The last time the Lakers made the playoffs, Dwight Howard was on the team. That is about where the similarities end between that version of the purple and gold and the one that just clinched the top seed in the Western Conference today.
After their win against the Utah Jazz, it is now mathematically impossible for the Clippers to pass the Lakers (51-15) for the No. 1 seed, and so for the first time in a decade, the Lakers will finish with the best record in their conference, a cherry on top to their first playoff appearance since 2013. They’ve come a long way since their last playoff series, a sweep at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs that saw them limp to the finish line.
That team was also the last Lakers roster to boast as much star power as this one, but otherwise could not be more different. The 2012-13 Lakers were one of the most frustrating and disappointing collections of talent in NBA history, and maybe in the entire history of sports.
Built around Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and offseason acquisitions Steve Nash and Howard, those Lakers were supposed to contend for titles. Instead they struggled to even make the playoffs amid horrible injury luck that essentially ended the careers of Nash and Bryant while limiting Howard. And if that weren’t bad enough, they also had arguably the worst chemistry of any Lakers team ever (which, considering the threepeat Lakers also exist, is really something).
This current group plays with a chemistry and obvious love for one another that is among the most deep and seemingly real of any Lakers team ever. They really, really like each other, and play hard for one another. It starts at the top, with the team’s two new stars, LeBron James and Anthony Davis, who have formed a symbiotic partnership on the floor and off of it, leading the team together and making each other better on and off the court.
Their bond and efforts to kindle chemistry have had an overwhelming effect on the rest of the roster, with little-to-no grousing about roles or responsibilities all season, a rarity on a team that has seen as many different guys play (thus restricting how many minutes any one player could get) as the Lakers have. Even Howard, the poster child of dysfunction and asking for more responsibility than their skills warranted during his first time in Los Angeles, has embraced and relished a limited role.
These Lakers are also helmed by a much different head coach. While both Mike D’Antoni and Frank Vogel are extremely personable with the media, that’s about where their commonalities end. While D’Antoni became known for playing his stars too many minutes (arguably to Bryant’s detriment especially, even if some of that was him not wanting to come off the floor) and being overly candid to the point of flaming his guys publicly (sorry again, Pau), Vogel has deferred to his stars, working with them to decide what’s best for the team and figuring out the best ways to establish buy-in. He will never publicly criticize a player individually, and only rarely says anything that could even be perceived as team-wide criticism. He does his coaching behind closed doors, with an effective and experienced group of assistants and input from his stars, and it’s been another factor in how well this group works. That he also cares about defense is just another bonus.
The team’s executive ranks have changed a lot since the last time they made the playoffs, too. In 2013, the cracks in the Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss partnership were just beginning to show, although it was hardly obvious yet. The team they built had plenty of talent, but it seems at least possible that not enough consideration was given to if they’d actually get along on a personal level. They sacrificed their future at the altar of their present, decisions that ultimately led to the destruction of both.
This Lakers team was also put together by giving up future pieces, but current executive Rob Pelinka appears to have given far more thought to how those pieces will fit together on the court and off. The star big man he traded for (Davis) also wasn’t injured like Howard was, and had a much more established brotherhood with the the Lakers’ current star at the time (James) than Howard did with Bryant. Freed from the whims of a fly-by-night boss in Magic Johnson, Pelinka took the utmost care in working with those two stars to make sure every player he brought in not only fit a role the team needed, but was also a guy they knew they could work and get along with. Both in basketball fit and for semi-intangible personality benefits, it’s made the Lakers greater than the sum of their parts.
And while ownership may technically be the same as it was in 2013, controlling governor Jeanie Buss is also far more empowered and confident in her authority than she was then — understandably so given that she was only just in the process of taking over the team from her late father, the great Dr. Jerry Buss, who is arguably the best team owner in the history of sports. It was a tough act to follow.
Jeanie Buss has been through a lot since then, from having to oust her biological brother to dealing with the public and embarrassing departure of the sibling she chose in Magic Johnson. She took plenty of criticism for pulling her circle tight in the aftermath of that, trusting and empowering Pelinka and senior basketball advisor Kurt Rambis rather than bringing in the outside voice many (including people on this very blog) clamored for, and she absolutely deserves credit for sticking with her convictions amidst outside critiques and fan protests over those choices. She got it right, and while it was a long and winding road to get here, her decisions have helped lead the Lakers to today.
Together, all of this and more has put the Lakers in a position to be where they are now, sitting atop the conference, but perhaps nothing more so than LeBron James’ decision to travel to West and resuscitate an iconic franchise that was set adrift since that last playoff run. As much as everyone above deserves the credit they’ll get for this, ultimately it was James and his camp who recruited Davis and helped pull the strings to orchestrate his arrival, reviving the team’s hopes after the worst year of his career. James could have groused or passed blame, but instead he set about putting the work on and off the court to fix things, getting himself help and grinding in the gym to have one of the most efficient seasons of his career at age 35. It’s been an incredible journey to chronicle and observe.
The next step for James and the Lakers is entering the playoffs as a title favorite, and whether this story ultimately ends with him, Davis and the rest of this organization raising the franchise’s 17th banner or falls short, it’s been an incredible ride. And if this team has anything to say about it, it’s also far from over.