Basketball: From chumps to champs - the Lakers' long road back to the top of the NBA

The Los Angeles Lakers won the final game against the Miami Heat 106-93.
The Los Angeles Lakers won the final game against the Miami Heat 106-93.PHOTO: AFP

ORLANDO (REUTERS, AFP) - Four years after hitting rock bottom, the Los Angeles Lakers are back on top of the National Basketball Association.

With a 106-93 victory over the Miami Heat in Game 6 of the NBA Finals on Sunday (Oct 11), the Lakers took a 4-2 series victory and clinched a record-equalling 17th NBA championship.

The triumph marked the final stop on what has been a long and winding road to recovery following a decade of precipitous decline for one of the most iconic franchises in the NBA.

The Lakers had failed to reach the play-offs in six consecutive seasons before this year, and had not reached the NBA Finals since 2010, when a side led by the late Kobe Bryant claimed a 16th championship.

Those six years in the play-off wilderness also included three of the worst seasons in Lakers history, with the nadir coming in 2015-2016, when the team managed just 17 wins against 65 defeats.

The Lakers were also on the wrong end of some humiliating losses during that period, suffering the three heaviest defeats in franchise history between 2014 and 2017.

"The Lakers are not contending - they are embarrassing," was the withering verdict of the Los Angeles Times in the wake of a 122-73 slaughter by the Dallas Mavericks in January 2017, the team's worst-ever loss.

Yet a month after that 49-point debacle, the Lakers set in motion the rehabilitation that ultimately led to Sunday's 17th championship in Orlando.

On Feb 21, 2017, general manager Mitch Kupchak was fired while Lakers legend Magic Johnson was named as president of basketball operations.

ROSTER REBUILDING

Team governor Jeanie Buss announced that her brother, Jim Buss, had been jettisoned as executive vice-president of basketball operations, the final act of a simmering family feud that exploded into public view.

A few weeks later, in early March, Rob Pelinka - Bryant's agent - was hired as general manager.

"We are going to deliver on Jeanie's challenge to us all to make the Lakers the greatest sports franchise in the world," Pelinka declared at his introductory press conference. "That will happen."

Rebuilding the roster became the immediate priority.

Although coach Luke Walton's team had shown signs of improvement in the 2016-2017 campaign, recording 26 wins against 55 losses, Pelinka noted that the squad was in no position to challenge for titles.

"We have some strong, really young talent on this team, but we have to get better talent for Luke to coach," Pelinka said.

A sweeping overhaul of the team's playing staff followed.

The 2017-2018 period marked the arrival of several players who would eventually play key roles in the 2020 renaissance, including Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Alex Caruso and Kyle Kuzma.

KING JAMES ARRIVES

Yet the ultimate prize was snaffled in 2018, when the Lakers landed LeBron James on a four-year US$154 million (S$ million) contract.

While that blockbuster signing was a clear statement of intent by the Lakers' front office, James himself was careful to damp down expectations of overnight success.

"We're a new ball club trying to get better," he cautioned.

His words would turn out to be well-chosen. A difficult debut season veered off script when he suffered an injury that effectively torpedoed the team's hopes of reaching the playoffs.

'BACKSTABBING' CLAIM

Trouble was also brewing behind the scenes. Johnson and Pelinka had botched a pre-emptive move for Anthony Davis, a pursuit abandoned in February 2019 but only after the locker room had been badly destabilised.

In April, the sense of disarray deepened when Johnson tearfully resigned, later accusing Pelinka of "backstabbing" him during an internal power struggle - an accusation Pelinka would later deny.

Three days after Johnson's departure, Pelinka fired head coach Walton, replacing him with Frank Vogel.

In June, the Lakers finally landed Davis in a trade with New Orleans, giving James the elite-level partner he had craved.

The partnership clicked immediately, with the Lakers rapidly rising to the top of the Western Conference rankings in a season disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.

The chemistry between James and Davis has been the cornerstone of the Lakers' championship season, developing a double act that has none of the tension that often scuppers NBA partnerships such as that between Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal over a decade ago.

"I'm not jealous of him. He's not jealous of me," Davis said. "I think it shows on the court."

James, meanwhile, is now celebrating a fourth career NBA championship after Sunday's triumph.

"There's going to be good times and bad times," the 35-year-old had remarked at his Lakers unveiling in 2018.

On Sunday, after a decade in the doldrums, the good times were finally back.

ROAD TO GLORY

The Lakers' path through four best-of-seven play-off rounds en route to capturing the NBA championship on Sunday:

First round: Beat Portland Trail Blazers 4-1

Second round: Beat Houston Rockets 4-1

Western Conference Finals: Beat Denver Nuggets 4-1

NBA Finals: Beat Miami Heat 4-2

THE 10 NBA FINALS WINNERS

2020: Los Angeles Lakers

2019: Toronto Raptors

2018: Golden State Warriors

2017: Golden State Warriors

2016: Cleveland Cavaliers

2015: Golden State Warriors

2014: San Antonio Spurs

2013: Miami Heat

2012: Miami Heat

2011: Dallas Mavericks