On Jan. 13, playing their third game in four nights, on an eight game winning streak that was already the fourth long win streak in half a season, the Los Angeles Lakers took on the lowly Cleveland Cavaliers at home in LA and Just. Did. Not. Have it. They were slow. They were sloppy. They let a clearly inferior team take a 14-point lead on their home floor in 15 short minutes.
As veteran observers of many great Laker teams (and now, more than a few bad ones), we’ve all seen this game before. Not taking opponents seriously has been a hallmark of every great Lakers team I can remember. But this team was not your average great Lakers team. This team was exceptional. Instead of throwing away a winnable game, they locked in defensively, allowed fewer points over the next two quarters than they had in the first 15 minutes, and eventually the offense took over to turn a hard-fought win into a rout. The Lakers moved on to the next one, but the signs were there that something special was developing.
It started well before that moment, obviously. By that point in the season, the Lakers already boasted an impressive 33-7 record and a five-game lead on the rest of the Western Conference. Frank Vogel took all the slander about his hiring and turned it into a team of strangers with a fully cohesive defense on Day One. LeBron James was doing this in Year 17. They were clearly very, very good. So why did that pedestrian win against a pedestrian team mean so much? Because there is no greater force than when the exceptional don’t take their exceptionalism for granted, no greater power than the exceptional behaving unexceptionally.
The Lakers have always been exceptional. They won a championship in their first year of existence, and five of the next six. They’ve been to the Finals more than 18 of the league’s 30 existing franchises combined. They’ve won more than 23 teams pooling their titles together! They are the only team to play in the Finals every decade and, depending on how you count 2000, have won a championship in each decade except the 60s too. That kind of success can become self-perpetuating, but it also breeds the kind of arrogance which leads to the belief that you no longer need to work for it.
At some point, “Lakers Exceptionalism” transformed from blessing to curse. Many of the team’s recent failings were due to an over-reliance on their own mystique. They tried to shoot the moon in 2012, trading for Steve Nash and Dwight Howard and ignoring all questions of fit and fitness on the assumption that everything would work out.
It (very much) didn’t, so they cleared the decks for 2014, assuming a superstar would fall at their feet. When that didn’t work, they had nothing to do besides give Kobe Bryant, fresh off tearing his Achilles tendon, a ludicrously over-priced contract to ride into the sunset with. They cleared the decks again in 2016 and didn’t even get a meeting with free agency’s biggest prizes, so they panic bought Timofey frickin’ Mozgov and Luol frickin’ Deng. They had a plan A, and it was the only plan they had ever known or needed, but when it stopped working, there was no plan B. They relied solely on being exceptional, only to find they no longer were.
The way this team was built, however, was unexceptional, at least by Lakers standards. Yes, they finally got their free agent superstar out of nowhere, as clear an example of “Lakers Exceptionalism” as can be. But they traded for the second part of their one-two punch with a ton of assets acquired the same way everyone else does… by being bad for a long, long time. Anthony Davis’ greatness is enough to make the trade one-sided anyway, but this wasn’t the lopsided robberies of years past. And lest we forget, the Lakers whiffed last summer on superstar #3; this time, however, instead of being caught unprepared, Rob Pelinka had alternatives. Within hours of the announcement that Kawhi Leonard would be inhabiting the wrong half of Staples, Pelinka had agreements with three players to fill the hole in the roster previously reserved for Leonard.
Rob Pelinka said that the way Kobe had counters for all his moves influenced him to have a counter in free agency, their backup plan after Kawhi didn't sign.— Championship Faigen (@hmfaigen) October 12, 2020
As important as all those moves were, the defining transaction of this Lakers team wasn’t signing its best player in free agency, or trading away most past and future assets for its second. Instead, this team was best defined by the signing who would become their backup center, to the veteran’s minimum. Non-guaranteed.
Dwight Howard had a checkered history with the Lakers, to put it mildly. His fall from grace ran parallel to the Lakers’ own in so many ways, but after years of expecting to be treated exceptionally, Dwight came back to a fanbase that didn’t want him with his hat in hand, ready to show his commitment. Signing LeBron and trading for AD brought in the talent the Lakers needed to reach the promised land, but Dwight’s contract brought the mantra; I don’t expect to be given anything, just let me show you the work.
More than any Lakers team I can remember, this team always did the work. While the “favored” LA team (HAHAHAHAHAHA) brought the term “load management” into common parlance, the superstar duo at the heart of our squad did their best to go every night. While the MVDPOY was claiming the crown in the regular season, these Lakers just kept grinding, building camaraderie and confidence, beating all the teams they were supposed to with steady, consistent effort. Prior to the bubble, they only lost one game to a team that didn’t make the playoffs (and that team was the Grizzlies, who actually kind of did). They didn’t lose a single game, front or back, in back-to-back situations. Come playoff time, they went 4-1 in closeout games. This was a team that made no excuses, and rarely needed them anyway.
These 2020 Lakers will undoubtedly go down in franchise history as one of our most beloved champions. Part of it is the difficulty of the journey, in so many ways. This championship was one of the longer ones coming, preceded by the longest period of outright failure in franchise history. Most obviously, we suffered the tremendous loss that was Kobe’s tragic death, and turning that tragedy into inspiration was the only way to somewhat temper our collective grief. And all of it took place with the backdrop of multiple crises threatening to shut down the NBA season, not to mention the fundamental way we live our lives. This was a season unlike any other in our history, for our fanbase, for all fanbases. No matter how it materialized, getting No. 17 this year was always going to mean more.
But this team deserves to be beloved for more mundane reasons. It was a special group who derived their greatness as much from attention to detail and doing the little things as they did from, well, being great. The words most often thrown around to describe these Lakers were “chemistry” and “accountability.” Chemistry, the bond that forms in a group who unite together as one for a common cause. Accountability, the concept that everyone must be held to the same standards and no one is above doing the work expected of others. Can you think of any concepts more fundamentally the domain of the unexceptional than those?
It was only by embracing such unexceptional work that the Lakers could become exceptional once again.