The Lakers have clinched the top seed in the Western Conference, but first-place regular-season finishes don’t mean a thing in Los Angeles if it doesn’t bring a ring.
Real laker fans remember the losing seasons. Here ya go #1 😤🔒— kuz (@kylekuzma) August 4, 2020
Sure, it’s great for the squad to end its longest playoff drought in franchise history — a whopping six seasons. But for a revered team with 16 NBA titles, anything short of hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy come October will be a disappointment.
Kobe Bryant wouldn't have wanted it any other way.
Not only did the pandemic and the 141-day hiatus stall the Lakers’ season, but perhaps its championship mojo and momentum as well. The coronavirus-related discomfort and instability they’ve faced so far are not any different than the next team, but they’ve also had to deal with the emotional rollercoaster following Bryant’s tragic death in January.
The Lakers played with purpose and clinched home-court advantage throughout the playoffs in a year which NBA games now take place at a neutral location without fans. The last time the Lakers finished first in the West, it was 2010 — the year of the Bryant-led Lakers’ last championship.
LeBron James joined the Lakers to bring Los Angeles back to its winning ways.
The 35-year-old superstar is still the world’s best player and is having an age-defying, MVP-caliber season in his seventeenth year in the league. Acquiring Anthony Davis was designed to put the team back into the title hunt, and for a change, the Lakers made a deal that came up in spades, even if Davis decides to sign elsewhere in the offseason.
Thus far in the Orlando restart, the Lakers have beaten the Jazz, a team they could face in the conference semifinals. They’ve sneaked past the Clippers, a squad they’re seemingly destined to meet in the Western Conference Finals, and they lost to the Raptors, one of the two frontrunners slated to come out of the East.
"If you're winning enough games to secure the No. 1 seed, you're building the right habits that are going to be necessary for you to win in the playoffs," Vogel said Monday after beating the Jazz 116-108. "Obviously we have bigger aspirations than the No. 1 seed, but we are proud of the accomplishment.”
Immediately before the bubble tipped off, the Lakers were the clubhouse leader to win the NBA title at +180, and the Bucks were second at +275, according to Caesars Sportsbook. The Clippers were not too far behind.
The final handful of games of the NBA season will be designed to work off the rust and catapult every contender for a playoff push.
The Lakers need to quickly find their offensive identity.
The team’s powerful two-man punch of James and Davis averages a combined 52 points, 17 rebounds, 13 assists, three blocks and two steals per game.
The unprecedented break should have provided both players a much-welcomed reprieve, but if either star fizzles in the near future, their chances of winning will be akin to a Ferrari trying to speed through the 405.
“Spahn and Sain, and pray for rain” was a popular saying for the Boston Braves baseball team made up of the fabled pitching tandem of Warren Spahn and Johnny Sain in 1948. That team lost in the World Series.
Davis and James, and a bunch of names, will have to lead a complete team performance if they plan on winning the NBA championship. That includes fending off fiery defenders and a fierce virus, all at the same time.
The dynamic duo needs to plead for more production out of Kyle Kuzma, who’s regressed in his third year in the league after proving to be a promising piece the previous two seasons. If Kuzma comes out of the cage, the aging stars will have less of a burden to carry and will be able to better kick their game into second gear during crunch time.
The way the team is currently structured, a rotating cast including Danny Green, Alex Caruso and Kentavious-Caldwell Pope are expected to help shoulder the scoring load. Surely no opponent will be losing sleep over that no matter how bad the hotel accommodations are in the bubble.
Prior to the NBA restart, the Lakers lost starter Avery Bradley, who opted out of playing citing family concerns due to COVID-19. In July, Rajon Rondo fractured his right thumb during the team's second practice. Although the injury required surgery, Vogel is still counting on the 34-year-old Rondo to return and contribute in the coming weeks.
Shortly before the pandemic, the Lakers touched up their roster by signing Markieff Morris, Dion Waiters and waiving DeMarcus Cousins. To better enhance their postseason push, the Purple and Gold also signed veteran sharpshooter J.R. Smith during the postponement to shore up its bench.
Waiters is incredibly important to the Lakers' title chances. He's the ideal shot-creating guard Los Angeles needs in the playoffs. That's if Waiters can heed Stephen A. Smith's advice and "stay off the weed."
The book is still out on all of the additions, but in just three games, they appear to be players devoid of the game they once had. If their numbers are ever called, they need to be a better supporting actor than Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
Sometimes, all you need is two, and the Lakers’ power pairing is more prodigious than their cross-court rivals, or any other team in the league for that matter.
Considering the construction of the rosters, the Clippers appear to be the more complete group, at least for now. Wings and socially distant lap dances be damned, Lou Williams can contribute instant offense if Kawhi Leonard or Paul George can't. Patrick Beverley eagerly awaits on the opposite end of the court with the All-Defensive help of George and Leonard. Montrezl Harrell is also a big boon.
Both teams split the four-game regular-season series, and a meeting in the playoffs should go seven games — if a healthy PG13 shows up.
The Lakers should make it out of the western gauntlet, if ever so slightly.
And after winning the de facto NBA Finals, the Lakers would best Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Bucks, or the defending-champion Raptors if they were to meet.
But could they overcome a calamity if the great James and Davis momentarily disappear?
Nothing is ruled out in 2020.
Photo: Getty Images/Lines Illustration