Welcome to Hoop Dreams, a season preview unlike any other. The premise is simple: We’ll be providing 30 of these fictional forays because it simply stinks that only one team can win the title each year. The list of contending teams seems to shrink with each succeeding campaign, and we wanted to provide something to those fans who only get to dream of Larry O’Brien during the offseason. Before October, every team can win the NBA title. Don’t believe us? Then keep reading. – Ed
It’s in the early morning hours of Tuesday, June 20, and Kobe Bryant receives a text message from Magic Johnson. “I want you and Vanessa to sit in the car with Cookie and me,” the text message reads. Bryant grumbles, sets his phone down and decides he’s not going to respond. He’s in Newport Beach and needs to be in downtown Los Angeles in three hours. He has breakfast to eat, children to corral and a helicopter to catch. The Lakers are once again NBA champions, and he’s going to be in a parade.
Men and women in suits clog up South Figueroa every morning as they enter the city to conduct whatever business people in suits do in downtown LA. The street, from Vernon to 5th, is bumper to bumper like all of the worst highways in Los Angeles County. It’s a frustration that simultaneously rips the city apart while bringing everyone together — and the Lakers’ season served as a perfect metaphor for the traffic they stopped for a single day of celebration.
The city went into the 2016-17 season with high spirits and low expectations. The Lakers weren’t supposed to be good, but they were going to be better. It’s hard to qualify it better following consecutive seasons of posting the franchise’s worst regular season record. But Byron Scott was gone along with the antiquated hyper-masculine coaching philosophy he brought with him when he took the job. Scott spent a year coaching boys who he wanted to act like men and grown men who he wanted to move like the kids he threw under the bus. There was no happy medium; There was no happy, just bad basketball produced from a bad roster taking queues from a bad coach. But Luke Walton took over the team after Scott was let go, and brought with him a noggin full of learnings from Phil Jackson and Steve Kerr, the latter of whom spent several seasons watching Mike D’Antoni run one of the most efficient offenses in NBA history.
Walton, a coach on the floor when he played, coached with a player’s mentality. While he was able to relate to his young core in ways that Scott never could before the tip off of their first game against Houston, the Lakers would get blown out at home on opening night, allowing James Harden to go off for 45 points and nine assists. Walton, the players and the fans knew defense would be an issue for the team, but the Rockets’ ungodly efficiency on opening night would become a trend over the first month of the season. The team would learn in December that the defense was bad, but not as bad as we made it out to be when the Golden State Warriors inflated their numbers after three meetings over the first 17 Lakers games.
In December, the team would begin turning things around with D’Angelo Russell taking his game up a notch. He’d earn the NBA’s Player of the Month award for the Western Conference averaging 28 points and seven assists per game with three game-winning shots in the final 10 days of the month, letting the league know that it isn’t blood running through his circulatory system. After battling a few nagging injuries, a healthy Luol Deng provided a strong perimeter defender while Tarik Black’s increased minutes provided a rim protector the team could count on.
Moving into January, the Lakers began looking like a team that could play for a 7th or 8th seed in the playoffs and signed retired sharpshooter Ray Allen to come in and provide a bit of extra veteran leadership for the second half of the season. Allen, who was still great at stretching the floor, was most useful as a mentor for Anthony Brown, who was getting spot minutes but couldn’t find a regular spot in the rotation because of his inconsistent three-point shooting. After being taken under Allen’s wing, Brown developed a practice and pre-game routine that turned his season around, bumping him up to 20 minutes per night when he shot 41 percent from three in March and early April as the team made their playoff push.
The Lakers would go on to win eight of their final 10 games, including two close, huge wins over the Clippers and Spurs in San Antonio, foreshadowing what was to come during the spring. The eighth win would push the Lakers into the seventh seed in the Western Conference, allowing them to miss the Warriors in the first round. But more importantly, rookie Brandon Ingram finally started to find his groove offensively, averaging 16 points per game off the bench while shooting 58 percent from the field and 39 percent from three heading into the postseason.
With both Brown and Ingram finding their groove, they would become a part of a bench led by Jordan Clarkson that would lift the Lakers to a first-round upset over the Clippers in six games. In the next round, the Lakers would overcome a 2-0 series hole to come back to beat the Spurs in 7 off the strength of Russell giving Tony Parker all he could handle over the final five games. Russell would score 30+ twice while averaging 6.5 assists per game in the Conference semifinal round. Luol Deng gave Kawhi Leonard enough problems to keep him from taking over games on the offensive end, while both Pau Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge struggled corralling rebounds against a younger, more spry Lakers front court.
In a Western Conference Finals that literally no one expected, the Lakers would take on a Russell Westbrook-led Oklahoma City Thunder four-seed that just dismantled an overconfident-yet-hobbled Golden State Warriors team. While Westbrook would average a near triple-double during the series, the Thunder would fail to close out the Lakers in consecutive games because of poorly-timed turnovers down the stretch. In Game 3, a Jordan Clarkson steal led to a Brandon Ingram 3-pointer to give the Lakers a 1-point lead with seven seconds left to play. In Game 4, Steven Adams would grab an offensive rebound after a missed Victor Oladipo free throw, but lose the ball out of bounds with three seconds left to play. Russell would tie the game after knocking down a deep, 28-foot prayer and Julius Randle would score eight in the overtime period to seal the game for the Lakers — who would win the series two games later.
The NBA may or may not be rigged, but it became a topic of conversation on the Twitter before Game 1 of the NBA Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics. The Lakers found themselves in the Finals partly because they avoided the Golden State Warriors, the Celtics were in the Finals because they went through the Cleveland Cavaliers. Al Horford and Isaiah Thomas were too much for the Cavs as they went on the road in Game 7 and held LeBron James to 22 points on 19 shots. But they would do no such thing against the Lakers.
In five games, the Lakers would outscore the Celtics by 33 points with Randle winning Finals MVP after averaging 23 points and 10 dime per game over the length of series, including a huge 33 and 14 in Game 3 with the series tied 1-1. Russell and Deng would play key roles in Game 1 and Game 4, respectively while Ingram exploded for 29 in the series-clinching Game 5. Jordan Clarkson didn’t have a great series, but made the series-defining play after dunking on Marcus Smart late in the third quarter of Game 3, giving the Lakers the momentum going into the fourth that would propel them to not only a win on the night, but a 17th championship for the franchise.
Luke Walton cried as he walked off the floor, but was all smiles when he gave his speech to tens of thousands of men and women who traded in their suits for forum blue and gold and, just for one day, were cool with South Figueroa being shut down to keep them from participating in whatever business people in suits conduct in downtown LA. Bryant never picked his phone back up, he never ate breakfast, he never caught a helicopter.
Bryant didn’t show up for the parade. He had a comeback to plan.