Five things we learned from the Los Angeles Lakers’ 2019-20 NBA championship run, clinched with their 106-93 victory over the Miami Heat in Game 6 Sunday in the Orlando bubble:
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1. The Lakers’ ‘drought’ is over
Yeah, yeah, yeah, the Los Angeles NBA franchise that Mom always liked best had gone a whole 10 years without winning a championship. Boo-freaking-hoo, right?
Twenty-four of the league’s 30 teams have waited longer than that. It’s been 12 years for the Boston Celtics, whom the Lakers tied Sunday with 17 championships. It’s been 16 years for Detroit, 22 for Chicago, 25 for Houston. You’d have to be well into your 40s to remember anything you saw when Philadelphia last won, pushing 50 for favorite moments from Seattle’s, Washington’s or Portland’s lone title runs.
The Knicks haven’t won in 47 years, back before Larry O’Brien was a commissioner, never mind a trophy. It’s been 49 for the Bucks. And then there are the 11 Oliver Twist franchises still holding out their empty bowls, hoping for a taste: Brooklyn, Charlotte, Denver, Indiana, the LA Clippers, Memphis, Minnesota, New Orleans, Orlando, Phoenix and Utah.
Then there are the Lakers and their fans, suffering from their first-world problem of a decade between rings. As if it’s their birthright or something …
Except, y’know, it kind of is. This franchise was racking up championships -- five of ‘em -- back when its nickname made sense, in Minneapolis, in the first half of the 1950s. Those Lakers teams had the game’s biggest star and its dominant big man -- it just so happened that George Mikan filled the roles divvied between LeBron James and Anthony Davis on this year’s winners.
The real drought came then, dry enough that the Lakers relocated to southern California, unpleasant enough with Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics catching and passing them for 11 titles in 13 years. The Lakers took their lumps directly, too, losing seven times in The Finals to Boston. It would be 18 years overall before Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain put an end to it, beating New York in 1972.
The count at that point was Celtics 11, Lakers 6. Then 13-7 a few years later. The Lakers gained ground in the Magic Johnson/Larry Bird 80s to get within 16-11. Then Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, under Phil Jackson, strung together three in a row from 2000 to 2002. Bryant, Jackson and Pau Gasol won two more in 2009 and 2010, a pair that the Celtics had their eyes on after winning in 2008.
Now James, Davis and the others have capped a 6-1 run over the past 20 seasons to catch Boston at 17 championships each. Nobody else is close -- the Bulls and the Warriors have won six titles, the Spurs five -- and based on James’ stalemate with Father Time and his new BFF’s prime, the gap might actually widen in the next few years.
2. James is the ‘King’ of player empowerment
You might find Michael Jordan’s name trending on social media, in spite of His Airness’ last ring coming in the last century, because that’s how it goes nowadays when James does, er, almost anything. For now, our view here was best expressed by Sekou Smith in the immediate aftermath of Game 6:
… Can we stop for one second and admit that no athlete in recent memory, and perhaps ever, has done what he’s done? We’re talking about a man 17 years into an already illustrious, all-time outlandish Hall of Fame career, taking his third organization to the title. It doesn’t mean he’s the G.O.A.T. or whatever you want to call it, but he’s carved out a place for himself in that stratosphere where few others in the history of this or any organized, high-level competition have gone before.
We’ll focus here on a couple of superlatives that are beyond quibbling. No argument, no debate. The first is that no player in NBA history has done more for player empowerment by seizing control of his career arc and leading three different organizations to championships.
Some will cite his Finals MVP trophies in Miami (2), Cleveland and now Los Angeles to distinguish him from guys such as Danny Green and Robert Horry, but the word “lead” covers that. James led on the court and off in orchestrating the titles he and his teams won with the Heat (Big Three), the Cavs (Big Three 2.0) and the Lakers.
