The Purple and Gold Standard: How the Lakers Captured the 2020 NBA Title
2020 has been one of the most unpredictable and arduous years ever, and the 2019-2020 NBA season is a testament to this. Beginning on October 22nd, 2019 and ending a record 355 days later, all of the tension and drama that comes with the pursuit of an NBA championship was compounded by the COVID-19 crisis and the death of the most notable NBA players ever, the late Kobe Bryant. Despite these massive obstacles, a strong showing of solidarity from the NBA players, management, and ownership allowed the NBA to resume its season in the Disney campus bubble and finish out the season with no positive COVID tests through three months and over 100 games of competitive and high-intensity basketball. Out of the 22 teams that entered the bubble, the Los Angeles Lakers emerged as the champions.
Despite the presence of two superstar players in LeBron James and Anthony Davis, the Lakers were not an early championship favorite according to the NBA media and team executives. In addition to these relatively low expectations, there was also additional pressure from the organization itself to bounce back from a very disappointing 2018-2019 campaign where the Lakers missed the playoffs completely. This time around, a perfect storm of great trades and signings, a new offensive and defensive philosophy, and excellent playoff execution allowed the Lakers to recapture the crown in 2020.
The first key to the Lakers championship was their aggressive signings and transactions from the off season. The most notable of those transactions was the blockbuster trade for superstar forward Anthony Davis, who came at a historically high price. In order to trade for Davis, the Lakers parted with the 2019-2020 Most Improved Player SF Brandon Ingram, PG Lonzo Ball, SG Josh Hart, and 3 draft picks. Many media members were convinced that this trade’s price was too high, but in hindsight, this trade yields a significant advantage to the Lakers. Anthony Davis was voted to both the All-NBA 1st Team and All-NBA Defensive 1st team this year, and put up an absurd 27.3 points, 9.7 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 1.4 blocks per game through 21 playoff games. Combine that with the 27.6 points, 10.8 rebounds, and 8.8 assists that LeBron James averaged during the postseason, and it’s easy to see that Anthony was worth more than his weight in gold come winning time. The Lakers also used free agency well, signing veterans like G Avery Bradley, C Dwight Howard, and F Markieff Morris which added experience and physicality to an already talented team.
The second key to the Lakers championship was their coaching scheme, which was spearheaded by head coach Frank Vogel and executed primarily by superstar SF LeBron James. During the regular season, the Lakers shot just 34.9 percent from long range, which ranked 21st out of 30 teams in three point shooting. This mediocre shooting prompted them to lean towards an older school “inside-out” offensive approach throughout the playoffs. By using the physical size and depth of their forwards and centers, the Lakers led all playoff teams in scoring points in the paint (47.6 per game), and consistently drove to the lane to apply pressure on the defense. This inside pressure actually led to more wide-open looks for the Lakers, which resulted in a slight improvement in the Lakers three point percentage to 35.4 percent during the playoffs. Defensively, the Lakers deployed a rotating man-to-man defensive scheme that was a main pillar of their championship run. This scheme allowed the Lakers to put their best defenders on their opponents best scorers, and additionally enabled them to neutralize 3 point shooting teams by jumping passing lanes or trapping shot creators to prevent them from getting a rhythm. Vogel is known as an elite defensive coach from his head coaching stint on the Indiana Pacers, and his tactical skills paired alongside one of the greatest basketball minds ever in LeBron James gave the Lakers a strong strategic advantage that propelled them to a championship.
The third, and most important component of the Lakers championship run was their execution and versatility in adjusting to the play style of their opponents. When they faced the Portland Trailblazers in the first round, the Lakers rotated in more forwards and centers to win the rebounding battle and prevent Portland’s guards from scoring in the paint, which completely took their offense out of rhythm. Against the Rockets, they played more guard-heavy lineups and used the natural size and strength of James and Davis to impose their will on both ends and neutralize Houston’s “micro-ball” scheme. Against Denver and Miami, the Lakers did a great job of adjusting to the complex offenses that both teams use and wore them down over time with their aggressive paint scoring. James and Davis went above and beyond as superstars, but they also got key contributions from their role players with timely shotmaking and defense from players like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Dwight Howard, and Rajon Rondo. The Lakers’ ability to change their rotations and play style is a combination of good coaching, personnel, and dissecting their opponent’s tendencies through watching film. The Lakers completed all three of these objectives, and the result is the 17th title for their franchise and their rightful place in NBA History as a championship team.
Statistics from stats.nba.com
Picture credit: Douglas P. Delfice (via NBA.com/gallery)