From Riches to Rags to Riches: The Lakers' Steady Climb Back to the Top
In truth, no team in sports has transformed quite as often or as drastically as the Lakers have in the past five years. Think about it: subtract five years and LA looks like a history buff’s fantasy team. Adding to the dominant one-two punch of current greats Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal were classic legends Gary Payton and Karl Malone.
The fact that both Malone and Payton were past their primes was irrelevant. Kobe and Shaq together had recently won three consecutive titles on a team consisting mainly of role players.
If either Malone or Payton could consistently play like fractions of their former selves, LA would've been certain to take home their fourth championship in five years.
But as we all know, that’s not how the story ended.
At the end of the season, the once glorious Laker franchise had completely lost its soul. And that was before it was forced to endure what was perhaps the worst offseason in NBA history.
Not only did the Lakers see the departure of both of last season’s major acquisitions, Malone and Payton, but also O’Neal, the one named Finals MVP in each of their three recent championships.
To cap it all off, Phil Jackson, the coach whose arrival immediately ushered in the three-peat run by Los Angeles, quit and faded off into retirement. From that point on the Lakers plummeted from grace, posting a dreadful 34-48 record and missing the playoffs for the first time since 1993 (33-49).
Phil Jackson’s return the following season also brought about the return of the playoffs. However, the Lakers’ return to the postseason turned out to be both brief and inconsequential as both of the following seasons were ended by the Phoenix Suns in the first round. It was official: the days of Los Angeles’ dominance were long gone.
The lone remaining factor in Los Angeles’ glory days, Kobe Bryant, has publicly shown frustration with the Lakers management. The trade speculation circling Kobe carries throughout the offseason into the opening games of the regular season and shows no signs of slowing down.
And now another three-peat seemed to be looming over the horizon.
But unlike the previous one that had seen the Kobe-Shaq led Lakers restore their franchise to greatness, this one would see the Lakers fall in three consecutive first round eliminations. With Shaq long gone and the Western Conference getting all the more powerful around them, the Lakers would be helpless to prevent the anti-three-peat right?
The emergence of the young Andrew Bynum and the increasing quality of Los Angeles’ role players such as Sasha Vujacic and Jordan Farmar boosted Los Angeles to the best start it had had in years (25-11).
Even after the potentially dead-end mid-season injury of Bynum, the wheeling and dealing of LA’s management landed what many players and analysts alike call one of the greatest heists of all time: the trade of the under-performing Kwame Brown for the highly acclaimed Pau Gasol.
Under Bryant and Gasol, the season played out like a fairy tale. The Lakers had notched the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference and carried a 12-3 record heading into last year’s finals. Although the Lakers ultimately came up short, they were determined to turn their frustrating loss into a lesson.
As Bynum returned the following year the Lakers, at least on paper, were as talented and deep of a team as they had ever been. Due in no small part to Bynum’s physical play and solid inside presence, the Lakers rolled throughout the majority of the season up until his injury in January.
Even in Bynum’s absence the team has continued to roll, posting road wins against Boston and Cleveland (each for the second time this season), ending both the Celtics’ 12-game winning streak and the Cavaliers’ undefeated home record (23-0).
Now they stand alone as the NBA’s best team.
If the last few years in basketball have taught us anything, it’s that fortunes can change in an instant. As I hope I’ve shown you, the Lakers have been a living testament to that, not that they’ve been the only ones.
Ask a Mavericks fan about how quickly the weather can change and I’d bet they won’t start talking about Dallas’ weather forecast.
My point is this: even for a team of Los Angeles’ caliber, a championship is never a certainty. I’d bet the Patriots wouldn’t disagree with that too much.
Having said that, one quality that jumps out at you about this Laker team is resilience. Show me a championship team in any sport and I’ll show you a team with that quality.
Resilience is the ability to win in front of hostile crowds, after all, the Giants’ NFL record 10 road wins wasn’t an inconsequential component of their championship season. Resilience is the ability to press through injuries both individually and as a team. Resilience is consistency.
Now guess who has the best road record in the NBA. Guess which All-Star among the top three scorers has played with a dislocated pinky for nearly a year. Guess which is the only team among the top three in the league to not have gone on a double-digit win streak all season long?
Right now you’re asking why that last one is a good thing. One word: consistency.
Basketball is a game of rhythm; it’s a game of momentum. Almost any team in the league can get hot, but which team can get up the most quickly after a cold spell? This matters because let’s face it, no one stays hot forever. No streak is eternal. It takes a good team to have streak, it takes a great one to get back up after it’s over.
After all, it's why the Lakers' franchise rebounded, and that’s why now, they’re the strongest candidates to take the championship come June.
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