A Los Angeles Lakers sequel that failed to live up to the original

June 4, 2021 12:27 PM
The Lakers were bounced in the first round of the postseason in six games by the Suns.

A few moments after the Los Angeles Lakers won the NBA championship last October inside the NBA bubble at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, one of the cameramen who’d been allowed in to record the celebration happened upon LeBron James and Anthony Davis walking together in a hallway exiting the arena.

They were both drenched in sweat and champagne. And for the first time in the longest season in NBA history, they’d found a moment to rest. The exhaustion of everything they’d been through in the past 11 months was as overwhelming as their joy in winning the title.

“What you don’t realize about winning a championship?” James said to Davis. “It’s the first time all year where you don’t ice after the game!”

James had just won his fourth ring, and this mix of exhaustion and joy right afterward was something he’d experienced before. But that season, the one the Lakers had just lived through, the one halted by the COVID-19 pandemic and restarted four months later amid the lingering threat of the virus and against the backdrop of an emotional nationwide reckoning on race relations, had been unlike any season anyone had experienced. And the Lakers needed a break.

But there would be no championship parade. It wasn’t even safe for fans to greet them at the airport upon their return. The best they could do was an intimate celebration with family and friends at a restaurant inside the bubble, then a private party in Las Vegas. Everyone was so exhausted — a long rest over the winter was just fine.

That was the expectation, anyway.

We all know what happened next. Nobody stopped, let alone rested. By Nov. 19, just six weeks after winning the title, president of basketball operations Rob Pelinka was giving a news conference explaining his vision for the Lakers’ title defense in a season that was scheduled to start just 72 days after the previous one ended.

“It’s easy to fall into complacency when you win a title and just say, ‘Hey, let’s just run it back,'” Pelinka said, after trading swingman Danny Green and a future first-round pick to Oklahoma City for point guard Dennis Schroder. “But my school of thought is always, ‘Let’s find a way we can become even better. Every offseason, let’s get better.’ We never want to just settle.”

It was an admirable, ambitious mission statement for a team that really could’ve used a few more months of rest before accepting its next mission. But that was the Lakers’ unique challenge this season, and ultimately they could not meet it.

As the final seconds ticked off the clock Thursday in their 113-100 season-ending loss to the visiting Phoenix Suns in Game 6 of their Western Conference first-round playoff series, James and Davis seemed even more exhausted than they did at the end of last year’s Finals, even though they’d played three fewer playoff series.

“I always think from the moment we entered the bubble to now, it’s been draining,” James said after his first career first-round exit. “Mentally, physically, spiritually, emotionally draining.

“Every team has to deal with it, obviously. But with us and Miami going the long haul in the bubble and then coming right back on short notice to this season, it’s been draining.”

Every second of this season was a slog. For every team, but especially the two teams that played the longest last season. And perhaps it is not a coincidence that both of last year’s finalists bowed out in the first round.

“We’ve been at this for a while, so where we’re headed first is rest,” Miami Heat president Pat Riley said Thursday. “Our players, our staff, the people that have been here every day, every single day, they’re mentally worn out more so than physically. And I think they just need to rest for a couple of weeks, a month.”

James and Davis, the two superstars who’d joined forces in Los Angeles to bring the Lakers their 17th title in 2020, spent most of this year trying to recover from last season and an assortment of ever-worsening injuries.

Davis missed 36 games this season, dealing with nagging heel injuries and calf soreness. James kept the Lakers atop the Western Conference for a while by playing at an MVP-caliber level. But on March 20, he too went down with a high ankle sprain, as Atlanta Hawks forward Solomon Hill dove for a loose ball and rolled up on James’ right leg. Six weeks and 26 missed games later, James was “back” for the playoffs. But the James who’d dominated the league before his injury never truly returned.

James was clearly never as explosive. That burst that allows a 6-foot-9, 250-pound man to get past much smaller defenders and get into the lane always seemed a little muffled upon his return. He still bullied defenders, but he was just as likely to settle for jumpers. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, 42% of James’ field goal attempts were 3-pointers, the highest rate in his career by 11%.

After missing a potential game winner against the Sacramento Kings on May 1, James even lamented, “I don’t think I will ever get back to 100 percent in my career. … It’s impossible.”

Whatever percentage James got himself back to was enough for him to hit the game-winning 3-pointer over his old Finals rival, Stephen Curry, in the play-in game between the eighth-place Golden State Warriors and seventh-place Lakers on May 19.

