Reloaded Lakers look to repeat as champs
The championship rings that the Lakers will receive on opening night Tuesday are a token of what the team accomplished last season during an NBA season unlike any other.
Though the ceremony will be a reminder about the Lakers’ past, there’s symbolism in them receiving their rings on the season’s first night. It’s a reminder to the other 29 teams in the league whom they’re fighting in the season to come.
The burden can be heavy for the champion. Only a dozen teams have been able to successfully defend the crown since the 1968-69 season, when the Boston Celtics’ dynasty was temporarily derailed.
If the Lakers fail in their bid to be team No. 13, it won’t be because the Lakers tire from being chased by the rest of the league.
“The target on the back, I think that comes with the territory,” guard Alex Caruso said. “If you play with LeBron James, play for the Los Angeles Lakers, you automatically have a target on your back. People are just chasing greatness. LeBron’s been doing this for so many years; people have been trying to knock him down off his throne. Now we’re a part of the team that won the championship so everyone is coming for us. But I think we’re ready for it.
“We’re a competitive group, as everyone saw in the playoffs and last year. I think there’s still a hunger about this team to try and win again.”
Kawhi Leonard of the Clippers controls the ball in front of Lakers
For the Lakers, it starts with James, who set the tone last season with his sublime playmaking and consistent defensive intensity. Even with the Lakers looking to be careful with James as he enters his 18th season coming off of a condensed two-month offseason, coach Frank Vogel said he expects James to again be a defensive presence.
“I still expect to see that contribution from LeBron. I don’t think he’d have it any other way,” Vogel said. “Everything I’ve seen from him in my experience coaching the L.A. Lakers is that his IQ is second to none with defensive coverages and rotations and what has to happen to execute at a high level on that side of the ball.
“And his effort piece has been along the same lines. There is a high care factor there and I would expect that to be the same this year.”
Then there’s Anthony Davis, fresh off a huge free-agent deal that locks him to the Lakers throughout his prime. He’s said that a most valuable player award is a goal, and the stage seems set for him to take on a bigger role.
“He’s ready for that moment,” James said. “His confidence is out the roof and so it’s up to us to help his confidence continue to soar and protect him and help him continue to tap into his prime that he’s grown into.”
Caruso said the Lakers want Davis to expand his perimeter game after he made 72 three-pointers in the regular season and hit 38.3 percent from deep in the playoffs.
“I think it’s just about us finding opportunities to let him. Coach wants him to shoot more,” Caruso said. “I think coach would be ecstatic if he took seven threes. Him mixing it up, going inside and outside, it puts a lot of pressure on defenses.”
It’s wild to think that there’s still more for Davis to do, but there’s still more that Davis can do.
“Obviously he played at a pretty damn high level last year. But he’s a guy that he’s never satisfied,” Vogel said. “He wants to continue to get better, continues to work on getting better and growing his game. And I think a second year in a system with a core in what we established last year should benefit him.”
The cast around James and Davis is different - there’s not the same size or rim protection as a year ago, but the team is younger and more skilled.
The Lakers traded for Dennis Schroder, giving the team a new point guard and a capable shot-creator. They signed undersized center Montrezl Harrell in free agency, adding the tenacious sixth nan of the year while weakening the Clippers. Harrell should give the Lakers’ bench some scoring punch.
The team added one of the smartest big men in the league in Marc Gasol and a well-regarded veteran wing in Wesley Matthews. Both complement the team’s defensive grit.
“We added some great pieces,” Davis said.
The emergence of Talen Horton-Tucker feels like another addition, with the second-year wing making a strong push for playing time throughout the preseason.
The challenge for Vogel and the Lakers will be to recapture the things that made last season’s team so special while making the most use out of the new skills they added.
Last season, the Lakers were able to manage their schedule by relying on in-depth film sessions to substitute for on-court work. They fought through all types of adversity thanks to cohesion and chemistry. And on a nightly basis, they often just played harder than whoever was on the other side of the court.
Even as the champions, they want to make sure that doesn’t fade.
“I mean, you’re going to have a target on your back when you’re champions and we got to continue to play harder than other teams,” Davis said. “You can’t control misses and makes and things like that, but you can control playing harder than the other team. And if we continue to fight and be the hardest-playing team, then we give ourselves a chance every night.”
The Lakers hope those nights stretch all the way to the end, where once again they can be the final team on the court.