Is that a greater feat than winning four times in one place as the top star? That, after all, is an uber-elite club populated by Russell, Jordan and Magic Johnson or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (depending on how you slice the alpha dog duties). James has been honest, at least, about having to go to Miami to a) learn from Pat Riley’s vaunted “culture” how to win and b) do it somewhere sidekicks and supporting cast members actually would want to live and play.
By the time he got back to Cleveland, he had nailed down “a” and could skip “b,” with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love in place as the Monster Cavs’ other two heads. Four more Finals trips and that improbable 2016 title after a 3-1 Golden State series lead probably stand as James’ greatest accomplishments.
With the Lakers, James targeted a glamour market again and an elite teammate whom his reputation and his agency, Klutch, could leverage out of New Orleans a year earlier than Davis’ contract would have allowed. No regrets, no apologies from James, despite Davis’ dubious ethics in forcing the trade. He was too busy being superstar, GM and POBO for that.
The second claim to fame that is James’ alone is that he reigns as the NBA’s monarch of body maintenance. No one else in the game’s history has done what he’s done as well as and as long as James has done it.
He has benefitted from playing at a time of the most advanced training, conditioning, nutritional and psychological techniques ever. His genetics have put those things to use in a 6-foot-9, 260-pound package, his finances have put it all at his fingertips and his work ethic has driven him to miss zero beats in going machine on the rest of the league.
James has had the role models and achievements of those who came before him to use as targets. The four months of lockdown had to have helped him physically, bubble or not, in creating a quick ramp to the postseason. Where some rivals saw the Orlando restart as an ordeal, James never lost sight of what it offered as an opportunity.
If the NBA’s doomsday scenario always was going to be James testing positive during the playoffs, well, that was James’ too.
Yet here we are, imagining James continuing at his current productivity and passion over the next couple of years. That’s much easier than picturing a drop-off of 25 percent one year, 50 percent the next, the way we would for mere mortal 36- and 37-year-olds.
3. Davis is an elite No. 2
James couldn’t round up two additional stars for the Lakers -- Kawhi Leonard preferred the other end of the hall at Staples Center -- but one was plenty. Davis, the moment he got his desired trade out of New Orleans, hurt both his own and James’ cases as MVP candidates -- how valuable does one have to be when the other one is there as backup? -- but dramatically improved their prospects of doing exactly what we saw Sunday.
Davis’ versatility in a slightly longer, somewhat more slender package is a lot like James, in the ways he can hurt opponents offensively and guard multiple positions. Though less adept as a passer, he adds a level of rim protection James only shows in his flashy chase-down blocks. There was a reason Miami managed only 36 points by halftime of the clincher, and his initials are AD.
What we don’t know about Davis is whether he could ever fulfill the hopes and dreams the Pelicans had for him -- leading a team to a championship as its best player. His frequent wincing and grabbing at various body parts, on top of his injury history before this season, will keep him in a durability category far from James, until proven otherwise.
But as a second threat for whom foes have to game-plan, with pure MVP talent better than most teams’ No. 1, Davis is what we all expected and all those other teams feared. Scottie Pippen wasn’t diminished when he couldn’t pick up the baton Jordan dropped at his feet. One of these years in the distant future perhaps, after James’ tutelage, we’ll see how Davis does at that task.
The gap between James’ and Davis’ skill sets is narrower than between Davis’ and anyone else’s on the Lakers roster. But it would be a mistake not to mention teammates, only a few of whom merely hitched a ride to a ring.
Like Rajon Rondo, the veteran guard who earned a special place in the Lakers-Celtics rivalry by becoming only the second player to win titles with each franchise. (Clyde Lovellete did it the Minneapolis incarnation in 1954 and with Boston in 1963 and 1964.) He was sought as a roster addition by James himself, and used his postseason experience and savvy to drive and bail out the Lakers on some playoff nights.
Former No. 1 pick Dwight Howard had been sort of the anti-LeBron, gaining notoriety for all the franchises he could not lead to a championship. Then he honed his game down to the basics -- defense and rebounding -- as a strong role player this season.
