2020 Playoffs | West finals: (1) Lakers vs. (3) Nuggets

Lakers reach The Finals after difficult decade

Los Angeles finds its way back to the biggest stage for the first time in 10 years

ORLANDO, Fla. — Dwight Howard was in the middle of the mix the last time the Los Angeles Lakers thought they’d assembled a sure-fire championship team.

Howard and Steve Nash were the superstar additions that would team with five-time NBA champion Kobe Bryant in his twilight prime, the three future Hall of Famers making up the bulk of an All-Star starting five that also included Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace.

They were charged with resurrecting the championship fortunes of a franchise that had seen that shine fade in the aftermath of back-to-back titles won in 2009 and 2010. They were the group that would capture the franchise’s 17th banner, cementing the legacies of all involved and restore some order to a league that was transitioning from an era dominated by the Lakers and San Antonio Spurs.

It was the summer before the 2012-13 season. And there was opening at the top of the Western Conference for a super team to rival the megawatt Miami Heat team led by LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

It never happened, of course. They went through three head coaches. Injuries decimated the roster. The inability to mesh all those superstar pieces and the pressure that came with it, was more than the franchise could handle, especially after the death of beloved owner Jerry Buss in February of 2013.

The Lakers struggled to make the playoffs only to be swept by the Spurs in the first round, a merciless end to an experiment that would leave a stain on all involved and the franchise for years.

That scar tissue from that experience is what made Saturday’s confetti shower and Western Conference finals championship celebration extra sweet for Howard. He’s back in Lakers’ uniform, back in the starting line, as they closed out the Denver Nuggets in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals and prepare to compete for that 17th championship.

“Wow, that was seven years ago,” Howard said as he exited an interview room at AdventHealth Arena. “That seems like a lifetime ago.”

A couple in the NBA.

A Golden State Warriors dynasty has come and gone since the Lakers last competed on this stage in 2010. The Lakers missed the playoffs six straight seasons after that 2013 flameout against the Spurs. Nash is a coach now, taking over in Brooklyn. James is the face of the Lakers’ franchise now, with Anthony Davis as the heir apparent.

Bryant died in a January helicopter crash in Los Angeles along with his daughter GiGi and seven others. His legacy now serves as the inspiration for a franchise resurrection that began two years ago, when LeBron chose the rebuilding Lakers in free agency.

It’s a story only Hollywood could tell. Then Lakers president Magic Johnson serves as the chief recruiter and LeBron, fresh off of eight straight trips to The Finals with Miami and Cleveland, is supposed to lead a motel crew of hand-picked vets and previously assembled lottery picks back to the top.

That never happened either. A severe groin injury derailed his season and the Lakers’ chases of competing for a playoff spot. Rumors of young stars being trade bait for Davis crushed the culture and camaraderie in the locker room. Alleged backbiting and politics put a strain on the front office — namely between Magic and general manager Rob Pelinka — assembled by owner Jeanie Buss.

Magic resigned before season’s end, a failed attempt at trading for Davis having added another public stain on the Lakers’ brand. Luke Walton was jettisoned as head coach shortly thereafter, replaced by Frank Vogel. The memes about LeBrons extended offseason were relentless. The washed king” narrative took on a life of its own.

Pelinka replaced Magic as the chief decision-maker. The Davis trade was finally made and they tried to convince Kawhi Leonard, the bigger free agent prize on the market last summer, riding the wave of his Finals MVP and title run in Toronto, to join them.

Leonard pulled a power move of his own, convincing Paul George to force his way out of Oklahoma City and join him on a super team of their own down the hallway at Staples Center with the Clippers.

The Lakers absorbed the ego hit and moved on. Instead of repeating the folly of trying to fit LeBron into their theoretical championship framework this time, the organization plotted a course with heavy input from the two superstar catalysts that have guided them all season.

