The Longest Season
A Review of the 2019-20 Champion Lakers
The most mentally challenging, emotional and longest season in NBA history finally culminated in a familiar place: the Los Angeles Lakers winning the title for the 17th time in franchise history.
What an Odyssey it was for a talented, experienced group of players led by Finals MVP LeBron James and his fellow All-NBA-First-Team member Anthony Davis, before they emerged from three months in the COVID-19-pandemic-proofed bubble outside of Orlando.
On Oct. 6, 2019, the Lakers left for a preseason trip to China.
On Oct. 11, 2020, the Lakers defeated the Miami Heat 106-93 to cap a tremendous 16-5 run to the Larry O’Brien trophy that featured 4-1 gentlemen’s sweeps of Portland, Houston and Denver.
During that unprecedented journey, the Lakers had to push through: the devastating loss of Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna in January; the pandemic that shut the season down from March through June; and the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other victims of police violence that sparked a push for social justice, a recognition that Black Lives Matter and the pursuit of being Anti-Rascist, which for the Lakers, including the hiring of Dr. Karida Brown, the team’s Director of Racial Equity and Action.
The team had to find a way to focus on basketball, and under the guiding vision of head coach Frank Vogel, they managed to take things one day at a time.
After the preseason trip to China amidst difficult circumstance, the Lakers returned in mid-October to try and get ready for the Oct. 22 opener against the Clippers. While they narrowly lost that game, the Lakers promptly ripped off a seven-game winning streak. They’d never give up first place in the West for the rest of the season.
After a Nov. 10 loss to Toronto, L.A. won 10 straight to reach 17-2, then 24-3 after a particularly impressive set of road wins. L.A. beat Denver 105-96 on Dec. 3, then smashed Utah 121-96 the next night, before finishing off a three-game trip with a 136-113 handling of Portland.
The first losing streak of the season was from Dec. 17-25, with the Lakers losing four games, though that stretch came after they’d played 12 of the prior 15 games on the road, and with LeBron and AD missing one game apiece.
They responded with nine wins in 10 games to reach a 33-7 mark. They then won 11 of 12 games from Feb. 8 – March 8, climaxing with back-to-back home wins over the East No. 1-seeded Bucks, 113-103, and the West’s No. 2-seeded Clippers, 112-103. The last game they played before the shutdown was on March 10, a loss to Brooklyn, bringing their record to 49-14, first in the West by 5.5 games.
For the next several months, the players had to work out on their own at their respective homes, aided by videos from the strength and conditioning staff, and in some cases, equipment that was dropped off. At a certain point, players were able to return to the UCLA Health Training Center for COVID-19-safe individual workouts, as the team prepped for quarantine and eventual travel to Florida to participate in three warm-up games to the eight seeding games that would count in the standings.
L.A. was without starting point guard Avery Bradley, opted out of the Bubble for personal reasons after a strong two-way regular season.
With “Black Lives Matter,” “Say Their Names,” “Vote” and “I Can’t Breathe” on their jerseys, the Lakers first Bubble game was against LAC, in what many thought would be a preview of the West Finals. LAL handled business with a 103-101 win to essentially lock up the No. 1 seed. They were thus able to treat the remainder of the month like preseason to get ready for Round 1, and they went 2-5 while playing an extended rotation, and limiting the minutes for LeBron and AD in particular. They did lose Rajon Rondo to fractured thumb, and he wouldn’t be back until Round 2.
The Lakers opened the postseason against Portland, who’d won six of their eight seeding games to get into a play-in mini tournament with Memphis, and beaten the Grizzlies to secure a matchup with the No. 1 Lakers. And in Game 1, some of the rust from the seeding games carried through on offense. According to Second Spectrum, the Lakers had the worst “shooting luck” of any team dating back to the 2013-14 season, scoring 46 fewer points than expected based on the quality of the shots, the players who took those shots, and the number of free throws. They missed threes. They missed layups. And yet because their defense was very good, they still had a chance to win before ultimately falling 100-93.
From that point forward, the Lakers exerted their dominance, winning four straight games by a total of 60 points. L.A. held Portland, who averaged 123 points in the seeding games, to 106 per game. Frank Vogel’s defensive plan for Damian Lillard worked extremely well, limiting the All-Star to 24.3 points on 39.3 percent shooting, after he’d averaged 30.0 points on 43.7 percent FG’s in the regular season.
