New York Times: The Lakers’ winding path ends with a championship

By Scott Cacciola, New York Times

It was not a season. For the Los Angeles Lakers, it was an obstacle course.

It was 12 months packed with tragedies and togetherness. It was disjointed and odd, unprecedented and often unpleasant, an odyssey that began for them in a Chinese hotel amid a geopolitical feud and ended in a mostly empty arena at Walt Disney World, the site of the world’s most famous bubble since the invention of chewing gum.

But for all the disruptive forces that rocked the NBA, the Lakers triumphed in the end.

The Lakers won their 17th championship — and their first with LeBron James as their centerpiece — with a 106-93 victory over the Miami Heat on Sunday night in Game 6 of the NBA Finals. A mere 355 days after the Lakers played their season opener before a packed crowd at Staples Center in Los Angeles, they toppled the Heat, four games to two, to finish off their playoff run on an elaborate made-for-TV sound stage that lacked spectators, aside from a few of the players’ family members and friends.

It was one of the hard realities of competing for a title in a pandemic, one that had forced the NBA to suspend its season for more than four months before play resumed in July within the league’s self-contained slice of Disney World outside Orlando, Florida. The Lakers went about their business in isolation, winning it all as their fans cheered from home.

“It doesn’t matter where it happens if you win a championship,” James said not long after leaving a court covered in confetti, a victory cigar in his right hand. “A bubble, Miami, Golden State — it doesn’t matter. When you get to this point, it’s one of the greatest feelings in the world for a basketball player to be able to win at the highest level.”

No player was more brilliant than James, who, at age 35, was named the finals’ Most Valuable Player for the fourth time in his career.

After making his ninth trip to the finals in the past 10 seasons, and his 10th appearance overall, James has now won four championships with three franchises.

He powered Sunday’s rout — the Lakers led by as many as 36 — with 28 points, 14 rebounds and 10 assists. For the series, he averaged 29.8 points, 11.8 rebounds and 8.5 assists while shooting 59% from the field.

James was pushed by the Heat’s Jimmy Butler, who solidified his place as one of the league’s most dynamic two-way players. Butler had extended the series in Game 5 by finishing with 35 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists, his second triple-double of the series.

Ultimately, Butler and the Heat posed just one final test for the Lakers, who felt the effects of the league’s longest season.

A preseason trip to China for two games against the Brooklyn Nets turned into an international incident when Daryl Morey, the Houston Rockets’ general manager, tweeted his support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters, angering the Chinese government. The Lakers were restricted to their hotel for days. After returning home, James criticized Morey for being “misinformed or not really educated on the situation.” James, who has business interests in China, was bashed by many fans for appearing to downplay the importance of free speech.

Then, the unimaginable: On Jan. 26, Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, were among nine people who died in a helicopter crash outside of Los Angeles. Bryant, an iconic and polarizing star, had spent his entire 20-year playing career with the Lakers, winning five championships, before he retired in 2016.

Rob Pelinka, the Lakers’ general manager, was among Bryant’s closest friends, and many current players revered him. Artwork of Bryant and his daughter appeared in spaces across the city — and beyond. Fans left flowers and handwritten notes at the team’s practice facility. A public memorial was staged at Staples Center, where Beyoncé sang and Michael Jordan wept.

Just over two weeks later, the season was indefinitely suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic. As the hiatus dragged on, protests against police brutality and racial injustice roiled the country, and many players used their platforms as celebrities to bring attention to those issues. Some even questioned whether the season should be canceled so as not to be a distraction.

Yet, through it all — calamities, big and small — the Lakers remained determined to chase the franchise’s first championship since 2010, which was also Bryant’s last title.

“I think the hard times, or the trials, are when you grow,” Pelinka said.

Throughout the finals, James and his teammates warmed up in T-shirts that read, “VOTE.” And during the restart, they also occasionally wore black uniforms that Bryant had helped design.

“It means something,” James said, “something more than just a uniform.”

It is never easy to win a championship, and the challenges of winning one this season were unique. Consider the Milwaukee Bucks, who had the league’s best regular-season record — and Giannis Antetokounmpo, who beat out James to win his second straight NBA Most Valuable Player Award — but lost in the Eastern Conference semifinals after struggling to reassemble their chemistry after the hiatus. Consider the Houston Rockets, who tried (again) to reinvent themselves before losing to the Lakers in the Western Conference semifinals.

Consider the Philadelphia 76ers and the Boston Celtics, two teams with abundant young talent and title aspirations that will gnaw at them over the coming months.

And consider the Los Angeles Clippers, a popular pick to win it all after Kawhi Leonard and Paul George joined a playoff-tested team before the start of the season. Like the Rockets, the Clippers are shopping for a new coach after collapsing in the playoffs and parting ways with Doc Rivers. (He quickly landed a new gig with the 76ers, who had also fired their coach, Brett Brown.)

All season, the Lakers treated the Clippers like background noise — as if they were as irrelevant as ever. All those “L.A. Our Way” billboards and lofty expectations about contending for rings? The Lakers did not care, or at least that was the image they presented to the public.

Still, the Lakers were not a perfect team, or a particularly dominant one. At a time when outside shooting has never been more valued, the Lakers were mediocre from 3-point range, shooting 34.9% during the regular season, which ranked 21st in the league.

They ran into a game challenger in the finals in the Heat. Despite losing Goran Dragic, their starting point guard, for most of the series after he tore a ligament in his left foot in Game 1, the Heat were determined.

But the Lakers had two dominant forces in James and Anthony Davis, who had 19 points and 15 rebounds in Sunday’s win, and a roster full of players who were willing to defend. After ranking third in overall defense during the regular season, the Lakers were still able to compensate for the absence of Avery Bradley, their top perimeter defender, after he out of the restart.

Davis cited the influence of Frank Vogel, the Lakers’ first-year coach.

“He got on us Day 1 about defense,” Davis said.

The Lakers did not build their roster from the ground up. They were fortunate that James wanted to play for them, and they were so bad for so long that they were able to parlay some young talent (and a comical number of future draft picks) into a trade for Davis.

Before James signed as a free agent in 2018, the team was in rough shape, having gone five seasons without making the playoffs. But James was drawn to the city of Los Angeles — he already owned a home in Brentwood — and felt the allure of the franchise’s past grandeur.

Last season, the Lakers were in the playoff hunt when James injured his groin in a win over the Golden State Warriors on Christmas Day. He missed a bunch of games, and the Lakers landed back in the draft lottery — but only after Magic Johnson, then the team president, abruptly resigned, and Luke Walton, their coach, stepped down.

A few weeks later, the Lakers traded for the player they needed most, sending a package that included three future first-round picks and two promising players — Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram — to the New Orleans Pelicans for Davis. In the wake of so much dysfunction, the Lakers — with the support of their owner, Jeanie Buss —were mortgaging their future to immediately pursue a title with James as their fulcrum.

At the same time, there were growing concerns about James’ durability — he had never missed so many games because of an injury, and most of his contemporaries had long since retired — along with questions about his drive. His critics had a field day when he spent part of last offseason on a studio lot filming “Space Jam 2.”

He acknowledged those critics — real or imagined — throughout this season by using the hashtags #WashedKing and #RevengeSZN on his social media accounts.

“I think personally thinking I have something to prove fuels me,” James said. “It fueled me over this last year-and-a-half since the injury. It fueled me because no matter what I’ve done in my career to this point, there’s still rumblings of doubt.”

On Sunday, James left on top. After a season full of tumult and change, at least that much was familiar.

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