Timeline of the longest, most unusual and most difficult season in Lakers historyTimeline: Longest Lakers season ever could end with a title tonight — Press Enterprise
There are many ways to paint this picture, but here’s a small one: On Wednesday, it was Devontae Cacok’s birthday.
The Lakers rookie out of UNC-Wilmington is now 24. One of the team’s travel party in the bubble, he’s now had his second birthday of this NBA season.
A year ago, the Lakers were in China, figuring out if the exhibitions scheduled in Shanghai and Shenzhen would go off as planned. Tonight, they have a chance to win an NBA title in a game taking place in a bubble in Florida. It’s been a year beyond imagining — filled with trials and joys and unbelievable grief and isolation. And it might end tonight.
Before the season is over, it’s meaningful to look back at all of the major highs and lows, and take a moment to meditate on what it’s all been building toward. If the Lakers win a championship tonight, it will be a well-earned finish to an absolute marathon, the longest season in NBA history in one of the most challenging years any of us can ever remember:
The Lakers finish assembling a roster after missing out on Kawhi Leonard, but their core of Anthony Davis and LeBron James is the base of an aspirational title team with many veterans. Rob Pelinka tells the media, “Anything short of a championship is not success.” At his introductory press conference, Davis echoes similar sentiments wearing a blazer and chain, saying “winning championships … that’s the only goal.”
At that press conference, Pelinka refers to Davis as “a pillar of this franchise for many years,” even though Davis is only technically under contract for one. It’s indicative of how the Lakers have given Davis power within the organization — he and James were among the voices considered when signing free agents and assembling the team.
DeMarcus Cousins, who Pelinka and Frank Vogel describe as an “X-factor” of the team, tears his left ACL in a pickup game in Las Vegas. The Lakers take two weeks to find a replacement: Dwight Howard, who has shuffled through NBA teams for years since leaving the Lakers in 2013 during free agency after one disappointing season. The Lakers sign him to a non-guaranteed contract, a surprising reunion for a big man who was once thought to be the future of the franchise before his departure.
The Lakers open camp, with James saying the Lakers expect to run their offense through Davis. James also breaks a long public silence about last season, saying that the front office “kept their blinders on” and “did a helluva job” at building a contender through withering criticism and uncertainty about the franchise’s leadership.
The Lakers travel for two preseason games to China, which become incredibly fraught when Houston general manager Daryl Morey tweets in support of protests in Hong Kong. The Chinese government comes down hard on the NBA, taking games off the air and removing marketing. The Lakers play two games against the Nets and return home, after which James calls Morey “misinformed” — though he later walks back that comment, he is still criticized for a perceived double-standard of declining to speak out on the authoritarian government in another country (as a postscript, the Chinese government is airing Game 5 of the Finals on CCTV after a yearlong suspension for the NBA).
The Lakers begin their season with a loss to the Clippers as Leonard plays brilliantly at Staples Center (even though the Clippers “home crowd” greets him with boos). But after, they roll off a seven-game winning streak, the first of several winning streaks that will come to define their regular season.The Getty fire threatens homes in Los Angeles, including James’ Brentwood estate. He and his family evacuate in the middle of the night and search for a hotel (Davis also evacuates, but is able to return more quickly). James later pays for a taco truck to station by the first responders’ base camp in appreciation.
The Lakers become the top team in the West quickly, thanks to a number of tight wins, including four one-possession wins in a five-game stretch. That includes a victory over the Atlanta Hawks in Staples Center with two special guests: Kobe and Gianna Bryant.
Davis returns to New Orleans at the tail end of a four-game road trip, scoring 41 points after a lot of build-up the day before Thanksgiving. He also gets the game-sealing steal. He is cheerful afterward, pleased to see his former New Orleans teammates, and calls the game “fun.” James can’t help but mention how his return to Cleveland during the 2010-2011 season was much harder.
The Lakers continue ripping off wins, starting the month with a three-game road trip to Denver, Utah and Portland — two of which will become playoff opponents. They also win 14 straight road games, including a one-possession thriller against the Miami Heat that sees Davis notch the game-winning deflection against Jimmy Butler. It still seems a far cry from a Finals preview at the time.
But injury strikes on the back end of the month, as Davis rolls an ankle, James strains his groin, and Kyle Kuzma continues to oscillate in and out of the lineup with injuries. That leads to losses against high-profile contenders, including at Milwaukee, then at home against the Nuggets and the Clippers. The Lakers 0-2 record against the Clippers is seen as an indictment of their championship dreams, even though they continue to lead the Western Conference. James turns 35 toward the end of the year, looking physically vulnerable.
On the first day of the new year, former commissioner David Stern dies, rocking the NBA. James, who battled with Stern especially in the 2011 lockout season, compares his influence to Dr. James Naismith, the creator of basketball. The solemn moment belies a Lakers season that quickly gets back on track, as the Lakers power through a number of January opponents — even winning games without James or Davis on the floor. Howard, who has been a surprise key bench player, sees his contract become guaranteed.
