Whether or not Phil Jackson decides to return at the end of this week, the Lakers are approaching a time of change. The draft was just completed and the Lakers have selected two players that they hope can make the team and contribute in limited roles next season. The free agency period starts on Thursday (or late Wednesday at midnight) and the Lakers will look to add one or more players to their roster while potentially losing as many as six players from a group of guys that just won its second consecutive championship. Soon after the frenzy of free agency begins, Summer League will take place and then after that there will be a short lull before training camp begins. And before we know it another campaign will get started and the Lakers franchise will be looking to successfully complete a three-peat for the second time in the last decade. So, before the winds of change sweep through this organization and we’re fully engulfed in another season of ups and downs, losses and victories I think we should pay this past season its proper due and take a final look at the year that was.
The One New Face
The big story heading into the 2009-10 season was the one new player that the Lakers picked up: Ron Artest. The story of how the Lakers came to acquire Ron has been told countless times already. There was the meeting in the shower after the 2008 loss to Boston. Then there was the messy negotiation with Trevor Ariza in the attempt to keep the entire championship roster together. And then there was that fateful call to Ron’s agent inquiring about Artest’s potential want to join the team as a role player du jour focusing on defense and a reduced role on offense. Everything came together quickly and the Lakers had themselves a new starting small forward.
But when a player with Artest’s back-story is acquired, there are always questions. Would Ron fit in? Would he be content playing a complimentary role after being a featured player his entire career? Would his penchant to be a ball stopper on offense disrupt his integration into a system that demanded fluidity of ball and player movement? No one knew, but most everyone had a speculative answer that typically tilted towards the glass half empty response. I mean, this was Ron Artest we were talking about.
But what we quickly found out was that Ron was willing to do what was asked of him. He may not have completely changed, but what we witnessed was a hard working player that played every possession on defense like it was his last. And while his integration into the offense was a rocky one all season, he rarely (if ever) went off the reservation with his shot attempts or in his want to contribute within the confines of the scheme. Sure, there were times of forced shots. And yes there were many times where he had to literally be directed to where he should move to or pass the ball. But there was never a lack of trying to fit in from Ron. In fact, throughout his first season Artest almost tried to fit in too much, often passing up open shots and too frequently deferring to Kobe or Fisher or Gasol rather than being assertive with his own offense.
But in the end, Ron found his stride – working relentlessly on defense the entire season and finding redemption in some of the biggest games of his career (and of the Lakers season). His inaugural season will be remembered for his stifling defense on some of the league’s best scorers, a remarkable put back in the Conference Finals, and a post game press conference that could only have occurred after he had one of his best games of the year in a 7th contest to claim the trophy. All in all, the one new face was the one that made a huge difference.
Hampered By Injuries
The other big theme from this season was the injury bug that struck this team. Coming into the year, there were many that thought the Lakers could challenge the Bulls’ single season win record of 72 wins (I wasn’t one of those people, but the thought was a popular one amongst the media). However, in order to win at that clip you need a healthy team. And that is something the Lakers did not have this year.
The list of Lakers’ injuries this past season borders on the comical. Pau’s hamstring strains (on both legs) cost him 17 games. Kobe’s allotment of ailments and injuries included a broken finger on his shooting hand, a badly sprained ankle that was re-aggravated more than once during the year, back spasms, an arthritic knee, and a banged up elbow. All of these conspired to cost Kobe 9 games and render him a fraction of the player he could be in countless others. Andrew Bynum, like Pau, also missed 17 games this season with an injured hip around the all-star break and a strained Achilles tendon at the end of the year. Plus there were the other nicks and bruises including Shannon’s thumb, Ron’s thumb and finger, Odom’s shoulder, and Walton’s back.
Throughout the season the Lakers never seemed to have their full compliment of players healthy and available to play at the same time. But through it all, they persevered. Sure, it cost the Lakers some wins but in the end, these injuries also taught the Lakers that they’d have to endure some hard times on the way to repeating. They’d never have a fully healthy team this year, but the lessons learned in coping with their injuries would play a role in their success during the playoffs. When we saw Kobe fighting through a bad knee early and Bynum dragging his leg around for most of the playoffs, I was reminded that this mentality was spawned through some hard times during the season.
