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From no direction to 17th NBA championship, the Los Angeles Lakers are back

Jeff Zillgitt
USA TODAY

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The lowest point for the Los Angeles Lakers in the past decade is difficult to discern.

The 21-win season in 2014-15 followed by the 17-win season in 2015-16? The five coaches in eight seasons following Phil Jackson’s departure?

The attempted palace coup when Jeanie Buss’ brothers, Johnny and Jim, filed a lawsuit to gain control of the franchise, culminating with Jeanie’s successful attempt to maintain control?

The six consecutive seasons without making the playoffs, the first time the franchise went more than two seasons without a playoff appearance in 72 seasons?

The front-office upheaval in which Jeanie fired her brother, Jim, and longtime general manager Mitch Kupchak?

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The brief foray for Magic Johnson back into the front office that ended with his abrupt resignation before a game in 2019 — that came as a surprise to all Lakers — with Johnson no longer wanting to work alongside general manager Rob Pelinka?

Trading for Davis, filling the gaps

The Lakers struggled in the post-2010 championship era as Kobe Bryant’s career concluded and following longtime owner Jerry Buss’ death in 2013. Big-name acquisitions didn’t work out, and high-profile free agents, such as LaMarcus Aldridge and Kevin Durant, shunned the Lakers.

The franchise struggled and was painted as a mom-and-pop operation — lost in a world of private-equity billionaires.

The Los Angeles Lakers lost their way and had no direction post-Jackson and following Buss’ death. They were a mess.

"This is unchartered territory I am not prepared for," Jeanie Buss told the Daily News of Los Angeles in 2015. "I hear the fans and hear their frustration. I'm hoping with every game, it's going to get better. I'm as impatient as any other Lakers fan."

That patience was tested, and it didn't get better until LeBron James decided to sign with the Lakers in 2018 and Los Angeles acquired Anthony Davis in 2019.

LeBron James and Anthony Davis are champions in their first season together with the Lakers.

A decade of frustration vanished on Sunday as the Lakers won the NBA championship with a 106-93 victory over the Miami Heat in Game 6. It is their first title since 2010 and the franchise’s 17th overall, tying them with the Boston Celtics for most in league history.

"Lakers Nation, when it's safe, I look forward to celebrating with you," Jeanie Buss said Sunday. "Until then, I will bring back the trophy to Los Angeles where it belongs."

The road from there to here was filled with potholes, slippery slopes, dangerous curves and strenuous uphill climbs — even after James joined the Lakers on July 1, 2018.

"What I have learned in life is the hard times or the trials is when you grow, and you turn to your faith, you turn to your family, your loved ones, and more than anything else, I think the lesson that all of us on the inside know is you've got to just be about the work," Pelinka said. "You can't really get caught up in the noise."

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James missed 27 games last season, mostly because of a groin injury, and the Lakers didn’t make the playoffs. They were a young team with Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and Kyle Kuzma.

"I don't like the way season ended for us last year, especially for myself with the injury, the things I went through last year personally, then with our ballclub," James said.

With Johnson no longer in the front office, Pelinka had full autonomy and went to work. He replaced Luke Walton with Frank Vogel,and even that wasn’t seamless.The Lakers interviewed others before Vogel, who was not their first choice even though he had success leading the Indiana Pacers to the Eastern Conference finals twice and losing to James' Heat in 2013 and 2014.

While the Lakers tried and failed to acquire Davis from New Orleans at the 2019 trade deadline, Pelinka put together a package for new Pelicans vice president of basketball operations David Griffin. Los Angeles traded Ball, Ingram and Hart to the Pelicans for Davis, who is represented by James’ agent, Rich Paul of Klutch Sports Group.

Kawhi Leonard chose the crosstown Clippers instead of the Lakers, but Pelinka filled out the roster with complementary players: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Danny Green, Avery Bradley, Rajon Rondo and Dwight Howard in the offseason and added Markieff Morris in March.

"Rob and Kurt and Linda (Rambis) and Jeanie and everybody upstairs did a helluva job this summer. From acquiring AD to acquiring everyone that is a part of this team to bringing back the guys that were free agents last year and bringing them back to the roster, they did a hell of a job," James said.

Said Pelinka: "The chance to build a team around one of the greatest players and leaders to ever play doesn't come along that often. So when he committed to us, it was a mutual trust. He showed trust in Jeanie and our front office to build a championship team, and once he put that trust in us, we had to deliver. There was no other option."

From day one, Vogel preached defense and he got buy-in. The Lakers had the third-best defense during the regular season, and in the playoffs, they made the necessary stops. Los Angeles had great length and size, allowing them to matchup against small and big lineups.