An East Coast road trip gets into the dog days of the season, as the Lakers lose to Boston and Philly, then seen as two of the Eastern powers who might reach the Finals. But there is a powerful moment on the trip, as James passes Bryant for No. 3 on the all-time scoring list in NBA history. After James tells reporters of how he held Bryant up as an example as a teenager, Bryant tweets: “Continuing to move the game forward @KingJames. Much respect my brother.”
It is the last message the world ever hears from Bryant, who is killed the next day in a helicopter crash in Calabasas with his daughter and seven other people on his way to a basketball tournament at his academy. The Lakers learn of his death mid-flight from Philadelphia. Los Angeles and much of the basketball world is thrown into sudden mourning, as monuments and murals spring up all over the city. The Lakers’ game against the Clippers is delayed out of grief (the game won’t be played until July 30), and instead, a Hall of Fame panel including Shaq, Jerry West and Dwyane Wade gather on a TNT broadcast to remember Bryant.
When the Lakers finally do take the court on the Friday after Bryant’s death, an emotional tribute with Usher, cellist Ben Hong and videos of Bryant’s greatest moments are played before a drained loss to Portland. Lawrence Tanter reads every player in the starting lineup as Kobe Bryant, and Nos. 8 and 24 are lit up by spotlight. James delivers a heartfelt address to the crowd, finishing with: “In the words of Kobe Bryant, ‘Mamba out.’ But in the words of us, ‘Not forgotten.’
In the ensuing weeks, it becomes clear that the remainder of the Lakers’ season will be shadowed by Bryant’s death, both as inspiration and as an emotional burden. Every opposing arena has a tribute to play. That continues into All-Star weekend, where the All-Star MVP award is named after Bryant, its greatest winner, and the Hall of Fame has a somber nomination of Bryant as a finalist. While Davis enjoys an All-Star homecoming, the Lakers’ first-place coaching staff gets a nod, and Howard gets a long-awaited return to the dunk contest, Bryant’s death looms over everything.
There is a moment to collectively celebrate Kobe and Gianna’s lives at Staples Center on Feb. 24, a combination of their jersey numbers. There’s a number of high-profile speakers, including Shaq, Michael Jordan, Diana Tsaurasi and Geno Auriemma. But no one is more powerful than Vanessa Bryant, a widow and grieving mother, who recalls Kobe and Gianna in vivid detail and intimacy.
The start to the month is the Lakers’ most promising yet: They dispatch Zion Williamson on the road, then beat the Bucks and the Clippers in back-to-back home games. It’s seen as the most definitive proof yet that the Lakers are truly capable of beating the league’s best teams and winning a championship. A signing of Markieff Morris and his integration into the roster is seen as an incremental move at the time. MVP buzz builds for James after dominant performances.
But the threat of COVID-19 which has been encroaching from the sidelines suddenly mounts an ambush: As the league talks about pulling fans out of games, Utah’s Rudy Gobert tests positive for coronavirus prior to a game in Oklahoma City. It drives Adam Silver to immediately suspend the season.
The Lakers are driven physically apart by the announcement, which requires isolation and closes team facilities. While they work out from home and keep in touch digitally, there’s a growing sense of uncertainty that they’ll ever be able to resume their season when they appeared at their height. James says that he would never get over it if the Lakers aren’t able to finish.
The union and the NBA come to an agreement to resume at Disney World, which many players have doubts about but agree to in order to save the league’s season revenue and their own paychecks. Just as the NBA announces the agreement, COVID-19 cases begin spiking in Florida, adding to the anxiety.
The death of George Floyd sets off national protests, of which NBA players become a part. Many players who might otherwise be on the court find themselves more invested than ever in off-court concerns, including racial equity and justice. Starting guard Avery Bradley is at the center of a movement of players questioning if a return to play is distracting to these interests — he later opts out, one of the most prominent players on a contending team to do so. Howard nearly follows him, but after much meditation announces he’s joining the Lakers in the bubble on CNN.
James is reportedly at the heart of the movement to get players to participate, even as he structures a voting rights initiative to address other off-court issues. On the 22 teams that attend the bubble, most players decide to participate. The Lakers add J.R. Smith, a longtime James teammate, to replace Bradley.
The Lakers arrive in the bubble, an alien environment without fans. Aside from the logistical challenges of a small traveling staff, the team also struggles with conditioning and physical rhythm. It’s clear that they are not in the same sync and fitness they were in March when the season went on hiatus. They open the seeding games with a win over the Clippers, but struggle to show their championship form early on.
