Before the last bit of confetti had been swept off the floor at AdventHealth Arena on Sunday, before each member of the champion Lakers had posed for a photograph with the Larry O’Brien Trophy, oddsmakers had already established the Lakers as consensus heavy favorites to repeat next season.
Never mind that the world has become totally unpredictable. Or that it’s uncertain when the next NBA season will begin because the pandemic-delayed 2019-20 season ended just as the 2020-21 season should have been ramping up.
Commissioner Adam Silver said before the Finals, the target date to launch the 2020-21 season was “Christmas the earliest, more likely January,” but that now seems optimistic. Players will need time to recover from the physical and mental toll of playing in a coronavirus-resistant bubble. The league and the players’ union will need time to settle financial and logistical issues triggered by the pandemic and resulting plunge in basketball-related revenues, likely leading to a drop in the salary cap. Like the just-completed season, nothing about this offseason will be normal.
All that makes any sense is that whenever next season starts, the Lakers will be the team to beat. Their biggest obstacle could be themselves and whether they can rekindle the hunger, unity and inspiration that drove them to earn the franchise’s 17th title.
Their regular-season dominance, which was followed by playoff supremacy against a variety of styles and a parade of both established and rising stars, suggests they can become a dynasty — at least while LeBron James and Anthony Davis are around. Their selflessness was rare for superstars, and coach Frank Vogel used the team’s supporting cast cleverly. He won players over with a defense-first philosophy and held them together by planning with James and Davis, whose harmony created a collaborative atmosphere from top to bottom.
James said he was driven by “thinking I have something to prove,” and it could be difficult for him to recreate that motivation. But he appreciated that Vogel often sought his advice and he enjoyed collaborating with Davis, making it a personal mission to guide Davis to a championship. Leading the Lakers to a second straight title might appeal to James’ sense of tradition.
“This is a historic franchise,” James said on Sunday, “and to be a part of this is something that I'll be able to talk about and my grandkids and kids will be able to talk about: their pawpaw played for the Los Angeles Lakers. It's like playing for the Yankees and winning or playing for the Cowboys and winning a Super Bowl, or the Patriots. It's like playing for the Red Sox. So to be able to win with a historical franchise is something that, no matter if your mind wavers away, you can always remember what you're doing it for.”
Davis’ impending free-agent status is a small cloud that hovers above any discussion of a Lakers repeat. He said Sunday he wasn’t sure of his plans but it seems unlikely he will leave when, at 27, he has a strong chance to win a second consecutive title and to eventually become the team’s centerpiece. “I had a great time in L.A. this first year. This has been nothing but joy, nothing but amazement. Over the next couple of months, we'll figure it out,” Davis said.
Oddsmakers listed the Lakers and Clippers as 1-2, followed in varying order by Golden State, Milwaukee, Boston and Brooklyn. The Miami Heat weren’t a consistent top-five pick despite their run from No. 5 in the East to Finals runner-up and the emergences of Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro. Pat Riley hasn’t lost his knack for uncovering overlooked talent, so count them out at your own peril.
“We're going to come back. We'll be back,” Jimmy Butler said Sunday. “That's what we're all saying in that locker room. We got guys that want to do it. We got guys that already want to get back in the gym and get to working at this thing.”
It’s difficult to believe a Lakers repeat will be derailed by the Clippers, who were preseason favorites but collapsed and squandered a 3-1 series lead over Denver in the second round. The Clippers have three key offseason needs: hiring a coach to replace Doc Rivers, re-signing supersub Montrezl Harrell and figuring out how to cover up the Lakers’ newest championship banner after it’s raised at Staples Center. Paul George and Kawhi Leonard couldn't conjure up winning chemistry and they have one more season to find the right mix.
Golden State is intriguing because Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are expected to be healthy again and ready to revive the Warriors after a terrible season. The Warriors have lost some role players but will have the No. 2 pick in the draft to infuse youth or to leverage in a trade. Houston needs a new coach and a rebuild, knocking them out of contention in the short term.
In the East, Brooklyn overachieved to reach the playoffs without an injured Kevin Durant, and the pairing of Durant and Kyrie Irving, who opted out of the bubble to rehab a shoulder injury, should be dynamic. The big question is whether Steve Nash will be the rare great player who becomes a great coach. A member of the Antetokounmpo family played for a championship team but it wasn’t regular-season MVP Giannis of the Milwaukee Bucks: His younger brother Kostas, a Lakers reserve, celebrated on Sunday long after Giannis and the Bucks had been dismissed in the second round by Miami.
After a late night of partying in Florida, the Lakers returned to Los Angeles on Monday with a trophy and plans to celebrate a long journey that veered off in unexpected directions but ended where they'd hoped it would. Next season will come quickly. If they want it enough, a repeat might come too.
“Teams are going to come after you next year, especially when you're one of the top players,” Davis said Sunday. “Guys want to take out the champion. The next four or five years, you have to get better and better. I have to keep improving my game and hopefully I can have this feeling again.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.