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The paradoxical return of Lakers exceptionalism

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This Lakers team is built different, but after winning the NBA Finals, it’s arrived at the same endpoint as so many legends before it.

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It took one game longer than we expected, but the long wait is finally over for Lakers fans. With the team closing out the NBA Finals against the Miami Heat, at last 10-year-old Lakers supporters who have never seen their favorite team win a title can feel the joy that comes with raising a banner. This team went from laughingstock to champion in just one year, and that can only mean one thing.

Lakers exceptionalism is back.

But after all the tears of our rivals have been shed, after all the takes about how this team only is good because it exists in the city of Los Angeles have been laughed at, it won’t take long before the confetti littering the floor in a gym at Disney World stops fluttering and getting crunched underfoot. The Lakers will probably get a single night to bask in the glory of their unprecedented season during a previously unimaginable year, to spray champagne on one another and let out the screams of ecstasy that only come from reaching the top of the NBA mountain. After that, the questions will begin.

Where does this team rank among all-time Lakers teams? What previous champions are they better than, and which would beat them? What does this do for LeBron James’ legacy? How does this affect Anthony Davis’ free agency? The sports take industrial complex always hungers for engagement, and will be particularly insatiable given what looks to be a long winter before the NBA returns.

But for Lakers fans, there is only one question that truly matters: How will we remember this Lakers team and the joy it gave us? Probably as unlike any that came before it, and not just because of the uniqueness of their year-long, bubble-concluded season.

2020 NBA Finals - Los Angeles Lakers v Miami Heat
LeBron James and Anthony Davis have cemented their place among all-time Lakers duos.
Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

On its face, the formula for this team is familiar. There are two stars (James and Davis) and capable, fan-favorite role players (Dwight Howard, somehow, and Alex Caruso). There are unexpected heroes (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Playoff Rondo) and an amazing, last-minute addition who proved his worth in the postseason crucible (Markieff Morris). Everyone on this roster will be remembered and never have to pay for a drink again once this beautiful city opens back up.

A Lakers team centered around two stars has been the formula since the days when Jerry West was not yet the NBA logo, but just one of its best players. West and Baylor, followed by West and Chamberlain. Then there was Magic and Kareem, followed by Shaq and Kobe, then Kobe and Pau, and now LeBron and AD are the first pairing of a new generation. No second name needed when you have a second star. The Boston Celtics may have coined the term “Big 3” in NBA parlance, but the Lakers only need two.

People — including LeBron and AD — haven’t been shy about comparing this pairing to Kobe and Shaq, but that’s not exactly right. This team — like the duo it’s centered around — is just, to paraphrase LeBron, “built different.” My friend, Coach Pete Zayas, likes to refer to them on his Laker Film Room podcast as the “Bigger, Stronger, Faster Lakers,” and it’s the best way to describe the waves of physicality and endless arms this team attacks with, and it’s the biggest way this is a new kind of Lakers champion, and a different kind of expression of Lakers exceptionalism.

Lakers teams are always better than their opponents in one defining way. The Showtime teams ran past you. The Kobe and Shaq teams overpowered you in the post and with slashing secondary attacks. The Kobe and Pau teams out-skilled you. This team doesn’t necessarily have one box it checks. During their playoff run, this Lakers team showed it’s exceptional at nearly everything.

These Lakers can outrun you, scoring the third-most points off turnovers of any playoff team. Their defense can generate those turnovers, and ranked as the third-best in the NBA this year. They can go smaller and quicker without losing their imposing sense of physicality, and can toggle bigger and more physical to really pound teams inside. Of their five-most used lineups in the playoffs, three featured Davis at center, while two featured more traditional fives. The Lakers are better at small-ball than the best small-ball teams, and better at going big than teams that were only built to play that way.

These Lakers can score in isolation with their two stars, or they can devastate you with cuts and timely threes. They can play slow, even if they prefer to play fast. They’re a basketball chimera, the most versatile Lakers team ever. But if one had to pick a defining trait for them, it might be that they’re the best Lakers defense of all time, or at least certainly the scariest and most shape-shifting one.

This team may have the glitz and the glamor of those old rosters on the marquee. With LeBron and AD, that was always going to be the case. But when they know it’s actually time to lock in, these Lakers almost always beat teams down not with flashy offense, but with grind-it-out defensive sequences. With multi-minute stretches of completely strangling opposing offenses until they look like a JV team in a scrimmage against varsity. Their rotations are everywhere, they’re always in your face. The names shine, but the basketball couldn’t be grimier. Them letting up in Game 5 and losing followed by them playing some of the most suffocating defense in NBA history in Game 6 felt like a fitting encapsulation off who this team has really been all season.

2020 NBA Finals - Game Four
This Lakers team had a level it could hit defensively that was scarier than any who have come before.
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The stars for this team are also different. James came in free agency at age 33, older than any previous star whose gravity the team would orbit around. He recruited Davis to demand a trade. In a different year, both stars and their supporting cast could have seemed like title-chasing mercenaries, but with the way they’ve embraced how much it means to be a Laker and their sense for the importance of this franchise’s history, they instead seem like they’ve been lifelong bearers of the purple and gold standard. Like they were born for this.

Those past Lakers champions always had a legend as a coach, too. Bill Sharman, the longtime Celtic who flipped sides to help West over the mountaintop. Pat Riley, the sharp-dressed Showtime innovator who looked like he was made in a lab to coach a Hollywood team, but brought a little grit of his own. Phil Jackson, the Zen Master, a legendary NBA figure whose style transcends franchises.

Frank Vogel doesn’t fit that bill. He was the Lakers’ second choice as a coach at best, originally interviewed to be Tyronn Lue’s top assistant. He had never won a title before coaching the Lakers, and while Riley was just as unproven (if not more so) when he was hired, that’s certainly not how NBA history remembers him. Vogel is not a name for the title card, he’s just a guy in the championship background shot.

But he never cared about that status. Vogel is, if not egoless, as close as an NBA coach can possibly be, constantly deflecting credit and taking blame for mistakes. He’s not a gruff personality in the Sharman/Riley/Jackson mode, either. He coaches his team hard, but he also consults with his stars on decisions about practice times, or whether or not to have shootarounds. He builds partnerships rather than issuing orders, and the trust he’s established has allowed him to dictate the terms of this defensive Voltron he’s built into the most physical team in the NBA. His smarts have led the team to trust and accept his adjustments, and the Lakers flourished as a result.

It all came together for a playoff run as dominant as almost any Lakers team before it, even if said run took a little longer than the fanbase would have liked. In just a single offseason, this organization built a roster that didn’t just beat the rest of the NBA, but destroyed them with the casual ferocity of The Hulk smashing Loki against the ground repeatedly. No Lakers team has gone through fewer trials and tribulations as a group the seasons prior to their triumph, and no team has had to deal with so much during the season it won. But an unprecedented journey in every way will still arrive at an identical end point to so many purple and gold basketball triumphs.

Dread it, run from it, the Lakers’ destiny always arrives just the same. Even if this time the details are a little different.

But any of those 10-year-old, lifelong Laker fans who haven’t yet witnessed a title won’t realize how unique this all is. For them, this will just be an example of how the Lakers win, the beginning of a new era for the forum blue and gold. For the rest of us, it’s just a notice that a new era of Lakers exceptionalism is here.

Along with a 17th banner.

For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.