The Los Angeles Lakers looked like a disaster at the end of the 2018-19 season, thanks to poor team chemistry, a dysfunctional organizational structure, sloppy head-coaching search, and limited means to improve.
The Lakers overhauled their roster by landing Anthony Davis, who wanted to go to L.A. because LeBron James had joined the Lakers.
Key members of the Lakers, from team owner Jeannie Buss to GM Rob Pelinka, to LeBron James, also made commitments to improving and putting in hard work.
Few teams have experienced such a turn-around, and now the Lakers look like championship favorites heading into next season.
Rewind to June 2019 and the Los Angeles Lakers seemed nowhere near success, let alone respectability.
The Lakers were coming off of their sixth straight season without a playoff appearance. LeBron James had played just 55 games due to a groin injury and sat out the final stretch once the team was eliminated from playoff contention.
Things were worse off the court. The team's chemistry had been undone by trade speculation for Anthony Davis — rumors in which James had been heavily involved.
Magic Johnson had abruptly resigned as president on the last day of the season, telling the media before telling his boss, team owner Jeannie Buss. Weeks later, he went on "First Take" and eviscerated the organization's culture, claiming GM Rob Pelinka had tried to get him fired.
Then came the coaching search after the team fired Luke Walton — something James' agent Rich Paul had reportedly lobbied for earlier in the year. They low-balled Tyronn Lue — their first choice for a head coach — then hired Frank Vogel — who was coming off an unimpressive stint with the Orlando Magic — and hired Jason Kidd — who interviewed for head coach — as Vogel's lead assistant. Many believed Vogel would begin the year with Kidd breathing down his neck.
How the team would improve was a matter of debate, too. They were obviously in the hunt for Davis, but some believed that the Lakers' young core of Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and Kyle Kuzma was not appealing enough to land a player of Davis' magnitude.
There was a perception that superstars like Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, and Kawhi Leonard, all hitting free agency, didn't want to team up with James to play second fiddle.
ESPN's Stephen A. Smith said there were people within the organization telling Buss to trade James.
ESPN's Zach Lowe skewered the structure of the team on "Get Up."
"The atmosphere there is totally poisonous. It's toxic," Lowe said. "Nobody trusts anybody; communication is totally siloed ... [The next president] needs to be someone who comes in and reshapes the culture of how they communicate and how they make decisions because it is totally broken."
So, how then, 16 months later, did the Lakers become champions, completing the best, most consistent season in the NBA?
Lakers exceptionalism and the power of superstars
The Lakers' resurgence generated a debate in the NBA world about Lakers "exceptionalism."
Why, after all, did James decide to join the Lakers? The Lakers had done an OK job rebuilding in the mid- to late-2010s — they drafted good players like Julius Randle, D'Angelo Russell, Ingram, Ball, and Kuzma. But they weren't an ascending team.
James chose the Lakers because they were a big market in a nice location. However, he also chose the Lakers simply because they were the Lakers. Some have said James wanted to relocate to L.A. to get more involved in the entertainment industry. The Clippers offered the same perks, minus the brand and the history.
James immediately helped plant the seeds to land Davis. In December 2018, he said that he would love to play with Davis, a comment that irked executives, who saw it as tampering. Davis had joined Klutch Sports, the agency run by James' close friend Rich Paul.
Davis held the leverage of free agency over potential suitors, threatening not to re-sign with them if they traded for him.
He ended up on the Lakers in June, helped, in part, by the Lakers climbing the lottery for the fourth pick in the draft — a sweetener in the trade with the New Orleans Pelicans.
As The Athletic's John Hollinger wrote before the Finals:
"The Lakers are here for one reason, and one reason only: Because LeBron James and Anthony Davis chose L.A. as their destination. I emphasize 'L.A.' and not this franchise, because the Lakers didn't have to do anything to lure them besides be located in Los Angeles and have the word 'Lakers' emblazoned across their jerseys.
"The Lakers are an amazingly instructive example. They neither ate their vegetables nor did their homework. Instead they spent five years eating Twinkies and playing video games in the attic. They averaged an amazing 57 losses a season for half a decade until the Chosen One chose them."
