The only number LeBron James has left to chase is six, the amount of championships in Michael Jordan’s corner, and that figure feels attainable now more than ever. James is the reigning Finals MVP, 35 years of age be damned, and his Los Angeles Lakers are the odds-on favorites to win the 2021 title, per BetMGM.
Now that he is a four-time champion, the only thing that matters is winning two more before Father Time claims victory, and Anthony Davis has given James a chance. Together they proved it takes no more than a ragtag bunch of veterans around them to rule the NBA. In the end, it was not even close. They were pushed beyond five games once in the playoffs, and that lone Game 6 was over by the second quarter. And there is every reason to believe the Lakers can be better in Years 2 and 3 of that partnership. The window is open.
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That assumes Davis was just posturing when he said he is “not 100 percent sure” what he will do in free agency. The Lakers will put whatever contract he wants in front of him when the time comes, and it is hard to imagine him walking away from the team to which he forced a trade, given how well it worked for him. Davis did not sign with James’ longtime friend and agent, Rich Paul, just to tear down what they all built.
Of course, plenty broke the Lakers way for James to win his fourth ring, and no title is guaranteed. A three-month hiatus slowed the Milwaukee Bucks’ momentum, the bubble burst the L.A. Clippers’ chemistry, and the Miami Heat lost two of their three best players to injury in Game 1 of the Finals. There is no telling how much the six months of extra rest James received since March 2019 helped in pursuit of this championship, and the 2020-21 season, which could start as soon as January, will not afford the same load management.
But there are counters to every argument against the replicability of this Lakers title run. Avery Bradley opted out of the season restart, cutting into what was perceived as an already shallow rotation. Gone was their home-court advantage. And they too were not immune to the pressures of playing for three months in relative isolation, during a pandemic, amid civil unrest. Heck, the Lakers were one of only two teams to vote in favor of a season-ending strike during the playoffs. This was a championship earned the hardest of ways.
The Lakers have their identity as a defensive monster with two gravity-altering superstars capable of creating consistent offense for themselves and others. The weight of championship expectations is lifted, and Davis knows now what it takes to reach the mountaintop. It is on him to find the drive to build on that legacy and become even more dominant. That is easier with James in his ear and experience on his side.
What happens when Davis no longer needs James and Rondo to remind him he can dictate outcomes, when lapses like Game 3 against Miami are removed from his repertoire? There is room to grow, enough to mask any slippage in James’ game, and we are well past the point where we should expect anything less than greatness from James into his late 30s. Even if his body were not a sculpted work of art, his basketball IQ is so brilliant, his playmaking so masterful, that a lost step still leaves the rest of the league one behind.
Their supporting cast may look a lot different come Christmas. Rotational pieces Rajon Rondo, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Avery Bradley and JaVale McGee all own player options for the 2020-21 season. Dwight Howard and Markieff Morris are unrestricted free agents. The Lakers have a first-round pick to trade on draft night, and just about everyone else will be working on an expiring contract that can sweeten the deal.
And they should have a $10 million non-taxpayer midlevel exception to throw at free agents in a year when only a handful of teams, mostly terrible, will have the cap space to trump a Lakers offer. There are any number of ways they can upgrade their depth on the wing and the minutes they allocated this season to Howard and McGee, neither of whom were playable in a close-out Finals game. And there will be any number of veterans eager to chase rings with the greatest player of their generation on a proven champion.
Whoever the Lakers land, they will be afforded the opportunity to become the best version of themselves in the space provided by James and Davis. They turned Alex Caruso into a legit option, resurrected Rondo and made Howard a champion. Imagine if they get their hands on free agents other teams actually coveted, guys like Bryn Forbes or Christian Wood. This is to say nothing of the trade and buyout markets in 2021.
The Lakers failed to make an upgrade at the trade deadline this past February, but the economic impact of the pandemic could benefit a money-making team looking to prey on cost-cutting of less fortunate teams. They should also have a better understanding of what types of players will fit into their established system. The challenge of upgrading roster spots for Jared Dudley, J.R. Smith and Dion Waiters is far from onerous.
The playoff road to a championship may be bumpier next season, with the Golden State Warriors and Brooklyn Nets expected to join a list of legitimate contenders, many of whom may also be on the rise, but even before his team makes a single move this offseason, James is favored to win a fifth title in 2021.
That would match Lakers legends Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant. Davis does not turn 28 years old until March, and he should be competing for MVP and Defensive Player of the Year votes for the life of his next contract. A sixth title would seem no less plausible than the fifth. All the while, James is building a statistical résumé that will be unassailable, and the only number that still matters no longer feels beyond his grasp.
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