How do the 2020 Lakers compare to other recent champions?

LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers, NBA Playoffs

After winning the 2020 NBA title, the Lakers are now measured against their champion predecessors. How do they stack up?

The Los Angeles Lakers are the 2020 NBA Champions. Yet, in the immediate aftermath of their victory, one may wonder about how they compare to other recent squads who also hoisted the Larry O’Brien Trophy at season’s end. Of course, regardless of everything else, there is one thing this team had to overcome that no other has: the four-month suspension of the season due to a global pandemic and having to win a championship while quarantined for three more months, playing in front of no plans and having to forego the homecourt advantage they worked so hard for in the regular season. So while it makes natural sense to try to put their achievement in context, in light of these strange circumstances, any comparison feels almost inherently unmoored from previous years. But with them being the latest champions, it still makes some sense to wonder how they stand in relation to their peers.

For much of the 2010s, champions have boasted a trio of stars, whether it was the Heat’s combo of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh, the Warriors’ initial trio of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond which was then augmented by Kevin Durant, or the Cavs’ grouping of James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love. Other title-winning teams that could not boast quite as bright of star power, such as the 2011 Mavericks and 2019 Raptors, were still phenomenally constructed teams who boasted a top-to-bottom depth that is difficult to replicate. While the Lakers do have LeBron James and Anthony Davis — unquestionably two of the best players in the NBA — it’s hard to feel inspired or intimidated by the rest of the roster. They feel thrown together, a random set of mostly past their prime mercenaries. It’s just difficult to think too much of a team whose third-best player throughout the postseason was often either Kentavious Caldwell-Pope or a 34-year-old Rajon Rondo, at least when compared to their champion contemporaries.

Also, while their playoff run was not exactly easy — no path to a championship ever is — it lacked the iconic moments that immortalize a team’s playoff journey, making it seem even more impressive than it already is. Take the 2011 Mavericks and 2019 Raptors, who were not presumed favorites entering the postseason but eliminated any doubts about whether they deserved to win it all by defeating the defending champions as well as a number of other teams favored to make it further than themselves. The Lakers did not have that opportunity. Not only because they entered the postseason as one of the favorites to win in the Finals, but because the teams expected to be their primary challengers all fell before the Lakers had a chance to dispatch them themselves.

Anyone who watched the Miami Heat take care of the Bucks and Celtics would be unable to argue they did not belong in the Finals or were not a formidable foe. However, in light of their expectations relative to other teams, the Lakers beating them just doesn’t feel as impressive because, well, they were supposed to anyway. It was a lose-lose situation for them; fall to the Heat and they’re massive chokers, defeat them and few are impressed.

It also appeared like the Lakers had some pretty big flaws that would be easily exploited by a talented opponent. Their half-court offense was never great and their bench, while stepping up in the playoffs, was a definite weakness relative to other teams. However, they never ran into a team good enough to make them pay for this. Of course, I guess that just means they must not have been as big of issues as originally thought.

How did this Lakers team compare to LeBron’s previous title-winners?

Judging by SRS — a metric that accounts for point differential and strength of schedule — the Lakers are the tenth best of the last twenty NBA champions, sandwiched between the 2013 Heat and the 2018 Warriors. Yet, even some of the teams ranked lower than them seem more impressive in light of the journeys they took to the title, such as the aforementioned 2011 Mavericks and 2019 Raptors, as well as LeBron’s own 2016 Cavaliers who defeated a 73-9 Warriors team in the Finals. This also does not account for a number of other teams from previous seasons who were, in theory, better than this Lakers team that did not win a title such as the 2014 Clippers, the Rockets and Raptors of 2018, and both the 2013 and 2016 iterations of the Thunder, among others. Even this year, the Bucks and Clippers both fared better in SRS, but of course, neither of them were celebrating Sunday night.

None of this is surprising. Entering the season, there was much talk about how this was the first season in several years without a definitive favorite, the rare campaign where there appeared to be something approaching parity among the contenders. While there were a number of teams that looked primed to make a title run, none seemed overwhelming or potentially dominant. That helped allow the Cinderella runs of the Heat and the Nuggets, which made the postseason very fun but does undercut the Lakers’ achievement, at least in this immediate moment.

In the long run, little of this will matter. In years to come, few will care about this type of minutiae. When looking back at the 2020 season, the Lakers will be the champions and that will be what matters most. The strange circumstances surrounding their title, and the fact that they may not have been as good as the champions who immediately preceded them will be forgotten in light of their ultimate achievement. All quibbling aside, a title is a title and the Lakers had to beat four very good teams a combined sixteen times to win one. It’s no small achievement and what matters is memory. No one really cares that the Shaq and Kobe Lakers three-peated by beating relatively weak Pacers, Sixers, and Nets teams after all. Perhaps in years to come, the pairing of LeBron and Davis will take on more mythic proportions — especially if they manage to repeat next year — making all these concerns irrelevant.

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