At times, it feels impossible that the Lakers are 17 months removed from winning an NBA title. But the expedited nature of the end of that 2019-20 season and the nearly two complete seasons that have followed have served to quickly erase some of the memories of that season, as so much has happened during the span in between.
There has also been a lot of turnover since the title. Of the eight players who played rotation minutes in the last game of the NBA Finals, only LeBron James and Anthony Davis are still on the team.
Among the players that have since departed were key role players in that Game 6 win, in Kentavious Caldwell-Pope — who played the third-most minutes in that win — and Kyle Kuzma, both of whom were traded this offseason for Russell Westbrook. And regardless of what their futures hold, the pair were part of a title-winning Lakers team and have earned a certain kind of legacy within the fanbase for the rest of their careers in being part of that team.
As each return to face the Lakers for the first time since being dealt when the Wizards take on the purple and gold on Friday, the pair talked to Mark Medina of NBA.com about their feelings towards the Lakers after having been traded by the team less than 12 months after helping them win a title.
But as Kuzma and Caldwell-Pope reflected on their Lakers’ past and their Wizards’ present, they abstained from expressing any bitterness with how their time there ended.
“I don’t really play the ‘what if,’” Kuzma told NBA.com “I’m cemented as a winner, and I’m cemented as a Lakers champion. For me, it’s not about ‘what if.’ It’s time to move on. It’s time to improve my game.”
Therefore, it would be a stretch to suggest Kuzma and Caldwell-Pope have become consumed with exacting revenge on their former team.
Both teams already have more important things at stake. For the remainder of the regular season, both the Wizards (29-35; 11th in Eastern Conference) and the Lakers (28-37, ninth in Western Conference) will fight for a spot in the NBA’s Play-In Tournament. That backdrop explained why Kuzma said “we have to win that game.”
“No hard feelings. I’m at peace,” Caldwell-Pope said. “I’m happy where I’m at.”
Ahead of their return, the pair have talked about the differences between Washington and Los Angeles, Kuzma focusing on the court and Caldwell-Pope off of it. And while there are inherent pressures that come along with being a Laker, they come as a result of the success the franchise has had both historically and recently.
Similarly, part of the nature of playing for the Lakers, fair or foul, is the constant trade discussions. For some, being part of those rumors is taxing and there is no payoff in the end. For Kuzma and Caldwell-Pope, though, there was a reward in the form of a title, and while they ultimately may have been dealt shortly after reaching the summit, the memories made that season and the success had probably made it all worth it in the end.
Both players were vital in their own ways to the title-winning team, and both should be celebrated. And with both having no hard feelings with the Lakers as well, it’s likely they will continue to be celebrated in the years that follow and even after their careers, which is good news for all parties involved and allows fans to fondly remember a team that brought a very special championship back to L.A. during a year the whole city desperately needed the lift. For that, Kuzma and Caldwell-Pope will always be remembered.