From no direction to 17th NBA championship, the Los Angeles Lakers are back
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The lowest point for the Los Angeles Lakers in the past decade is difficult to discern.
The 21-win season in 2014-15 followed by the 17-win season in 2015-16? The five coaches in eight seasons following Phil Jackson’s departure?
The attempted palace coup when Jeanie Buss’ brothers, Johnny and Jim, filed a lawsuit to gain control of the franchise, culminating with Jeanie’s successful attempt to maintain control?
The six consecutive seasons without making the playoffs, the first time the franchise went more than two seasons without a playoff appearance in 72 seasons?
The front-office upheaval in which Jeanie fired her brother, Jim, and longtime general manager Mitch Kupchak?
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The brief foray for Magic Johnson back into the front office that ended with his abrupt resignation before a game in 2019 — that came as a surprise to all Lakers — with Johnson no longer wanting to work alongside general manager Rob Pelinka?
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The Lakers struggled in the post-2010 championship era as Kobe Bryant’s career concluded and following longtime owner Jerry Buss’ death in 2013. Big-name acquisitions didn’t work out, and high-profile free agents, such as LaMarcus Aldridge and Kevin Durant, shunned the Lakers.
The franchise struggled and was painted as a mom-and-pop operation — lost in a world of private-equity billionaires.
The Los Angeles Lakers lost their way and had no direction post-Jackson and following Buss’ death. They were a mess.
"This is unchartered territory I am not prepared for," Jeanie Buss told the Daily News of Los Angeles in 2015. "I hear the fans and hear their frustration. I'm hoping with every game, it's going to get better. I'm as impatient as any other Lakers fan."
That patience was tested, and it didn't get better until LeBron James decided to sign with the Lakers in 2018 and Los Angeles acquired Anthony Davis in 2019.
LeBron James and Anthony Davis are champions in their first season together with the Lakers. (Photo: Kim Klement, USA TODAY Sports)
A decade of frustration vanished on Sunday as the Lakers won the NBA championship with a 106-93 victory over the Miami Heat in Game 6. It is their first title since 2010 and the franchise’s 17th overall, tying them with the Boston Celtics for most in league history.
"Lakers Nation, when it's safe, I look forward to celebrating with you," Jeanie Buss said Sunday. "Until then, I will bring back the trophy to Los Angeles where it belongs."
The road from there to here was filled with potholes, slippery slopes, dangerous curves and strenuous uphill climbs — even after James joined the Lakers on July 1, 2018.
"What I have learned in life is the hard times or the trials is when you grow, and you turn to your faith, you turn to your family, your loved ones, and more than anything else, I think the lesson that all of us on the inside know is you've got to just be about the work," Pelinka said. "You can't really get caught up in the noise."
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James missed 27 games last season, mostly because of a groin injury, and the Lakers didn’t make the playoffs. They were a young team with Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and Kyle Kuzma.
"I don't like the way season ended for us last year, especially for myself with the injury, the things I went through last year personally, then with our ballclub," James said.
With Johnson no longer in the front office, Pelinka had full autonomy and went to work. He replaced Luke Walton with Frank Vogel,and even that wasn’t seamless.The Lakers interviewed others before Vogel, who was not their first choice even though he had success leading the Indiana Pacers to the Eastern Conference finals twice and losing to James' Heat in 2013 and 2014.
While the Lakers tried and failed to acquire Davis from New Orleans at the 2019 trade deadline, Pelinka put together a package for new Pelicans vice president of basketball operations David Griffin. Los Angeles traded Ball, Ingram and Hart to the Pelicans for Davis, who is represented by James’ agent, Rich Paul of Klutch Sports Group.
Kawhi Leonard chose the crosstown Clippers instead of the Lakers, but Pelinka filled out the roster with complementary players: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Danny Green, Avery Bradley, Rajon Rondo and Dwight Howard in the offseason and added Markieff Morris in March.
"Rob and Kurt and Linda (Rambis) and Jeanie and everybody upstairs did a helluva job this summer. From acquiring AD to acquiring everyone that is a part of this team to bringing back the guys that were free agents last year and bringing them back to the roster, they did a hell of a job," James said.
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Said Pelinka: "The chance to build a team around one of the greatest players and leaders to ever play doesn't come along that often. So when he committed to us, it was a mutual trust. He showed trust in Jeanie and our front office to build a championship team, and once he put that trust in us, we had to deliver. There was no other option."
From day one, Vogel preached defense and he got buy-in. The Lakers had the third-best defense during the regular season, and in the playoffs, they made the necessary stops. Los Angeles had great length and size, allowing them to matchup against small and big lineups.
"No. 1 thing for us with our size was to try to create a defense that didn't allow the modern NBA offense to invert us too much," Vogel said, "and I really like how the plan has taken form, but also developed throughout the course of the year where obviously in this league, there's a lot of switching required."
The Lakers, who opened the season 24-3, faced adversity right from the start. On their preseason trip to China, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s tweet "Free Hong Kong" ensnared the Lakers in an international geopolitical tumult. The Lakers were confined to their hotel and bonded over team dinners and playing cards.
From that moment until the end of the season, Vogel raved about how locked in and close players were.
"Your team always grows throughout the course of a season, and it especially grows through adversity and that was our first taste of dealing with adversity in a very unique situation in a foreign country," Vogel said. "It was a difficult circumstance for us. So I think that was just the beginning of us really building what our greatest strength is, our chemistry and togetherness."
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