LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — On the night when the NBA’s most glamorous franchise won the league’s least glamorous championship, the sport’s biggest star did the grunt work. LeBron James had given self-care his best shot in the bubble. He had one of the two big suites on the Lakers’ floor at the Gran Destino, two doors down from Anthony Davis. He had a wine fridge in there and a hyperbaric sleep chamber for his daily naps. But he did all of it so he would be ready for a night like this.
He guarded Heat star Jimmy Butler for long stretches of Game 6. He took hits to his midsection and his face; he tried to draw a charge, failed, ran down the court, got the ball after a missed shot, turned around, thought he got fouled, didn’t get the call and kept going. He scored 28 points, had eight assists, and grabbed 14 rebounds, including one where he simply rose above muscular Heat power forward Bam Adebayo and ripped the ball away. During his rare moments of rest, he sat on a gray Fit by Jake stability ball on the end of the Lakers bench, watching intently. He dove after a basketball with under 6 minutes left and a 23-point lead. It was one of his easiest game nights in weeks.
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James knew this was his 95th day in the bubble—“I had a little calendar I was checking off,” he said with a laugh afterward—and he finished it with his fourth title, for his third franchise. He also won his fourth Finals MVP award. He does this so routinely that when he returned to the Lakers’ locker room Sunday, he stopped before anybody could spray champagne on him and said, “Where’s the goggles?”
The Clippers, not the Lakers, were the preseason favorite for oddsmakers. The numbers geeks at FiveThirtyEight gave the Lakers a 13% chance of winning the title. Sports Illustrated had the Lakers as the fifth-best team in the league, with an anonymous scout saying, “They’ll be in the top half of the West, but I can see them winning a championship or taking an early playoff exit.” The Lakers were the fourth choice of an ESPN panel of experts.
They made a lot of choices that were fair to question at the time. The Lakers hired agent Rob Pelinka, with no executive experience, to be their general manager. James chose to join a nonplayoff team at age 33. Pelinka traded two former No. 2 draft picks (Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram), the No. 4 pick in 2019, and two future first-round picks for Pelicans star Anthony Davis when Davis was just one year from free agency. The last time the Lakers acquired a star center a year from free agency, Dwight Howard in 2012, proved disastrous. As if to throw a middle finger at history, Pelinka followed the Davis trade by signing the aging Howard in free agency.
Pelinka settled on Frank Vogel to coach after failing to reach an agreement with Tyronn Lue, who won a title with James in Cleveland. The Lakers hired Hall of Famer and former head coach Jason Kidd to be Vogel’s lead assistant, sparking immediate speculation that Kidd would angle for Vogel’s job.
This was a season that nobody could have anticipated. The Lakers won, in part, because the choices they made for a happier world turned out to be right for this one.
In December 2019, Lakers owner Jeanie Buss’s mother, JoAnn, died. As she grieved, Jeanie received a voicemail that was so thoughtful, she still has it on her phone. It came from Kobe Bryant.
Two weeks later, Buss ran into Kobe and his daughter Gigi at a Lakers-Mavericks game (Gigi loved watching Dallas star Luka Dončić) and Jeanie told him how much his message meant to her. Three days after that, longtime NBA commissioner David Stern died after a brain hemorrhage. Jeanie considered Stern “a very influential person in my life,” and she flew to New York in mid-January for his funeral service, at the end of a miserable few weeks, with no idea how much misery awaited.
On Jan. 26, the day after James passed Bryant on the all-time scoring list in Bryant’s hometown of Philadelphia, the Lakers were doing something they rarely do: sleeping on the team plane. Usually, somebody is playing music or cards or both. When they awoke, Kobe and Gigi Bryant were dead.
The tragedy was the Bryant family’s primarily, but it was not theirs alone. Pelinka was Bryant’s former agent and best friend. Almost everybody in the organization, from security guards to media-relations personnel, had a personal relationship with Kobe, except for some of the players—but he had an outsize influence on them. Jeanie worried the players were so devastated and distracted that one would get in a car accident on the way to the arena. She asked the league to postpone the Lakers’ next game.
Public mourning and private pain do not always mix, and the Lakers had to find ways to honor the Bryants without looking exploitative in any way. They wore Kobe-designed Mamba jerseys for every Game 2 after the first round, because 2 was Gigi’s number. The salutes were all genuine, and people knew they were genuine, because of how close Bryant was to Pelinka. Pelinka says, “I still hear his voice in most of the decisions I make.” Sometimes he speaks of Bryant in the present tense: “He is not a micromanager, or a ‘Let me tell you what you should do’ friend at all. He's more of, ‘I'm going to empower you to be great.’”
Pelinka still talks to Vanessa all the time. If something bothered her, he would be one of the first to know. He says of the team’s various tributes: “They happen organically and kind of at a spiritual level. I don't think you can really architect anything around a tragedy like that. There's no master plan, or ‘Let's write thoughts down on a piece of paper and go with that.’ That's not what this is about.”