After nine trips to The Finals as the centerpiece of each one of those teams, it shouldn’t have been too difficult to retrace the blueprint that worked five times in Cleveland and four times in Miami.

Pelinka reiterated the “intentionality” in the construction of the roster during the trophy ceremony Saturday night. Obviously it starts with the pairing of top-five superstar talent. They also put a premium on veterans with championship and championship-level experience, guys like Rajon Rondo, Danny Green, JaVale McGee, Quinn Cook, J.R. Smith and Howard.

This team is special,” Davis said. “… some guys on some teams are in it for selfish reasons and things like that. But this group of guys for sure only want one thing, and that’s to win a championship.”

The one LeBron had to watch everyone else compete for last season after spending the better part of the past decade in that crucible.

So he watched the playoffs, every single game, he insists, all while preparing his body and mind for this rejuvenated season, his 17th and potentially one of the best and most tumultuous of his illustrious career.

He had to assume an even larger leadership role after Bryant’s death. He had to keep the Lakers together during a wild start to 2020 that saw the season interrupted for four months by the coronavirus pandemic, gut-punched by nationwide social unrest and the emotional grind of being some of the most visible faces in a generational movement fighting for equality for Black and other marginalized people.

And that was before the NBA season restart here in the bubble, where another police-involved shooting in Kenosha, Wis., threatened to shut the bubble down in the first round of the playoffs.

“For us as a franchise, I’m extremely proud to be a part of this franchise getting back to where it belongs,” James said, “and that’s playing for championships and competing for championships and representing the Western Conference in the championships. This is what I came here for. I heard all the conversations and everything that was said about why did I decide to come to L.A — the reason I came to L.A., it was not about basketball. All those conversations, just naysayers and things of that nature.

“I understood that, with the season I had last year and my injury, it just gave them more sticks and more wood to throw in the fire to continue to say the things that they would say about me. But it never stopped my journey and never stopped my mindset and never stopped my goal.”

James praised the Nuggets and their coach, Mike Malone, for bringing out the best in him and the Lakers, knowing they needed the push if they are going to take that necessary next step to winning it all.

He needed a moment at the end of Game 5 to collect himself just thinking about it.

“Yeah, just, one, getting my breath back underneath me after a hard-fought series against one of the most well-coached team I’ve ever played against in the postseason,” he said, “one of the most respected teams I’ve played against. Obviously, you guys know how much I love Mike Malone. He’s incredible. He’s the reason why that team is so damn good.”

Malone showed the same love for what James has done during his incredible run.

Yeah, it is incredible. And when you just step back and look and marvel at what LeBron is doing at this stage of his career, how he continues to find ways to improve and get better and take whatever team he’s on to new heights, that defines his greatness,” Nuggets coach Mike Malone said. “Tenth Finals appearance. I know everybody wants to get caught up in the whole argument, the greatest of all time. That is an unwinnable debate. LeBron is a great player and he’s one of the greatest to ever do it and his resume speaks for itself. And like I mentioned earlier, in a Game 5, closeout game, when the game was hanging in the balance, who took over? The best player on the floor. And that’s what you’ve come to expect from him.”

LeBron insists it’s not about him now. It’s about the unfinished business at hand for the Lakers. There is still some unfinished business that needs to be tented to in the coming days, expectations to be met exceeded.

They’re still four wins shy of the ultimate goal, with either the Heat or longtime rival Boston Celtics standing in the way.

So that means more of the dogged James who has driven these Lakers all season.

“I just feel he’s had a chip on his shoulder all year long,” Vogel said. “Everybody has doubters. To be in the Eastern Conference and get there as much as he had, now to come over to the Western Conference, I think just an enormous accomplishment to do it with a third team.

“So much respect for him and love for him and what he’s meant to me. He has empowered this whole group with just buying into the plan that we had, with how we wanted to play this year, and getting the whole group to buy in. Obviously a great part of why we’ve had this success. Understanding that the job is not done.”

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Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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