You just read how Kobe gutted out this season while dealing with some pretty tough injuries. I mean, the guy played with a broken/arthritic finger for the majority of the year and found a way to rework his shot and change his release to compensate. And while this season will definitely be remembered for Kobe playing through things that would put other players on the shelf for weeks, the major memories from this year will be of Kobe making game winning shots. Multiple game winning shots. Game winning shots from all angles. Ones of ridiculous difficulty. Against hated rivals. Ones off trademarked shots. Game winners after missing earlier attempts to win. And winners after great play designs. There wasn’t another season that I can remember where a player hit so many shots to win games. Maybe the Lakers shouldn’t have needed Kobe to bail them out so often. I mean, should this team really need a game winner against the Bucks? But, in the end, Kobe delivered in the moments that his team needed him the most and added to the legend of his ability in the clutch. Man, what a season from Mr. Bean.
Late Season (Really, In Season) Struggles
I’ve mentioned it already, but this season could also be defined by severe ups and downs. This team was constructed in a manner – with supreme talent at the top of the roster – to be an all time great. Instead what we saw was inconsistency. Inconsistency in effort and execution. Losing streaks that they hadn’t seen in 3 seasons. The questioning of its leaders’ ability to still get the job done, the mindset of its best players, and whether or not they had the mental fortitude to actually repeat.
Whether we’re talking Fisher, Kobe, Phil, Gasol, Bynum, Farmar, Brown, Artest, or Odom the fans found ways to wonder if this team really had it in them to win. I mean, how many times did we revisit the themes of Fisher’s age and ability, Kobe’s selfishness, Phil’s coaching style, Gasol’s toughness, Bynum’s injury history, etc, etc? Seemingly every other bad performance was pinned on someone new and the level of frustration amongst the fans (and even the players, at times) was palpable.
And the questions only got more pronounced as the regular season came to a close. Kobe was banged up and looking more mortal than ever. Bynum was on the shelf again. The team was losing at a rate that had every fan worried about their playoff prospects and there was a hesitation to even say that the Lakers were the favorites to advance in the Western Conference considering the way that they were playing. If this season’s themes have been laid out in earlier paragraphs, the overall theme of the year (for many) was concern. Did they have enough? I don’t think anyone knew for sure. Yes there were those that had faith, but no one truly knew if this team could pull it out. Only the playoffs would reveal what this team was made of. But honestly, I don’t think any of us would have had it any other way.
The Playoffs & Flipping The Switch
Throughout the regular season I argued against there being a switch the Lakers could flip to turn their game around. And while I still believe that to be true, what this team did have was an ability to re-focus and center themselves on the task at hand. The playoffs proved that through all the adversity, the leadership of this team was strong enough to get everyone on the same page and moving in the same direction together.
Whether facing the youth and poise of the upstart Thunder, the execution and precision of the Jazz, the fast pace and open court artistry of the Suns, or the physical toughness and lock down defensive schemes of the Celtics, the Lakers responded with strong effort and even better execution to beat the varying styles.
The Lakers showed that they were a team to beat all comers in whatever style was needed. Whether relying on their size up front, the masterful Kobe Bryant, or the steadiness and clutch ability of Fisher, the Lakers found a way. It wasn’t always pretty, but it was nonetheless effective. Over the course of 23 playoff games, the Lakers once again showed that they were the cream of the crop and the deserved champions of the NBA. And the fact that championship #16 came against the hated Celtics in a game 7 that was as physically and mentally taxing as it was made only that much sweeter. Through all the ups and downs, the Lakers were able to dig deep one last time and overcome a 13 point third quarter deficit to pull out the win. The fact that I’m still smiling over a week after the journey ended says it all. Simply put, the Lakers ended the season exactly how they started it – as NBA Champions. It never gets old saying that.
While We Look Ahead, Enjoy What’s Happened
There’s no way of knowing what will happen over the next few weeks. At this point, we don’t know if Phil will return and if he doesn’t who his replacement will be. We don’t know what free agents will be retained or what new players will be added on or after July 1st. And we don’t know if the Lakers draft picks will pan out or if a hidden gem (or the return of a former draft pick) will come out of the Lakers Summer League team.
I don’t have any answers about the future. But we will be here to discuss and cover it all as it unfolds. So, for now all I ask – one last time – is too enjoy what we have experienced. Despite the Lakers winning consecutive championships and participating in three straight Finals, these moments are rare. Us fans are lucky to be able to root for this team and this specific group of players should be celebrated for what they achieved. The journey it took to get to this point was a tremendous experience and I enjoyed it as much as possible. Through all the ups and downs the Lakers came out on top and while nothing is sweeter than the final outcome the path to this point was simply amazing. So, before the changes that are sure to come in the next few weeks sweep through this franchise, join me one last time in celebrating this team and this group. It was a special year and I’m glad that all of you were here with me to enjoy it.