A different, but similarly effective game plan helped contain James Harden and the Houston Rockets in Round 2. Like Portland, Houston won Game 1, before the Lakers figured out the proper formula and won four straight games by a total of 51 points. Harden went from 34.3 regular season points to 29.4, while Russell Westbrook went from 27.2 points to just 19.8.
L.A. stuck to their familiar 4-1 ways in the Western Conference Finals against Denver, with Game 3 this time the only loss. LeBron and AD continued to dominate efficiently on offense, while also making a huge impact on defense against Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray. Those two young players are terrific offensive talents, just like Harden and Westbrook, or Lillard and McCollum, but none of those players possess the two-way impact of L.A.’s stars. The Lakers also continued to get consistent play from their role players on both sides of the court, and a 117-107 Game 5 victory (LeBron had a ridiculous 38 points, 16 boards and 10 assists) sent them to the Finals.
Miami matched L.A.’s 12-3 record to get easily through the East, but then dropped Games 1 and 2 by 18 and 10 points, respectively, as the Lakers grasped control. The Heat rallied to win Game 3, with a Lakers Game 4 answer. Things appeared to be set up for L.A. to clinch in 5 while wearing their Black Mamba jerseys, but Miami battled to win and force Game 6.
With Alex Caruso sliding into the starting lineup for the first time in the postseason, the Lakers absolutely suffocated Miami with an incredible defensive effort, as they took a 64-36 halftime lead that locked up the championship.
It was a Lakers team that clicked from Day 1 through Day 365+, and there’s plenty of credit to go around.
Vice President of Basketball Operations/GM Rob Pelinka traded for Anthony Davis in July, and then built a roster to ideally compliment Davis and LeBron. Pelinka assembled a group of mostly veteran, two-way players that embraced a collective role around the two All-Stars.
Hired in May, Frank Vogel focused on the day-to-day work, while establishing strong relationships in the locker room with his players and staff, and developed a defense-first culture that carried through the calendar.
James and Davis couldn’t have been much better, with LeBron finishing second in the MVP race, and Davis 2nd in Defensive Player of the Year voting, both to Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, despite both having extremely strong cases for the honors. Perhaps that provided an extra bit of motivation in their pursuit of the ultimate honor, and their playoff stats couldn’t have been much better:
LeBron: 27.6 points, 56.0% FG’s, 37.0% 3’s, 10.8 rebounds, 8.8 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.9 blocks
Davis: 27.7 points, 57.1% FG’s, 38.3% 3’s, 9.7 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.2 steals, 1.4 blocks
L.A.’s third-best player may have been its defense, but they had no shortage of contributions from the rest of the roster. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Danny Green combined to hit 84 3’s while providing consistent perimeter defense. Caruso and Rondo were a fantastic backcourt bench duo, often finishing games with L.A.’s smaller lineup, keyed by Caruso’s defensive impact, and Rondo’s massive and critical uptick in production and impact from the regular season.
Kyle Kuzma and Markieff Morris provided steady two-way play on the wings, with Morris even starting at center to close out the Rockets, while Kuzma eschewed his typical shot attempts to focus on defense and scoring off cuts to the rim or spot-up threes. JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard protected the paint and rolled to the rim when on the court – Howard was especially impactful against Nikola Jokic and Denver – and led the cheers from the bench when Vogel went small with Davis and Morris.
Jared Dudley provided steady leadership from the bench, while Quinn Cook, Dion Waiters and J.R. Smith joined McGee and Howard in vocal support made more important by the lack of fans in the Bubble. Meanwhile, 19-year-old rookie Talen Horton-Tucker flashed some real talent in limited minutes, while two-way players from the G-League’s South Bay Lakers, Kostas Antetokounmpo and Devontae Cacok, got invaluable experience practicing and watching film with LeBron, Rondo and Co. for the lengthy Bubble stretch.
As such, the Lakers won the title for the first time since 2010, and the first time since the 2013 passing of Dr. Jerry Buss. His daughter Jeanie, the CEO/Governor of the Lakers, graciously accepted the trophy from commissioner Adam Silver in much the same way as her father had: by thanking and praising L.A.’s opponents; and giving all the credit to the players, coaches and front office employees that sacrificed so much through the longest and most unique season in NBA history.
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