When the Lakers started the season losing 10 out of their first 12 games in often humiliating and brick-filled fashion, things felt pretty bleak.
To take you back in time to the days both during and after the team had assembled that record, here is a collection of a few of the depressing headlines we ran on this very website in that span:
- Kentavious Caldwell-Pope says he doesn’t ‘see that spark’ in LeBron James this season
- Report: Lakers promised LeBron they would compete to get him to extend, and he doesn’t want to waste another season
- What is wrong with the Lakers’ in third quarters this season?
- Anthony Davis on Lakers 2-8 record to start the season: ‘Honestly, it sucks’
Honestly, it did suck! ESPECIALLY those third quarters, when the team often came out of halftime looking like they just had a contest to see who could eat the most Taco Bell in 20 minutes, and we all lost.
Things didn’t get better immediately. As mentioned above, the team lost two more games after that quote from Davis about how things sucked, starting a truly abysmal 2-10. At that point, the Lakers’ own internal analytics gave them just a 0.3% chance to make the playoffs.
The headlines at the time somehow made the odds feel almost lower than that:
- The Lakers are already at the ‘emotional film session’ portion of the season
- Report: Lakers don’t think they can judge this team until Dennis Schröder, Thomas Bryant are back
- Report: Lakers hoping to play .500 basketball until December 15 before making trade
- Report: Lakers roster feels they are only ‘couple of players away’ from contention
Those first two headlines read like they could have been ripped straight out of the 2020-21 season, when the Lakers lazed around and didn’t take the start to the season particularly seriously despite their struggles, making token efforts to say they were getting things together, but really just hoping Trevor Ariza and Kendrick Nunn would come and save them (spoiler alert: they didn’t).
This team, though? They kept fighting, and ultimately proved those latter two leaks prescient. Unlike in 2021, when Rob Pelinka and the rest of the Lakers’ brain trust decided to punish LeBron and AD for the mess they made with the Russ trade by forcing them to sit in it, this year they saw the fight those two were showing to keep the team’s head above water and matched it, getting them the “couple of players” they needed to contend.
And contend they did. After that, the ride didn’t stop until the Western Conference Finals. What a ride it was.
Now, did the Lakers come up eight wins short of the type of winning that this franchise would truly celebrate? Of course. Like all but 17 seasons in franchise history, the job was left unfinished. No one is raising a banner, or holding a parade for a sweep in the conference finals, nor should they.
So I get it. No one wants to hear that a season was a success after your team just got swept out of the Conference Finals. But considering where the Lakers started — and after taking some time to think on it for a few days after their Game 3 loss made it clear this journey was coming to an end by the end of the week at latest — “a success” is still how this season feels, despite the result.
Because while this Lakers team may have fallen short of the eternal glory that comes from adding a Larry O’Brien Trophy to the windowsill overlooking the practice facility floor in El Segundo, they’ve earned our respect and appreciation for how far they had to go to even give us expectations for them to fall short of.
This team could have thrown in the towel at nearly too many points to count. Like after that 2-10 start, or when Anthony Davis had just helped the team turn things around... and then got hurt, when he was expected to (and ultimately did) miss a month with a stress reaction in his foot.
Instead, they kept treading water, and he came back, only playing some of the best playoff defense we’ve ever seen for the duration of the team’s postseason run despite still playing on that foot injury today.
When reinforcements finally arrived at the deadline, the Lakers had another chance to let go of the rope when those welcome additions were almost immediately followed by LeBron James suffering a tendon tear that “The LeBron James of Feet” was the only person to tell him he could avoid surgery on. He still might have to get that procedure, but he used up every bit of juice he had left in his remaining 1.5 tendons to help will his team to the conference finals, guard two-time MVP Nikola Jokic in crunch time, and become the first 38-year-old to score 40 points in a playoff game as he tried to help the Lakers avoid the brooms on Monday night.
You could make an argument, in fact, that this is the longest postseason run in Lakers history if one factors in that this team has basically been playing playoff games since February just to sneak into the play-in game and qualify for the actual playoffs. They still might not have made it, were it not for Matt Ryan’s improbable buzzer-beater to get them their second win that gave them the playoff tiebreaker with New Orleans.
As our old friend Sabreena Merchant put it on Twitter:
What a season it was. https://t.co/Vm9cwevPce— Sabreena Merchant (@sabreenajm) May 23, 2023
In the end, it was clear there was just no juice left to squeeze out of these weird, fun, never-say-die, post-deadline Lakers. But there were still small victories along that route to enjoy.
The greatness of James and Davis.
Rui Hachimura going from Wizards castoff, to an unimpeachable, 16-game playoff player.
Austin Reaves continuing his improbable and unprecedented evolution from undrafted free agent on a two-way contract, to a guy that might get nearly $100 million on his second deal. Dennis Schröder well outpacing his minimum contract and being a steady, tenacious and irritating postseason presence for a team he once turned down nearly that much from.
D’Angelo Russell didn’t end the postseason well, to say the least, but he won the Lakers some playoff games with his scoring flurries in the first two rounds, too. Remember Jarred Vanderbilt getting out the clamps out for Stephen Curry and Ja Morant? I always will. Plus the Lonnie Walker game! And Wenyen Gabriel being one of the few guys to make it through the whole season, helping the Lakers hustle their way to a playoff run he wouldn’t see much time in.
There was also Darvin Ham, showing growing pains along the way but also putting up one of the more impressive runs we’ve ever seen from a rookie coach. You can critique his rotations, but you can never question his ability to keep guys engaged and lead a group of men with all kinds of differing goals and situations to focus on just one. Hell, we’ll even give Tristan Thompson a shoutout for going from chief officer of bench celebrations to playing real defense on Jokic in the Lakers’ efforts to force one more game.
Tristan Thompson halftime interview and they didn't even show his stats, just his Cavs ring pic.twitter.com/N8Y8Xjhdgs— Mark Kim (@MarkJKim_) May 23, 2023
It would be a shock if this team entirely runs it back. Russell may be gone after that conference finals flop, and if we’ve seen anything in the LeBron James/Rob Pelinka Lakers Era, it’s that this team will sometimes overhaul its roster on a dime. Regardless of how many return, we know the faces won’t all be the same next year.
That’s why we can save the postmortems on what’s next for the days and weeks to come. Because in life, there are always opportunities to stop fighting when you encounter adversity, or when you’re in a situation that, to quote Anthony Davis, “sucks.”
But this team never quit. They dug, and they climbed, and they scrapped, scraped and clawed some more to go further than nearly any seventh seed in NBA history ever has, and further than all but one play-in team ever, all on one bum wheel each for both of their stars. I will always be grateful we got to watch it, even if we all wish we got to do so for a little longer.
You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.