"No. 1 thing for us with our size was to try to create a defense that didn't allow the modern NBA offense to invert us too much," Vogel said, "and I really like how the plan has taken form, but also developed throughout the course of the year where obviously in this league, there's a lot of switching required."

The Lakers, who opened the season 24-3, faced adversity right from the start. On their preseason trip to China, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s tweet "Free Hong Kong" ensnared the Lakers in an international geopolitical tumult. The Lakers were confined to their hotel and bonded over team dinners and playing cards.

From that moment until the end of the season, Vogel raved about how locked in and close players were.

"Your team always grows throughout the course of a season, and it especially grows through adversity and that was our first taste of dealing with adversity in a very unique situation in a foreign country," Vogel said. "It was a difficult circumstance for us. So I think that was just the beginning of us really building what our greatest strength is, our chemistry and togetherness."

Honoring Kobe's legacy

By late January, the Lakers were 36-10, atop the West. Then the unthinkable happened. On Jan. 25, James passed Kobe Bryant for No. 3 on the all-time scoring in Philadelphia, Bryant’s hometown. The following day news broke that a helicopter had crashed in Calabasas, California, killing all those on board.

Bryant died in the crash, along with his daughter Gianna and seven others, leaving the Lakers, the city of Los Angeles and the NBA to mourn the loss of one of their brightest stars.

While Bryant wasn’t a rallying cry to win a championship — the Lakers wanted to win the title before Bryant’s death — his spirit wasn’t far from the team. The Lakers broke their huddle "1-2-3 Mamba." They wore his special edition Mamba uniform multiple times, and after Davis hit a winning 3-pointer at the buzzer against Denver, he yelled, “Kobe.”

"Every time you put on purple and gold, you think about his legacy," James said. "You think about him and about what he meant to this franchise for 20-plus years, and what he stood for both on the floor and off the floor. What he demanded out of his teammates and what he demanded out of himself."

A month after the tragedy, a celebration for Kobe and Gianna’s lives was held at Staples Center and more than two weeks after that, the NBA suspended the season when Utah’s Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19.

The season was in jeopardy and not for the only time. The racial justice movement played just as significant a role in the Orlando bubble as the games did. When a white police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin, shot Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, in the back Aug. 23, players came close to calling off the season during the first round of the playoffs. After the Milwaukee Bucks decided not to take the court against the Orlando Magic, the league postponedtwo-plus days of playoff games in support of the players.

Four weeks later, James expressed his pain and anger after a grand jury found none of the three Louisville police officers criminally liable for the death of Breonna Taylor.

"You just look at the history of America and the disrespect that Black women have gotten for the last 400 years," James said. "You can't turn a blind eye to that. When I look at my household and see my daughter, who is 5 on her way to 6, my wife and my mom, rest in peace my grandmother, so many Black women have done so many things for me. Seeing the sacrifices they made, especially my mom when I was growing up. They were disrespected along the way, and it's still like that today.

"In Breonna Taylor's case, it's just shown once again that the walls of the neighbor is more important than her life."

Still, James managed to focus on basketball.

"It's probably been the most challenging thing I've ever done as far as a professional, as far as committing to something and actually making it through," James said. "But I knew when I was coming what we were coming here for. I would be lying if I sat up here and knew that everything inside the bubble, the toll that it would take on your mind and your body and everything else, because it's been extremely tough.

"But I'm here for one reason and one reason only, and that's to compete for a championship. That was my mindset once I entered the bubble."

James, the Finals MVP, and Davis were fantastic in the playoffs and just too much for a team to handle in a seven-game series. The pairing worked.

"You guys ask me about my relationship with AD, the first thing I think about is the respect, the no ego, the challenging each other," James said. "We want each other to be better than actually ourselves. I want AD to be better than me. AD want me to be better than him. Every single night, every single day. And we challenge ourselves. I think that's a part of it."

The Lakers had answers for every team — Portland, Houston, Denver and then Miami. The criticism of Jeanie Buss dissipated.

"My relationship with Jeanie I will say is incredible," James said. "I think she's an unbelievable owner. I think she's a powerful woman. I think what she believes in is an extension of her father, and continuing to build this legacy of this great franchise. I'm just happy to be a part of it."

The Lakers won a title in the most unusual and difficult of circumstances in a bubble amid a COVID-19 pandemic.

"You wouldn't be human if you didn't have ups and downs in the bubble," said James who left the championship party shortly after 3 a.m. ET. "At times I was questioning myself. Should I be here? Is this worth sacrificing my family? So many things. I've never been without my family this long. ... I heard some rumblings from people that are not in the bubble, 'Oh, you don't have to travel.' Whatever. People just doubting what goes on in here. This is right up there with one of the greatest accomplishments I've had."

Follow Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt.