After separate eras in which they won a combined five championships with Kobe Bryant, the Los Angeles Lakers went through a rebuild before signing LeBron James last summer. His arrival drastically changed expectations for the franchise and set an expectation of ending a playoff drought.
With Bryant entering the twilight of his career, the Lakers missed the playoffs three times with him still on the roster, and two more since retiring. Their last trip to the playoffs was short-lived, as the Spurs swept the Lakers in the first round.
That season is of course most remembered for the failed trades of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash. Those Lakers, much like this season’s group, faced an uphill battle to even make the playoffs.
They did so behind Bryant leaving everything he had on the court, which ultimately led to a torn Achilles. Houston Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni reflected on the level of play Bryant was at and drew a similarity to where the Lakers are now with James, via Shahan Ahmed of NBC L.A.:
“I think the biggest thing was, I think Kobe promised we’d be in the playoffs, and he did it. A little like LeBron kind of promised it. I don’t know if he promised it or not, but they have the ability to lift the whole team and make that run. We just kind of put it together when we had to.”
“You’ve got to be careful about that, because nobody does it by themselves, and we had some guys that were playing. We had some injuries back then, too. If I’m not mistaken, our three centers were out for a lot of it. [Kobe] did put the team on his back. I couldn’t get him out of games, he played 48 minutes. He was proving a point, and he proved it. But there were a lot of guys who contributed.”
D’Antoni has previously recollected on that time in his career, doing so in a self-deprecating manner by saying he wasn’t doing much coaching.
The Lakers came out of the All-Star break under .500, which prompted James to say he was going to raise his level of intensity. Headmitted it would be done earlier than in years past, but the challenge and pressure to get the Lakers to the playoffs is something James embraces.
If James is to miss the playoffs, it would mark the first time since his second season in the NBA, and also snap his eight-year streak of reaching the NBA Finals.
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