Danny Green, a solid citizen whose missed 3-pointer that could have won Game 5 threatened to linger, shook all stigma off in 48 hours. Most fair-minded folks, if they knew the outcome was assured but the score would be tighter, would have pulled for Green to get a reset late Sunday.
Yes, J.R. Smith gets another ring now. But Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Alex Caruso and Markieff Morris earned their first. Then there’s Kostas Antetkounmpo, one of Milwaukee MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo’s younger brothers, who logged all of 20 minutes and seven points for the Lakers this season. Kostas has bragging rights on big bro for the moment.
4. Vogel vaults into coaches’ upper ranks
It’s true that a relative select group of NBA franchises have won the championship -- eight have hogged 60 since the league’s inception. The parallel for NBA coaches is even more exclusive.
Of the 332 men who have been NBA head coaches, only 34 have won at least one championship. That’s just barely 10 percent. Six guys -- Phil Jackson (11), Red Auerbach (9), John Kundla (5), Pat Riley (5), Gregg Popovich (5) and Steve Kerr (3) -- account for 38, just over half all-time.
Frank Vogel went from nose pressed against the glass to being comfortably distanced from all the win-nots by becoming the seventh active coach to steer an NBA champion across the finish line. For now, he’s the 20th to win exactly once, though that’s subject to change.
Vogel, 47, did it by stressing the basic of defense and positivity. He never tried to show his Lakers stars how smart he was, though he was plenty, and never had a moment’s friction – publicly, anyway – with James. That’s no easy feat. The former protégé of Rick Pitino and video coordinator for the Celtics comes across as egoless, at times to the point of deference to his players, especially LeBron. But he also is working with an older, more self-assured James than were any of the star’s six previous coaches.
Staying the course is a skill for a coach during any NBA season, particular the longest. It showed itself most tangibly in the Lakers’ impressive 57-0 mark when leading through three quarters. Closing out games without hiccups, navigating the timeouts and the replay reviews and the rest, starts at the top of most coaching staffs.
In previous stops, Vogel had made his bones in Indiana, then looked adrift in Orlando. With the Lakers, Vogel wasn’t even the first choice for the job -- Tyronn Lue turned it down -- but he proved he was the right choice.
5. Miami will be back sooner vs. later
Their bubble done burst early Sunday night, with a deficit of 30 points by halftime that made the final score, 106-93, extremely misleading. The Heat tanks were empty, once and for all, and it showed. Game 6 was over almost before it had begun.
The Finals finale was more coronation than competition, but there really was nothing for Miami to be ashamed about. The Heat punched above their weight from the conference semifinals onward, dispatching Milwaukee and outworking Boston to end its “drought” between championship series at a mere six years.
The scrappy crew didn’t have the pedigree of the Lakers’ roster. Even when point guard Goran Dragic and center Bam Adebayo missed nearly all of the series and two games, respectively, coach Erik Spoelstra never sought or used any excuses.
Jimmy Butler posted triple-doubles in Game 3 and 5 that had fans in Chicago, Minnesota and Philadelphia bemoaning the version of Butler they’d had. Butler established himself as a household NBA name by averaging 26.2 points, 8.3 rebounds, 9.8 assists and shooting 55.2% in the series.
The Heat clearly have keepers in Adebayo and precocious scorer Tyler Herro, with role players who responded in Jae Crowder, Duncan Robinson, Kendrick Nunn and Kelly Olynyk. There’s no reason, considering what they did and what their rivals did not, that the Heat shouldn’t be seen as East favorites when 2020-21 commences.
With its current roster, its “culture” that might induce eye rolls but gets results and the relentless ambitions of Pat Riley, the Godfather, in the upstairs office, the Heat look to be a contender into the near future. Despite playing only eight game over .500 since 2013-14 and missing the playoffs three times in five seasons prior to this one, Miami still has that built-in advantage as one of the league’s most alluring, “destination” markets for free agents.
Only a few other locales offer that on a reliable basis.
The bubble of central Florida, not so much. But Miami did its job and Los Angeles did theirs.
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