NBA Finals 2020: Los Angeles Lakers rediscover 'Exceptionalism' with 17th title win

Throughout their history, the Los Angeles Lakers have aspired to the concept of ‘Exceptionalism’. After the team spent several seasons in the doldrums, the superstar duo of LeBron James and Anthony Davis have allowed them to meet that standard once again.

For a long time, there prevailed the idea of Los Angeles Lakers ‘Exceptionalism’. Put in its simplest terms, it meant that the Lakers sought only the best of the best.

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Even before winning their 17th NBA championship on Sunday and tying for the Boston Celtics’ all-time titles record, the Lakers were arguably the most successful franchise in NBA history, and also perhaps the most storied.

The most glamorous, too, by virtue of the Hollywood factor, and between the lure and the legacy, they were usually to be found aiming for nothing but the top of the pile. To support the Lakers was to enjoy glitz, glamour and success. And what this meant in purely basketball terms was an ability to get the game’s best players without necessarily needing to make the game’s best front-office moves.

The historical pedigree on the court is unquestionable. Up until the 2012-13 season, the franchise had made the postseason in 18 of the previous 19 seasons as well as in 35 of the previous 37 and had missed the playoffs only five times in total since their inauguration in 1948.


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With 16 title wins in that time, it was not all for show. Whatever lifestyle and wider celebrity opportunities being a member of the Lakers offered off the court, they also usually won on it.

What is also unquestionable is that some of the game’s greats would insist on being there. After winning his third MVP award, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar demanded a trade to the Lakers all the way back in 1975, and although you would think that an extremely young high school player would not have that same level of leverage, Kobe Bryant famously insisted he would only play for the Lakers back in 1996. Although Bryant was drafted by the Charlotte Hornets, he was immediately traded to LA, and thus he was proven right.

Furthermore, in one of the biggest free agency moves in history, Shaquille O’Neal’s choice to sign with the team also in 1996 opened up another title window.

Thanks to the free agency signing of LeBron James and the trade acquisition of Anthony Davis over the last two years, the Lakers have been able to do it again.

In between the Kobe and LeBron title windows, of course, there were the doldrums between 2013 and 2019, as the Lakers nosedived to the foot of the NBA in a way unbefitting of their legacy and reputation. In winning only 168 of 492 games across those six seasons, those were not the Lakers you had become familiar with.

Across that span, the Lakers’ team-building strategy was essentially two-fold. After the failures of Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum, and making the decision to keep Kobe, they had little to offer by way of trade. Instead, all the losing left them with premium lottery picks to build the foundation of a new team with, while they were also still hoping to make significant free-agent signings.

The franchise’s decisions over those few seasons have been much dissected, and when looked at coincident with the fact that the Lakers had not made the playoffs since 2013 until this year, it largely did not work.

It would be fair to point out that, with D’Angelo Russell having made an All-Star appearance game, with Brandon Ingram having exploded over the course of the last season, with Julius Randle being highly productive if flawed and with Larry Nance, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart, Ivica Zubac and Jordan Clarkson exceeding their lowly draft placings, the Lakers drafted to a generally high standard, even if all bar Kuzma had to go to other teams to shine.

Yet when those good selections were undercut by poor free agent decisions, themselves driven by the urgency demanded by one specific strand of the ‘exceptionalism’ concept, none of it really helped.

The urgency to get back into the playoffs – after all, how can the Lakers be seen to miss the playoffs? – meant poor mid- to long-term strategising. The need to avoid bottoming out meant there was no path beyond the middle ground unless at least one draft pick hit to a superstar level. While this is often a strategy lottery teams default to, it is not one that chimed with an ‘exceptionalist’ mindset.

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In trying to meet one requirement of the exceptionalism tenet, they screwed up the other. In not wanting to hit the bottom, they had no chance to reach the top. And then they hit the bottom anyway.

The need to be ‘the Lakers’ and avoid lingering in the draft lottery meant excessive expenditure in free agency on players who did not deserve the money. Although both ownership resources and the salary cap situation could accommodate these signings, the long big bad deals to Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov in particular were more than just bad in and of themselves.

Given how little the team received from Deng and Mozgov as players, the intent to at least be in the low playoff seeds short-term did not prove to be even nearly possible, and the resultant clogged cap stymied the growth and flexibility of that lottery-built team for three years, to the point that the team had to pay to get off those deals.

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Normally, a lottery team using its best young prospects to merely get away from their own bad free agency decision-making is the antithesis of how building from the bottom should work. But when you are ‘the Lakers’, you can do that.

Because when LeBron James and Klutch Sports decided that Los Angeles was where they wanted to be, the turnaround was a quick one.

Within one year, gone were the draft picks whose legitimacy the last few years had been spent justifying. In came veterans, fellow Klutch clients and Davis.

To be able to determine how much of the Lakers’ lure to LeBron, and Shaq before him, is due to the legacy of the sports franchise or simply the lure of the location could only be answered by a player serving up a degree of honesty rarely before seen. Whatever weighting each aspect carries, though, the total package was clearly enough for the biggest needle-mover in modern NBA history.

To get LeBron is, almost invariably, to get to the NBA Finals, and to have the one piece in place that other stars will willingly be the second piece towards. Davis came to the Lakers because LeBron was there, and he will likely stay for the same reason.

Both of them, realistically, could have gone anywhere. They came to Los Angeles and won.

Be it more by circumstance than planning at times, the 2019-20 season was a rebirth of Lakers Exceptionalism. This self-inflicted standard can be self-defeating, as seen in the down years, but if the required superstars are lavished accordingly, history time and again has shown that they will come to the Lakers.

Given this massive advantage on their closest rivals, there is invariably a title window in Los Angeles as long as there is clean health, patience and no imploding.

The unique circumstances of this coronavirus-affected season will forever be in play when reflecting on this season and these Lakers going forward – if you want to find asterisks, you can absolutely find them here – might not make for favourable comparisons between this team and the 16 winners before them.

Yet over the course of the last couple of seasons, the Lakers tapped back into what made them ‘the Lakers’.

They signed the hottest free agent commodity. They traded for the best guy on the market. They played up-tempo basketball reminiscent of the great Showtime teams. And they won it all.

At times, they enjoyed some luck and prior to the Finals, things had not consistently clicked all year. But when it mattered the most, they were exceptional once again.

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