Behind the scenes, a number of factors add to the strain, including isolation from their families and frustration with continuing instances of racial injustice, including the Breonna Taylor and Jacob Blake cases. While there are moments of levity, about a month into the bubble, the Lakers and the NBA at large start showing signs of stress. It bleeds into the Lakers’ first-round series against Portland, which seemingly comes to an emotional head in Game 4, a celebration of “Mamba Day” in Bryant’s memory, but which is overtaken by frustration about the shooting of Blake in Kenosha, Wisc. James vents after the game, saddened that a big night for the Lakers organization is overshadowed by the case.
It has a league-wide effect: Two days later hours before a closeout Game 5, the Milwaukee Bucks sit out of their own playoff game against the Orlando Magic, setting off a work stoppage that is followed by other NBA teams and leagues across the country. A fiery union meeting that night results in the Lakers and Clippers seemingly ready to walk out. By the next day, James has changed his mind, and is part of the player contingent working with the owners to secure additional initiatives to encourage voting in November. Four days after they were supposed to close out the Trail Blazers, the Lakers finally win to advance to the Western Conference semifinals.
The Lakers look like they could be pushed by the Houston Rockets, who top them in Game 1 of the series. But Vogel and the team goes small with Davis at center, eventually bottling up James Harden and Russell Westbrook with an attentive defensive plan. Howard and starter JaVale McGee barely play, but stay active on the bench.
Howard especially has a role in the next series, when the Lakers take on the surprising Denver Nuggets in the conference finals after the Clippers collapse in seven games. Howard takes on defense against All-Star Nikola Jokic, bothering him with physicality. Davis has a star moment, hitting a buzzer-beater to win Game 2 to finish with 31 points and his biggest playoff performance ever to that point. James has his own dramatic finish, hitting four straight fourth-quarter shots to beat the Nuggets in a closeout Game 5 and get the Lakers back to the Finals for the first time in 10 years.
James said afterward that he was fueled by doubters after the Lakers missed the playoffs in his first season in L.A.: “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.”
Now the Lakers have the Heat on the brink and a championship almost in hand. There have been more pages to this season than any one ever before. It’s time to see how it ends.
— Kyle Goon
Editor’s note: Thanks for reading the Purple & Bold Lakers newsletter from reporter Kyle Goon, who is among the few reporters with a credential inside the NBA bubble. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.
A final Finals review
- Jeanie Buss in her own words – The Lakers’ owner opened up about 2020, the front office, her relationship with LeBron and her support for social justice causes.
- How the Lakers could celebrate – A parade seems unlikely, unfortunately.
- One win away – How the Lakers are staying on task.
- Eye of the Brow-holder – Anthony Davis approves of what Rob Pelinka has done ahead of an offseason of negotiations.
- Frank Vogel’s journey – Mark Whicker dives into the Lakers’ head coach’s career so far.
- Growing his voice – LeBron James’ history with social justice issues traces back to his time in Miami.
- “Must-win” – The LeBron text that alerted his teammates before Game 4, as Mirjam explains.
- Game 4 win – A gutsy performance, especially on defense, as the Lakers took a 3-1 lead.
- KCP hits a rhythm – An important role player in an important moment.
- Meltdown vs. Miami – A Game 3 letdown as the Heat got hot behind Jimmy Butler.
- Lakers don’t have all the stars – Mark Whicker wrote how Miami has their own alpha in the series.
- Still in command – Jim Alexander put the loss in perspective for the Lakers, who are still up 2-1.
- Missing from the wings – Danny Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope have struggled in this series.
- No Bam, No Goran again – A difficult decision for the Heat with two injured stars who want to play.
- No comeback kids – Perhaps tempting fate, I wrote about how the Lakers haven’t been strong in the fourth quarter, but have managed to hold leads.
- Rebounding woes – Mirjam on the Heat’s desire to get on the boards more consistently.
- Back against the wall – Jim on how Pat Riley understands the underdog role well when dealing with injury.
- Overwhelming Game 2 – How the Lakers got the upper hand despite a strong second half from Miami.
- Jimmy almost did it then – Mirjam on Butler’s Game 2 effort.
- Old-timers – Mark on Rajon Rondo and Dwight Howard keeping a ring hunt alive.
- A pair of Finals streaks – The connection Phil Handy and Andre Iguodala share.
- Jealousy not an issue – LeBron explained why he gets along so well with Anthony Davis.
- Game 1 lessons – Our last newsletter fished out the important components of Game 1 of the series.
- Off on the right foot – How the Lakers dominated Game 1 against the Heat.
- Miami medical – Mirjam wrote about Heat’s difficulty with injuries.
- Another level – Mark hit on how the Lakers are looking down at their challengers.
- Adam Silver speaks – A look at what’s most important for the NBA to bring fans back to games.
- How LeBron has stayed on track in the bubble – He’s called it “probably the most challenging thing I’ve ever done.”