Moore: LeBron Leads Lakers Back To NBA Finals, Where They Belong
Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images. Pictured: LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers.
In the end, you should have just bought the trend.
The course of NBA history is defined by its greatest players, its tapestry told in their failures and successes. However, ultimately, that story is laced through two franchises. And over the past 30 years, it’s only been laced through one, that of the Western Conference champion after its victory Saturday night:
The Los Angeles Lakers.
The Lakers are headed to the NBA Finals for the 32nd time in their franchise history. Look at that number again. Thirty-two.
That’s out of 70 total Western Conference Finals. They’ve won the West 48% of the time! They have 78 wins in the Western Conference Finals, which is 47 more than the second-place San Antonio Spurs.
There’s a lot to write about this Lakers team. Its journey through the tragedy of Kobe Bryant’s death. The transformation of so many players thought past their prime (Rajon Rondo, Dwight Howard, let alone LeBron) into a juggernaut. The work of Frank Vogel to take a team that was thrown together and give them the kind of cohesive identity centered around their defense that teams like the Los Angeles Clippers never found.
And believe me, there will be a lot written. The NBA media machine is largely based in Los Angeles. Its media structure is heavily influenced by that, as well as by the influence that history has on them. Writing about the Lakers feels serious, heavy and glamorous. Let me put it this way, most of the media would have been profoundly depressed to write about a Miami Heat-Denver Nuggets Finals.
But ultimately, those stories don’t reflect something that crosses generations.
Since 1985 when preseason odds are available dating back to, if you bet $100 on the Lakers’ title odds in preseason, you would be currently down just $625 over the span of 35 years. If they win this year, you’d net $450, knocking it down to just a $175 loss over 35 years.
If you bet $100 on the Lakers every single season since 2000 and they win the title this season, you’d be up $305.
It is literally pretty good advice to just bet on the Lakers to win the title any year they have a remotely good star at the helm.
LeBron could have gone anywhere in 2018, but it didn’t seem like he actually would go anywhere. Watching him celebrate the Western Conference Championship, I realized how there was nowhere else for him. There were other teams, many with better rosters. Teams with better front offices. Teams with better chances to compete, based on non-narrative factors.
But narrative is powerful in the NBA. It swings open doors for free agents and their agents. Narrative is why the conversation in Milwaukee is about where Giannis Antetokounmpo is going next; not who will join him to secure a title. Narrative is why the Clippers failure felt fait accompli, despite how much love they received from analytic wonks and sharp bettors.
After LeBron won the title in 2016, he had secured a title in a place no one felt anyone could win, a hopeless place by the Lake. He had done so by beating the team with the greatest regular-season record of all time, and done so by coming back from down 3-1.
That title was what vaulted him into the serious Greatest Of All Time discussion. At that point, you could no longer exclude him. But he hadn’t passed Jordan, he still hasn’t. He may never.
But his best chance? It couldn’t be with Cleveland, repeating the formula. No one likes a rerun, at least not one set in Cleveland. He couldn’t return to Miami. He couldn’t join the Celtics or the Warriors.
No, for him to raise his GOAT argument, he had to do it for an iconic franchise, and there are only two iconic franchises in the NBA: the Celtics and the Lakers. The Lakers offered him everything. He could work on his off-court media ventures in the LA entertainment landscape. He could shape a shattered shell of an organization into whatever he and his agent Rich Paul decided. He could leverage their strength against smaller markets with stars that could help.
James has now made the Finals 10 times in his career, and in nine of the past ten seasons.
This one, however, feels special, not only for doing so during the global pandemic inside a quarantine bubble, or after Bryant’s passing, or in his first year with Frank Vogel and Anthony Davis. It feels special because he did it with the Lakers.
Make no mistake, being a Laker wasn’t enough. James reinvested himself on the defensive end this season in a way that hasn’t been present since he left Miami. He was committed, night in and night out, and played with the level of ferocity he did with Miami (and that he rarely did with Cleveland). The Lakers’ entire identity depended on it.
This year’s Lakers are a poor offensive team, limited in weapons and firepower. They needed huge games from Dwight Howard and Alex Caruso (who is very good, but not offensively brilliant) in the Western Conference Finals for crying out loud.
Their success came from stifling, physical, bullying defense forcing turnovers, and then running the ball down the opponent’s throat with their athleticism. That’s not possible without James setting the tone, setting the example, and backing it up.
Denver was tenacious. It fought every step of the way and was led by talented young stars on the rise, accomplishing the previously impossible in coming back twice from 3-1 down in a series. But ultimately, the Nuggets were simply the same fill-in-the-blank team that so many have been for the Lakers.
There were analytic reasons to doubt the Lakers or to believe in the Clippers more. There were reasons to think the Rockets could make a run. There were narrative reasons to believe in the Nuggets.
But ultimately, you should have just trusted the narrative.
The Lakers are once again The Lakers.