Despite all the (understandable) talk about their age, the Los Angeles Lakers will enter the 2021-22 season as the prohibitive favorite in the Western Conference — on paper, at least.
The Clippers will be without Kawhi Leonard, the Nuggets have health issues of their own to worry about, the Jazz appeared to hit their ceiling when their defensive superstar was exposed by a second-round role player in the playoffs, and it’s hard to imagine the Suns reaching the same heights they did during the abnormal and injury-riddled 2020-21 campaign.
That leaves the really old — but still really good — Lakers, the only team in the West to have a roster headlined by three bonafide superstars in LeBron James, Anthony Davis and now Russell Westbrook, ahead of the pack.
But being favorites to reach the NBA Finals and actually making it there are two very different things — just ask the Clippers. Or, just ask someone with actual Finals experience, Lakers assistant coach Phil Handy, who was not getting out in front of his skis when asked about next season on Sirius XM NBA Radio recently (h/t Fadeaway World):
Paper doesn’t win championships for us. Those names that are on that paper, are some phenomenal names... We gotta do our work and make sure we gel. Do we fit? These guys, they gotta figure out ways to play with each other and sacrifice, and let their names take over. You know, you look at that piece of paper and say, Lakers are loaded, automatic championship. Nah man, we got a lot of work to do in terms of just gelling, finding our rhythm and being able to be cohesive as a unit.
"Paper doesn't win championships for us."#Lakers assistant coach Phil Handy (@94feetofgame) tells @Jumpshot8 & @DarthAmin what we can expect from this year's Lakers team. #LakeShow pic.twitter.com/zsdfjPZi9m— SiriusXM NBA Radio (@SiriusXMNBA) August 22, 2021
Handy knows better than most what it takes to go from being championship contenders to actual champions. He’s been an integral part of several recent NBA title teams, including the 2015-16 Cavaliers with James, the 2018-19 Raptors with Leonard and of course the 2019-20 Lakers.
Handy is also now the lone holdover from the past two seasons to remain as one of Frank Vogel’s top lieutenants next year. Mike Penberthy was promoted and David Fizdale was hired to replace Lionel Hollins and new Mavericks head coach Jason Kidd, respectively, to sit alongside Handy and Vogel at the front of the bench.
The good news is that many of the Lakers’ veteran players seem to agree with Handy. Several of them have already publicly said that they are not concerned with the size of their roles on the team next year, including guys who demanded bigger roles in the past like Carmelo Anthony and Rajon Rondo. That’s a stark contrast from the way the likes of Dennis Schröder and Andre Drummond carried themselves last season.
Of course, the Lakers are also not the only loaded team in the NBA. A similar — and younger — collection of star talent looms in Brooklyn, led by the three-headed bucket-getting monster of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden. We’ll get our first real glimpse at how the Lakers and Nets match up against each other when they play on Christmas day, but win or lose, don’t expect the Lakers to overreact to the result. They know they have a lot of work to do.