The Lakers road back to glory was a long, winding and often heartbreaking experience.
You will be forgiven—because it’s been 356 days, a national reckoning over systemic racism, and a global pandemic since the NBA season began in 2019—if you forgot the circumstances under which the Lakers started this season. While some of us were saying the team made more sense in Year 2 of LeBron James’s tenure in Hollywood, that didn’t mean LA’s 17th championship was etched in stone. Whatever adversity the Lakers’ title run lacked in the postseason—three straight 4–1 series wins and a wounded Finals opponent—they more than made up for in the decade prior.
After the last Los Angeles championship in 2010, Kobe Bryant tore his Achilles and was never the same. The franchise went through the worst playoff drought in its proud history. Free agents routinely turned them away. And then even when James decided to make his move west, his first year was far from a return to glory. He didn’t mesh with his coach or younger teammates. He openly pined for a superstar partner. His injury made many wonder if his inevitable (or is it really theoretical?) decline was beginning.
This year, Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Anteotkounmpo entered as the reigning Finals and regular season MVPs, respectively. Before the regular season began, James and the team were ensnared in a geopolitical scandal. Hours after the night James spoke to Bryant on the phone about the former passing him on the all-time scoring list, Kobe and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, were shockingly killed in a helicopter crash. And then weeks later, after playing their best basketball of the season, the Lakers and everybody else were forced to come to an abrupt halt because of a pandemic that still hasn’t slowed down in America outside of the NBA bubble’s walls.
And now, at long last, the Lakers are champions again. It wasn’t only 356 days in the making, it was 10 years. However fortunate the organization was to land LeBron, and though they were no massive underdog, this championship was not guaranteed. Not when the supporting cast was seemingly light on shooting and two-way players. Not when LeBron hadn’t bought in for a full season of defense in years. Not when Anthony Davis hadn’t played in any high-pressure playoff games. And not when the Heat pushed the Lakers on their heels after an epic Game 5.
What’s exciting about this moment is not only the narrative heft that comes with another championship for James, who continues to make his case as the greatest of all time, or another banner for the Lakers, who are nothing if not compelling when they’re contenders, but that it sets the stage for another unpredictable decade of basketball.
Ten years ago, the Lakers were on the mountaintop and James took his talents to South Beach. He tried to form a dynasty in Miami only for one to emerge in Golden State when he went back to Cleveland. The player empowerment era took hold of team building. And smallball and threes took control of the game’s aesthetic.
Ten years later, the Lakers are back on the mountaintop, and James is firmly entrenched in Los Angeles. The Warriors still have the core of a team that made five straight Finals. Kevin Durant, his stuffed trophy case, and a championship-experienced Kyrie Irving are lurking in Brooklyn. The Heat made a valiant title chase and their cap space hasn’t kicked in yet. The Nuggets appear to be on the rise. The Celtics and Mavericks have two of the game’s most promising young players. Giannis Antetokounmpo has a decision to make. And Kawhi Leonard could be getting ready for his own revenge tour.
It took ten long, winding, and often heartbreaking years for the Lakers to be in front of everyone again. The rest of the league—whenever next season can safely start—is not far behind. Let the chase begin.