There are counterarguments to the idea that big markets can fall backward into success. The Lakers and Clippers didn't have free agency success before 2018 and 2019. The New York Knicks have struck out on top free agents throughout the decade. The Brooklyn Nets landed two All-Stars last summer (Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant) because Brooklyn's culture and organization were more appealing than the Knicks'. These things ebb and flow.
But there is no arguing over whether having two top-five players accelerates a team's timeline. And with James and Davis setting the tone — the latter having replaced many of the players upset about how the previous season had unfolded — the Lakers were off and running.
Long, hard looks in the mirror from several parties
The Lakers didn't overhaul their organization from the end of last season to the beginning of this season. Instead, several key members made commitments to improving.
Buss told ESPN's Ramona Shelburne that their ethos was to put their heads down and work. She stopped paying attention to social media and trying to win over the press.
"I never lost faith in the people that I was working with, so that part was easy," Buss said. "What was difficult was not to defend myself, or to defend the people that I care about like Rob and like Linda [Rambis].
"But I was advised, 'This will be the hardest time of your life, but the only thing that will stop it is to do the work.' That became our mission was just to do the work."
Rather than hiring a new president, Pelinka took over Johnson's role as president. He went all-in on Davis, a worthwhile gamble, even if the Lakers were ridiculed for the number of draft picks they gave up.
Importantly, Pelinka also nailed some fringe moves. Alex Caruso went from a G League call-up to a meaningful contributor off the bench. Dwight Howard was signed off the scrap heap and had a renaissance season. Rajon Rondo summoned "Playoff Rondo" and was arguably the team's third-best player in the postseason.
James changed his ways, too. Known for occasionally having turbulent relationships with head coaches, James attended Vogel's introductory press conference.
As Lowe reported, James immediately bought-in on defense, the Lakers' calling-card this season, after giving half-efforts on that end in recent years. He accepted critiques from Davis and Vogel and corrected them in practice and on the court.
Vogel also told Lowe that rather than appeasing stars or changing how he wanted to do things based on others' expectations, he coached his way. That meant emphasizing defense, calling out his two stars, and challenging some current basketball norms, like playing small.
However, Vogel also knew when to step back. Lakers veteran forward Jared Dudley told Bill Simmons that Vogel was the perfect coach for the Lakers because he had no ego. He knew how to manage star players and role players with big personalities. He also committed to detailed, thorough preparation, winning over his players.
A turn-around unlike any other
Teams have done complete 180s in one year. The Boston Celtics went from a 24-58 lottery-dweller in 2007 to NBA champions in 2008 after the trades for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. But they weren't the fractured franchise the Lakers appeared to be.
The San Antonio Spurs landed the No. 1 overall pick in 1997, then became champions in 1999. But they used that No. 1 pick to draft Tim Duncan to a perennial playoff contender that tanked in 1996-97 after David Robinson was injured.
The Warriors were a young playoff team when Steve Kerr took over and turned them into The Warriors.
The closest comparison might be the Cleveland Cavaliers, who in 2014 landed LeBron James because James, well, is from Ohio and was drafted to the Cavaliers 11 years beforehand. They had landed Kyrie Irving with the No. 1 pick in 2011 after James left, then used another No. 1 pick in 2014 to trade for Kevin Love. Once again, James' whim changed the course of an entire franchise.
Still, there were differences. The Cavs were committed to a rebuild. They had the No. 1 pick (Andrew Wiggins) and Irving to build around. They had hired David Blatt to coach a young, developing team. James fell into their laps. They used trades to rebuild the team around James that next season and they didn't win the 2014-15 championship.
The Lakers had an aging star in James and a pressing timeline. The plan was: get a star, quick. The rest of the issues seemingly sorted themselves out.
It's remarkable how quickly the panic surrounding the Lakers was quelled. Issues didn't seem to arise during the season. The 2019-20 Lakers experienced tumult, from the preseason China trip that was surrounded in controversy from Daryl Morey's retweet, to Kobe Bryant's death, to the pandemic. From the tip-off of the season to the end of the bubble, they were the No. 1 seed in the West and the most consistent team from top to bottom.
Heading into next season, the Lakers have to top the list of championship favorites. Perhaps no team has ever gone from disaster to a potential dynasty quicker.
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