The 2020-21 NBA season is almost upon us, but Hot Take SZN is here, and at the end of another eventful offseason we will see how close to the sun we can fly and still stand the swelter of these viewpoints.
LeBron James believes he has been “part of two teams that have won the two hardest championships in NBA history,” lumping this year’s victory with the Los Angeles Lakers inside the Orlando bubble into the same category as his Cleveland Cavaliers’ 3-1 comeback against a 73-win Golden State Warriors team.
Granted, the bubble took its toll on everyone, both mentally and physically, but basketball-wise, this fourth ring was James’ breeziest yet. The 35-year-old got a four-month break from the season to recharge before riding the eight-game seeding schedule on auto pilot to the No. 1 overall seed. The Lakers were never tested in any of their four playoff rounds, trouncing the exhausted and injury-depleted Portland Trail Blazers, rolling the imploding Houston Rockets, avoiding the rival L.A. Clippers in the Western Conference finals and beating a fifth-seeded Miami Heat team that lost two of its three best players in Game 1 of the NBA Finals.
The Lakers boasted the two best players in the bubble and avoided anyone who might have challenged them for that moniker. Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry played a total of five games last season. Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Milwaukee Bucks lost their rhythm. Damian Lillard rode his body into the ground. Russell Westbrook undercut James Harden’s Rockets. And Kawhi Leonard’s Clippers crumbled. Credit LeBron and his veteran Lakers for avoiding the momentum, chemistry and injury issues exacerbated by the bubble.
The Lakers may have beaten all comers anyhow. Their mental toughness was unrivaled in a season rocked by the coronavirus pandemic, but they enter this campaign with a claim James has not been able to make since he played for the Heat: His roster is clearly the league’s most talented, bolstered by an offseason that better equipped it to beat any challenger at its best. So, yes, the Lakers will repeat as NBA champions.
All the Lakers needed last season were two competent role players alongside James and Davis to coast to the title without ever sniffing a Game 7. Rajon Rondo’s career resurgence and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s career postseason were enough to mask the inconsistencies of Danny Green, Kyle Kuzma, Markieff Morris, Alex Caruso and Dwight Howard — easily the worst supporting cast for which Green has been a headliner.
According to Cleaning the Glass, the Lakers outscored opponents by 15.9 points per 100 possessions in non-garbage playoff minutes when James and Davis were on the floor, regardless of who played with them. That is absurd, all the more so when you consider JaVale McGee was in their most commonly used lineup.
Before the shine wore off the franchise’s latest Larry O’Brien Trophy, Lakers vice president of basketball operations Rob Pelinka revamped the roster around his two superstars. He dealt for Dennis Schroder before signing Montrezl Harrell, Marc Gasol and Wesley Matthews. Schroder and Harrell alone would have been a coup. After all, they are respectively the winner and runner-up for the Sixth Man of the Year award.
With Gasol and Matthews, they represent a significant collective upgrade over Rondo, Green and the big man tandem of Howard and McGee. Half a championship roster was swapped out for a better model.
Both Caldwell-Pope and Morris re-signed. Kuzma is entering the final year of his rookie contract, but just agreed to a three-year extension. Many of those who played significant minutes on the Lakers’ title run, including Caruso, will be pushed further down the depth chart, where they belong. Let us be honest: Nobody but James and Davis could have led last season’s role players to a title, and they made it look easy. What might they do with a proper rotation?
They will win another championship, even if the road is harder. And it may not be.
It remains to be seen whether the Clippers can reach their potential, even if Serge Ibaka may have been an upgrade over the outgoing Harrell. The Rockets are a mess. Warriors star Klay Thompson suffered another season-ending injury. The Denver Nuggets lost Jerami Grant from their starting lineup. The Lakers are in a tier of their own out West, and their potential challengers in the other conference are full of question marks.
Pelinka’s offseason was so successful that it swayed James and Davis to sign long-term contract extensions in L.A. The only question left for them will be whether James can get to six rings, because Father Time is the only opponent standing between him and Michael Jordan now. But that is a hot take for another year.
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