The Point

The Point: For Lakers, This Is More Resumption Than Restart

by Kevin Ding
Senior Writer

Nostalgia is enticing these days. Wistfully reminiscing about pre-pandemic freedoms and pleasures we took for granted is the back door of our homes to which we are continually drawn. It’s not unlike taking for granted that we feel fine until we suffer an injury or longing for more time with our loved ones once they are gone.

In times of instability, we recall firmer, familiar ground we’d found for ourselves to stand tall. And the Lakers could rightly yearn for the past comfort zone even more.

They had just built up a pretty impressive building—after for years digging the sort of big ditch the franchise isn’t accustomed to—when the NBA season was halted four months ago. In the first eight days of March, there was a road victory over potential first-round opponent New Orleans, home victories over Eastern Conference contenders Philadelphia and Milwaukee, then a meaningful victory on the Clippers’ home court. A high rise, indeed.

“I loved where we were at,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “So I definitely hope there will be some continuity and carryover. How quickly that takes place is a great question mark.”

Many are pointing out that the season interruption—with all the non-basketball issues that have cluttered everyone’s minds before this closed-campus NBA experiment—makes this restart as unpredictable as it is unprecedented. For sure, so many variables have been spilled out on the hardwood that Adam Silver could be chasing down marbles for months.

That, however, doesn’t mean what happened previously this season is invalidated.

The Lakers have their foundation, they know what it is, and they have every reason to believe it can and will travel to Florida now.

They are a defense-first, veteran team that was put together with the talent and know-how to seize the opportunity of winning a championship—whatever the circumstances. They learned how to play well together in the time they did get—with what Vogel calls a “pretty simple system” that won’t be difficult to resume operating at the level they’d achieved.

And through 63 games before the hiatus, they forged an esprit de corps that united and lifted them through unexpected sorts of adversity. That fraternity vibe becomes even more significant with teams now isolated from the rest of the outside world.

“This team of guys loves being together, and they love playing together,” Lakers vice president of basketball operations and general manager Rob Pelinka said. “So I think that’s the significance of the 63 games.”

Here’s how Alex Caruso put it when considering this potentially extended and intensive time together: “Doesn’t take a lot for this team to enjoy each other’s company.”

The Lakers had won 11 of 12 games but did let down in their last one before the break. Missing Dwight Howard because of illness, the sluggish Lakers finally surged in the last half of the fourth quarter against Brooklyn to have a chance.

Down by two points, they executed two sets to perfection yet failed to score on either one—LeBron James having a layup roll off the rim on the first, Anthony Davis missing an open three-pointer as time expired on the second.

Afterward, James sat in the postgame media session and shared his satisfaction with the teamwork on those plays. The first had featured just the sort of spacing the Lakers seek for James to morph into freight-train form, charging downhill toward the basket. The second had James drawing the panicked defense into the lane for him to pass to Davis, whom he’d set up for a tying three-pointer moments before. James added that he could “literally close my eyes and know where my guys are going to be.”

James then elaborated on how much progress, even in defeat, the Lakers had made in learning to play as a team with only Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma, JaVale McGee, Rajon Rondo, Caruso and James back from last season.

“It takes months and months and months of going through the system and knowing where guys like the ball and knowing where guys are going to be throughout the course of the game,” James said. “You just try to pay attention throughout the course of practices, film sessions and games. Put yourself in position where you can be able to close your eyes and you can know where everyone is, no matter who else is out on the floor.”

The very next question to James that night was about the prospect of playing future games without fans in attendance because of the COVID threat. Little did anyone know that there would be no games at all for a long time.

But the Lakers had gotten where they wanted to go as a group. One critical development, as Jared Dudley said Friday, was how “we found a nice little substitution pattern between” James and Davis the second part of the season where they were more “fluid” about offensive aggressiveness rather than fretting about being in one another’s way.

Avery Bradley’s decision to forego the rest of the season for personal reasons will open the door for Caldwell-Pope, Caruso, Rondo, Quinn Cook and newcomers Dion Waiters and JR Smith to contribute more. Yet you’ve heard it many, many times already this season—because Vogel reminds the players regularly, and the players have agreed—that the Lakers pride themselves on a “next-man-up mindset.”

That’s part of the consistency that Vogel has established within this community in less than a season as Lakers head coach. The players have enough experience to be professional and mature about their roles, and the coach has seen they are trustworthy when it comes to making the most of video sessions.

Again, they know who they are—and they know their capability when the time soon comes to make the pivotal strategic in-series adjustments to stay ahead of playoff opponents.

And when it comes to the isolation that is part of the unique playoff equation this time, Danny Green trusts his group’s maturity. Green said it’s another advantage that puts the Lakers “ahead of the pack in terms of guys who can sit still” rather than be itching to escape a bubble.

“What I’ve learned about this group,” Vogel said, “is that they’re committed, they like each other, they like the system that we’re playing in. And all of those signs of character that we have with this group, the work ethic we have with this group, all of those things lead me to believe that we’re going to get the job done.”

At a time for real concern about players’ health, including jumping back into heavy workload after such an abnormal layoff, the Lakers also feel confident about the premium that management has placed for some time on player wellness.

What Pelinka calls a “player-focused organization”—one that hired renowned physical therapist Judy Seto last year as director of sports performance—is comfortably equipped for the coming challenge.

“This particular experience in Orlando, I think so much of the weight of this is going to shift to the sports performance staff,” Pelinka said. “And we have a great one.”

TThe problem with nostalgia lies in the irrelevance of living in the past. We do absolutely learn from history and find renewed strength from happy memories, but above all we have to believe in using the present to create an even better future. It’s misguided to be pining for things simply to be the same as before.

Especially as the Lakers enter this restrictive campus created solely to finish the NBA season, they know better than to wish for a return to normal life.

What they can wish for is using this platform to further the fight against systemic racism. As Davis said: “We’re able to have more people in the room from other teams and receive other ideas and figure out how we can change the world. What can we do individually. And what can we do as a unit to make change.”

What the Lakers can also wish for is ending this journey with a victory that will dwarf all that they’ve achieved so far this season. If they can, it won’t make life the same either—but it certainly will make other things feel far, far better.

“I’m looking forward to the challenge of lasting, of being the team that can be the mentally toughest, the mentally strongest,” Caruso said. “And say, ‘Yeah, we might be on this isolated campus for three months, but we have a goal. We have a mission. And it’s not going to affect us trying to get to that end goal and finish the job.’ “

It’s not a new job. It’s the same job.

And it’s the same team led by the same superstars—connected by the same bond.

“Our guys are going to enjoy this time together,” Vogel said, “and enjoy this opportunity to compete for a championship.”

* * *

Kevin Ding is an independent sports writer, and the statements and views expressed by him do not necessarily represent the views of the Los Angeles Lakers.

To catch up on all of Kevin Ding's in-depth Lakers stories, visit The Point home page.

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