Buss says, ““I don’t know if we’ve done things the right way. We have only done things that felt right in our heart.”
While Kobe’s family and friends coped with the loss of a loved one and the public mourned the death of an icon, James dealt with a third kind of grief. LeBron and Kobe were longtime rivals, for both championships and the public’s affection, and they were far from close when they were both in the league. The Mamba Mentality does not call for hugging the enemy. But in recent years, the relationship improved. After Bryant played in Cleveland for the last time, he had signed his jersey and gave it to James’s agent, Rich Paul. Sometimes Bryant would sit next to Paul at Lakers games.
James started to see Bryant as one of the few people in the world who could understand what it was like to be him. In sports, heated personal rivalries don’t stay heated forever. Bryant had mended his relationship with Shaquille O’Neal, and James had returned to Cleveland four years after owner Dan Gilbert’s infamous letter trashing him. Kobe was gone before a true friendship with James could fully form.
“It was trending that way, for sure,” Paul says. “And that's what sucked about it. [LeBron] was just distraught. … It took a while to come out of that funk. A long time. Honestly, I don't even know if he's still out of it. I don’t know for sure.”
James honored Bryant with a tattoo and a promise: He would lead the franchise, the way Bryant did. But he barely had time to do it. Sixteen days after a service for the Bryants at Staples Center, the NBA suspended its season because of the pandemic.
Pelinka was in the Lakers’ practice facility in El Segundo, Calif., when he heard the news. He immediately told his executive assistant, Sam Usher, “I don't think there's gonna be a path to finish the season.”
The NBA paved a path, of course, but two Lakers never got on it. Defensive stopper Avery Bradley, who had started 44 of the 49 games he played, opted out of the restart to be with his family. Assistant coach Lionel Hollins stayed home because he was deemed high-risk. Hollins’s departure left Vogel with one former NBA head coach on his bench: Jason Kidd.
The Lakers arrived in Orlando with a 49–14 record, best in the West, driven by the most top-heavy roster of any contender. James and Davis each made first-team All-NBA, but the rest of the team was mostly composed of role players or stars past their prime. For this to work, the pieces had to fit.
Davis had arrived in L.A. after firing his agent, hiring James’s agent (Paul), requesting a trade and allowing Paul to say publicly that he would not sign an extension, scaring off potential suitors. It was obvious that he wanted to join James on the Lakers. But the Lakers still had to make the deal.
As a former agent, Pelinka has decades of experience pleasing stars, and he does not shy away from James’s influence on the roster: “It's definitely a collaborative approach, because I mean, he's the basketball savant. When I process decisions, I like to do a lot of listening at the front end. And of course he's a primary voice. But then you’ve got to make the decision and you got to own it.”
Pelinka was sure he wanted to make the deal: “I think that when you have a chance to get the unicorns in the game, you have to go for it. That's why we all do what we do. It's really hard to get to the end and win a championship unless you have unicorns on your team. There was really no hesitation on my part.”
Buss was warier. She gets nervous during practices just because she doesn’t want anybody to get hurt, and she says, “I’m not that cutthroat person that’s all about ‘Win, win, win, me, me, me, whatever it takes, I don’t care who is crushed in the process.’ One of the hardest things for me to do is to trade away a player. I adore Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart and Lonzo Ball.”
Buss’s late father, Jerry, had urged her to learn to play poker, one of his passions, because of what the game would teach her. He said most poker players get too aggressive, trying to create what isn’t there, but “when you do get the cards,” Jeanie says, “you have to go from zero to 100 in a snap of the fingers.” She never got very good at poker. But she knew was a chance to go from zero to 100.
With Davis in the fold, Vogel maximized the team’s strengths: its stars and its defensive versatility. He created substitution patterns so either James or Davis was on the floor almost all the time. He had James play primarily at point guard for the first time in his career, to allow everybody else to play off of him, and allowed James to steer the offense.
And Vogel, like Pelinka, welcomed James’s influence instead of resisting it. When James was hurt, Vogel invited him into coaches’ meetings. Vogel did not try to over-impose his authority. He just coached the team.
The Lakers lost four of their first six games after the restart, as everybody felt their way around. Bubble games were played in small arenas, with only a few spectators, no road games and simpler shooting backgrounds. As one might expect, field goal and free throw percentages were a little higher than before the restart. More telling, though: Teams fouled more often, as defenders often do when they are a step slow. Teams stole and deflected fewer balls, and yet turnovers went up slightly. That tells a story: Players struggled to summon the energy for the game’s grunt work or the concentration for crisp basketball.
The teams that advanced would not just play the best basketball; they would play the best bubble basketball. Three months together in one hotel can make a group of people want to strangle each other, or it can make them grow closer. It is no coincidence that the two teams that grew closest were the last two standing. The Heat has some young players (with more natural energy and fewer people at home to miss) and a culture made for any grind. The Lakers had their own advantages.