Nearly a full year after the 2019-20 season began, the Lakers are NBA champions. Now to celebrate by getting the hell out of Disney World.
Basketball “bubble” jokes aside, Los Angeles deserves to raise the Larry O’Brien trophy without any asterisks attached. The Lakers dominated their opponents behind consistent greatness from LeBron James and Anthony Davis. There was immediate buy-in on coach Frank Vogel’s plan to be a physical, defensive-minded group. Despite concerns about the supporting cast, they showed this roster was, as The Athletic’s John Hollinger put it, top-heavy but not bottom-light.
But here’s the thing that should really worry the rest of the league: This Lakers team, the one that just went 16-5 in the playoffs on its way to the title, could be even better next season.
Kevin Durant leaving Golden State for Brooklyn in the summer of 2019 seemed to bring (slightly) more parity back to the league, but Los Angeles may be ready to fill that dynasty void. There are a few reasons why LA is set up for future success . . .
LeBron and AD as the foundation
To point out the obvious, it’s easier to win games when you have arguably two of the top five players in the NBA.
In their first full year together, James and Davis displayed a natural chemistry and elevated each other’s games. Both guys earned spots on the All-NBA First Team with James finishing as the runner-up to Giannis Antetokounmpo for MVP and Davis landing behind “The Greek Freak” for Defensive Player of the Year. Now imagine what they can do with more time to strengthen their bond.
“We’re not jealous of each other. I think that’s the best thing,” James said of his relationship with Davis. “In professional sports, you have guys that join forces. You can call them alpha males. That’s what they call them. Two guys that have been dominant in a specific sport on their own respective teams, and they get together and they talk about how dominant they can be and they talk about this is going to be this and that. I believe jealousy creeps in a lot. And that is the absolute contrary of what we are.
“We know who we are. We know what we’re about. We want the best, seriously, every single day, both on and off the floor, for one another. We’re just not jealous of one another. I think that you align that with respect, I think the sky’s the limit.”
James isn’t slowing down at age 35, and he is signed through 2021-22 (player option that season). Davis, 27, is widely expected to enter free agency — good luck trying to predict when that period actually begins — and re-sign with the Lakers. The All-Star forwards could easily be aligned for the next several years.
Continuity and identity under Vogel
When Vogel took the Lakers job, the hiring came after initial talks broke down between the front office and Tyronn Lue. There were jokes flying about Vogel merely keeping the seat warm for Jason Kidd, who had earned the respect of James as a Hall of Fame point guard.
So how did Vogel handle the drama that can often come with the purple and gold? He decided he would coach the team his way and lay out the blueprint. Despite possessing two of the league’s best offensive weapons, Los Angeles would have a defense-first mentality.
“If you had asked me at the beginning of the year if we would end up being so connected, I’d have said, ‘No chance,'” Vogel said (via ESPN’s Zach Lowe). “But everyone, starting with LeBron and AD, has been locked in all season. And when that happens, you can keep adding and getting better.”
The Lakers held the league’s third-best defensive rating during the regular season and largely contained the likes of Damian Lillard, James Harden, Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic in the playoffs. Whatever style or system was thrown their way, the Lakers adapted and figured out a way to stifle it.
Now Vogel will have another offseason with this group and a championship under his belt. If the Lakers swap out some players, then the message for the new additions will be clear — Davis and James are going to compete and hold each other accountable on that end of the floor, so no one else will be excused.
LA’s other team never quite figured out what it could rely on when adversity struck. That’s not a problem with these Lakers.
Room for improvement
The Davis trade forced the Lakers to hand over a few future draft picks to the Pelicans, so acquiring young prospects via the draft or helpful players via trade is largely off the table.
Still, Los Angeles could become a popular landing spot for ring-chasing veterans. We’ve already seen it with previous James-led squads, and with all due respect to Cleveland, LA is a little bit easier to sell as a home city. General manager Rob Pelinka heard a lot of criticism following the disastrous 2018-19 campaign, but he made some shrewd moves in assembling this roster. He should be trusted to do it again.
Additionally, there will be internal development with Alex Caruso, Kyle Kuzma and even someone like Talen Horton-Tucker gaining more experience. Keep in mind starting guard Avery Bradley could return as well next season after missing the entire playoff run.
Yes, the Clippers and Nuggets will remain threats in the Western Conference, and the Warriors will bring back Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson at full health. The Eastern Conference has a few contenders, including an intriguing Nets team led by Durant and Kyrie Irving.
Winning one championship is hard enough. Going full dynasty mode? Another challenge entirely.
But the Lakers may be built to do it. As long as James, Davis and the rest of the group stay on the same page, Los Angeles will be in position to put up more banners.
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