum of two years in order to preserve future flexibility. In the offseason of 2021, the Lakers may have a chunk of cap space at their disposal to revamp their roster once again and Pelinka could be right back in the hunt for a third star.
The Lakers also needed to find a new head coach, and while the process to get there may have been messy, they ultimately settled upon Frank Vogel. Regardless of the speed bumps along the way, he has proven to be the right man for the job, possessing the defensive principles and steady demeanor necessary to get the best out of the team.
The shrewd decisions didn’t stop there. Prodigal son Dwight Howard was brought back into the fold to replace an injured Cousins, and Markieff Morris added via the buyout market midseason. Both have proven to be major pieces for the Lakers, with the Morris addition being particularly impressive since the Lakers had the patience to not surrender assets to the New York Knicks for Marcus Morris, Markieff’s twin brother, at the trade deadline.
Instead, they landed Markieff as a free agent when he was bought out, leaving the Clippers to pay handsomely in picks and players to get Marcus.
The regular season was a success with the Lakers finishing as the top seed in the Western Conference, but the NBA Playoffs have allowed them to truly showcase the brilliance of their construction. Their ability to adapt to their opponent has been particularly impressive.
They have the bruising centers necessary to handle the league’s best big men but also the flexibility to defend the perimeter and increase their floor spacing while still maintaining a size advantage by deploying some combination of Davis, Kuzma, James and Morris.
Small ball, twin towers, five out, it doesn’t matter. Regardless of the scheme an opponent throws at the Lakers, they have the personnel to counter it.
When reflecting on what got the Lakers to the point they are at now, Davis and James certainly deserve the bulk of the credit. The stars did the heavy lifting because that’s what stars do.
However, the decisions made around the edges, the ones that put the rest of the roster together and provided both on-court and financial flexibility, have helped turn the Lakers back into a powerhouse.
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