Image Courtesy of Pau Gasol (via Twitter)
By Garrett Farrell
The story of the 2020 NBA Finals did not begin last week when the series began, nor did it begin last month when the NBA playoffs began. It didn’t start in June, when the NBA announced its plans to have the top 20 teams in the league finish in a bubble format, and it didn’t start last October when the season formally started. Rather, the story of the 2020 NBA Finals began on July 1, 2018 when the general manager of the Lakers, Magic Johnson, a legend in his own right, signed the greatest basketball player in the world to a four-year, $154 million dollar contract.
On that day, early in the morning, the Los Angeles Lakers announced that Lebron James, who had made the NBA Finals in eight consecutive years prior, would put on the purple and gold of the NBA’s most legendary franchise. They had acquired the centerpiece of a championship roster, and were almost instantly favorites to win the next championship. They did not win the next title, as a mid-season groin injury caused James to miss significant time for the first time since he was drafted in 2004.
The story picks up again on June 17, 2019 when the Lakers sent Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram, the second overall picks in the 2017 and 2016 drafts respectively, Josh Hart, another 2017 first round pick, and three future first round picks and one future fourth round pick to the New Orleans Pelicans. You may be asking yourself “What offer could possibly be worth such an investment, the future of the franchise for years after Lebron might leave?” The Lakers sent three of their starters and four of their draft picks in the next five years to NOLA for one man: Anthony Davis.
The move was certainly risky, but it was one that paid dividends for the Lakers and may continue to do so for them in the years to come. There were other pieces that the team acquired along the way, such as basketball genius Rajon Rondo and Kentavious Caldwell Pope, but their two star players were the principal authors of the story of the 2020 Lakers.
The 2020 Lakers started their season on a quest to scorch the Earth and they promptly established themselves as the contenders for the championship. The only threat to their dominance in the Western Conference were their city rivals The Los Angeles Clippers, led by Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. The only potential challengers from the Eastern Conference were the Minnesota Bucks and the reigning-champion Toronto Raptors. The Lakers were well on their way to the playoffs when tragedy struck.
On January 26 of this year, Kobe Bryant, a father, husband, and basketball legend, died tragically in a helicopter crash in Los Angeles. Bryant played every game of his twenty year NBA career in the purple and gold of the Lakers. While Kobe’s death may seem unrelated to the story of these Lakers, who he left four years earlier, it was this calamity that united the Lakers and formed them into the championship team they are.
“I promise you I’ll continue your legacy man! You mean so much to us all here especially #LakerNation💜💛 and it’s my responsibility to put this s–t on my back and keep it going!! Please give me the strength from the heavens above and watch over me! I got US here,” said James on instagram the day after Bryant’s passing.
The Lakers, motivated as ever by the drive to honor Bryant’s memory, raced their way to the first seed in the Western Conference and were the only team in that conference to clinch a spot in the playoffs before the season went on hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic. When it was announced that the season would continue with a limited number of games in a bubble, the Lakers almost immediately clinched the highest seed in the Western Conference.
The Lakers did not face a single substantive challenge in the entirety of the Western Conference playoffs. Lebron, AD, KCP, Rondo, and many other players made quick work of the Portland Trailblazers, the Houston Rockets, and the Denver Nuggets in rapid succession. None of these teams won more than a single game against the Lakers in their respective series as Lebron James led his team to the NBA Finals for the tenth time in his career, and the ninth time in the past ten years.
The final challenge that the Lakers had to face was not the Bucks or the Raptors. It wasn’t even the Celtics, the Lakers’ perennial finals opponent. The Los Angeles Lakers would be facing Lebron James’ former team, the Miami Heat, led by Jimmy Butler, who was making his first foray into the Finals one year after he lost a heartbreaking game seven in the Eastern Conference Semifinals with the Philadelphia 76ers.
Many predicted that the series would be a back and forth slug-fest, with many different models predicting different outcomes: some models predicted a win in seven games for the Heat, while others predicted a four-game sweep for the Lakers. All of these models forgot to factor in one rather important variable: the complete dominance of Lebron James. While the series was much closer than the 4-2 series victory may suggest, looking back on prognostications of the series, it seems more than foolish to ever suspect that James would allow a Finals loss.
In the games the Lakers won, Lebron was singularly effective and regularly led his team in points, rebounds, and assists. In the games the Lakers won, it was Lebron’s defensive persistence that tired out the entirety of the Heat’s line-up and left them exhausted before the next game. It was the otherworldly effort that won the Lakers their 17th title, tying them for the most in league history with the Boston Celtics and that won James his fourth NBA Finals and his fourth Finals MVP award.
The story of the 2020 NBA Finals may have begun more than two years ago, but it just finished on October 11, 2020. The conclusion, which seems foregone with the benefit of hindsight, adds new data to the most enticing question that fans are asking: is Lebron truly the GOAT, or does his Airness Michael Jordan still have an absolute claim over that status?
This question may never have an answer, but Lebron earning his fourth ring certainly gives more authenticity to his claim of GOAT status. What we can say for certain is that Las Vegas is favoring the Lakers for the 2021 championship and after the team play that we saw in the Finals this year, it looks like it will be hard for any team to mount a credible challenge to them next year or to derail the team’s hopes of number 18.