It was a huge win that sent the Lakers into a first-round playoff series against the second-seeded Phoenix Suns, a young team that’d seemed to come of age with 36-year-old point guard Chris Paul’s guiding hand.

It was Phoenix’s first playoff appearance in 11 years, and they had the misfortune of drawing the defending champions, who seemed to be getting healthy just in time to go on another run. But less than a half into this series, the theme that dominated the Lakers’ year again became the story — injuries. First it was Paul who struggled with a painful shoulder injury, which seemed to hobble him greatly over the next three games. When he left the second half of the Lakers’ dominant 109-95 win in Game 3 last Thursday, it seemed like L.A. was on the verge of a demoralizing closeout.

Paul had to plead with Suns coach Monty Williams to play in Game 4 on Sunday, and it’s a good thing he did. Paul had a resplendent game, scoring 18 points and dishing out 9 assists with zero turnovers in 32 minutes to help Phoenix even the series at 2-2.

That should have been the story of that game. Instead, the groin injury to Davis became the only thing that mattered. L.A. looked lost without him in a lopsided loss in Game 5 and the lopsided-until-a-gutty-second-half-rally-for-pride loss in Game 6.

Davis tried to play on Thursday, but he really shouldn’t have. It was clear from the way he was limping during warm-ups that he wasn’t even close to healthy, and he left after just five minutes.

“We had the pieces,” Davis said. “We just couldn’t stay healthy. A lot of that is on me — a main guy who couldn’t stay on the floor.”

Much will be dissected about what went wrong with the Lakers’ title defense over the next couple of months. That’s typically how long offseasons are spent. But the discussion should begin with injuries, which turned the season into a staccato march toward this painful end.

The Lakers began the year with a mission of improving on a team that had come together in one of the most challenging seasons any team has faced. It’s hard to improve upon that kind of a team, let alone recreate that.

The pieces the Lakers acquired might have looked better than those who were traded in, but ultimately they never quite fit together.

Schroder was supposed to be an age-appropriate complement to Davis, a playmaker and feisty defender who could ease some of the burden on James. But the relationship started off awkwardly with Schroder stating publicly he expected to start even though he’d had success off the bench with the Oklahoma City Thunder and finished as runner-up in Sixth Man of the Year voting last year. And it got worse with each long-term contract extension he turned down.

The Lakers acceded to his request to start, and continued negotiating with his representatives on a rich contract extension. But his play on the court frustrated some in the organization, according to sources. By the trade deadline, L.A. was including him in trade discussions for Toronto Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry.

When those talks broke down at the deadline, both sides regrouped. Schroder handled the situation well and helped carry the Lakers through the long stretch without both Davis and James. But at a critical juncture, with the Lakers trying to stay out of the play-in games, Schroder missed seven games because of the NBA’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols. It was his second protocol absence, which of course was not uncommon in the NBA this season. But it came after most of his teammates had been vaccinated, and Schroder later told a German outlet he chose not to be vaccinated.

Schroder returned for the final two games of the regular season, and he seemed to be finding his rhythm during the series against the Suns, averaging 22 points on 52% shooting in the Lakers’ wins in Games 2 and 3. But in Game 5, with Davis out with the groin injury, Schroder missed all nine of his shots, ending up scoreless in 26 minutes, as the Lakers lost by 30 points.

Schroder will become an unrestricted free agent this summer, and the Lakers’ salary-cap situation gives them few options to replace him. After Thursday’s loss, Schroder said he plans to return to the Lakers, adding, “You got to go through the bulls— to get to the good s—.”

Schroder wasn’t the only new player on the Lakers who seemed like an upgrade but didn’t become one. The center rotation turned into a three-headed conundrum, with Marc GasolAndre Drummond and Montrezl Harrell all flashing different, but sometimes discordant, strengths and weaknesses.

Each of them should’ve been an upgrade on what the Lakers had last year, with defensive rim protectors Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee manning the middle. Gasol was a better shooter and playmaker. Harrell was younger and more energetic. Drummond was more skilled. But in this case, the various skill sets seemed to complicate things. Simplicity of purpose worked better last season.

There were a few highlights to the season — the development of Talen Horton-Tucker and Alex Caruso among them — but the enduring images will be of Davis’ and James’ painful injuries that ultimately proved too much to overcome.

It was a far different image than the scene of Davis and James celebrating after last season’s championship. On the last day of this season, they will be icing after the game, trying to get healthy for next season.

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