It’s October 2020, and Anthony Davis has a pair of goggles strewn around his neck. His t-shirt is soaked in champagne. All around him, his teammates are hooting and hollering, fully in the throws of celebrating their just-clinched championship over the Miami Heat.
As cameras circulate the locker room to document this moment, AD looks into a nearby lens and says to no one and everyone at the same time, “This is why we grind. This is why we work!”
It’s a fitting exclamation that captures not only the exaltation of winning it all, but the trying nature of that specific season, and all that was necessary in order to get to the point they did.
This moment, as much as any other in the immediate aftermath of the Lakers winning that championship in in the Orlando bubble, is what sticks with me most. It’s a moment that, at the most basic level, rings most true to me about what winning it all and achieving that ultimate goal must feel like.
Yes, there’s joy. Supreme and utter joy. But there’s also a feeling of how all the effort and work you’ve put in has culminated in this exact moment; a feeling of... validation. It’s the feeling all of these players chase, and it’s one of the reasons why they commit to putting in the work that serves as the foundation for every team fortunate enough to be the last one standing.
Fast-forward a calendar year to October 2021. The Lakers are in the midst of training camp, only days after a star-studded media day for a team that suddenly has six potential future hall of famers and capable role players. This group, talented as they all are, still are all preaching sacrifice as a means to accomplish what that 2020 team did in Orlando.
Sacrifice, however, isn’t the only buzzword coming out the mouths of this new team. No, in a callback to Anthony Davis’ celebratory statement, there is a common theme of embracing the work necessary to win.
More specific, however, is the type of work being discussed here. This is not about getting to the gym early or leaving late. It’s not additional reps in the weight room or extra skill work with Phil Handy. Yes, those things matter, and as professionals (particularly high achieving ones), these are the expected acts that facilitate getting to and sticking at the level they’ve reached. This, again, is different than that.
From LeBron James, to Russell Westbrook, to Carmelo Anthony, there has been an explicit acknowledgement that they do not expect things to go smoothly this season. That, for these Lakers, in bringing together this many new players — and particularly current and former stars who have historically been primary scoring options or high usage players — there are inherent challenges in reaching an understanding of how to work together and complement each other in order to best optimize everyone’s respective games.
“I always believe throughout the season, there’s going to be ups and downs. There’s going to be times where it may not work, there’s going to be times where it’s clicking on all cylinders. And as a team you’ve got to understand that,” Westbrook said at media day. “It’s going to be a process. My job is just to continue to make sure that I make those guys better. That’s all I really want to do.”
“It’s a long season,” Anthony added at a recent practice. “It’s going to be good, it’s going to be bad, it’s going to be great, hopefully there’s no ugly. There’s going to be things that we can’t control that’s out of our control, and it’s just going to be a matter of how we approach that and how we deal with that when that time comes.”
Basically, there is an expectation of clunky offensive possessions where guys make the extra pass one too many times on one play, and then dribble the air out of the ball in looking for the right opportunity on another. Possessions where a player should cut, but is caught standing and watching. Possessions where a discontinued cut or a wrong angle taken on a dive leads to a turnover.
Just as there will be sloppy defensive possessions where two Lakers rotate to the same shooter on the wing. Possessions where a defender shades the ballhandler in a specific direction only to find his partner in help located on the opposite side he was trying to force the dribbler. Possessions where the weakside wing stunts and recovers to his own man instead of fully committing to the tag and taking on the roll man chest to chest.
The Lakers as a whole, but especially their leaders, seem to not only understand all these things are on the horizon, but they seem to embrace it. Each one of them has said some variation of, “We know there’s going to be ups and downs and that it’s not always going to go smoothly, but we look forward to putting in the work to figure out how we can be effective.” Some may look at those statements as just training camp coachspeak, and the usual say-the-right-thing-soundbites that rule this time of season.
For me, though, they signify something different.
Players who have achieved a certain status level inherently understand the effort it takes to get to (and stick at) the top of their profession. Everyone who makes it to the NBA is gifted with a baseline amount of talent, but it’s those who expand on that talent through a relentless work ethic that end up surpassing their peers. Kobe Bryant once said that in the summers he’d workout several times a day, knowing that other players weren’t putting in those same hours he was. The implication, he said, was that over the course of time, he’d build up a lead on hours committed so big, none of his contemporaries would ever catch up.
It’s no coincidence to me that the players speaking most about embracing the work to figure things out as a group are the types of players who, through their embracing of work on their individual games became (some of) the marquee players of their respective generation(s). They’re the ones who understand most that it takes a certain commitment to getting it right that they’ll need to apply to their current situation if they really want to achieve what they’re expected to.
Winning at a high level is never easy. Even the most talented groups need to overcome challenges and sort through issues in order to be the last team standing. For these Lakers, those hurdles are front and center for everyone to see. By adding Russell Westbrook and stacking the roster with multiple aging veterans — several of which are defensively challenged — they have fundamentally altered the structure and formula that won them that championship just a calendar year ago. They have purposefully lowered their floor in the pursuit of a higher ceiling.
It’s a bold move that may not work out in the end. No one can know for sure what will happen. But, what I do know is that this group will put in the necessary work to get there.