SAN FRANCISCO — It’s still surreal, even after we’ve had time to get used to it, that the Lakers entered Wednesday one victory away from the Western Conference finals.
And when the All-NBA teams were announced Wednesday afternoon, the residue of L.A.’s 2-10 start and the months long battle just to get to .500 was evident. The only representative the Lakers had among the 15 players honored on the first, second and third teams was LeBron James, and he not only was on the third team, he barely made it, with his 81 points the fewest points (for first, second and third-place votes) of any of the 15.
Voting results for the 2022-23 Kia All-NBA Team
— NBA Communications (@NBAPR) May 10, 2023
“Third team all-NBA, 38 years old, 20 years deep (into his career) … he should be on the first team off that alone, right?” Lakers coach Darvin Ham cracked before Wednesday night’s Game 5 between the Lakers and Golden State in Chase Center.
But wait, there’s more. The all-defense team was released Tuesday, and Anthony Davis – whose defensive play has been the key to this Lakers’ postseason resurgence – was absent. No first team, no second team.
“You ask (Davis), would you rather be on one of those teams sitting at home, or left off and still active and letting the world see how well you play defense?” Ham asked. “I think he’d choose the latter.
“He doesn’t care. What the league wants to do is fine.”
Of course, Davis and the Lakers have more immediate concerns after he took a hit to the head from the Warriors’ Kevon Looney while jostling for a rebound with 7½ minutes left in the Lakers’ 121-106 Game 5 loss on Wednesday night. Davis went to the locker room shortly afterward, and his status might be the most important development as this series returns to downtown L.A. on Friday night.
Reminder: Awards ballots are submitted after the regular season and before the playoffs. And when you’re a seventh seed, you shouldn’t be expecting much in the way of awards consideration from the writers and broadcasters throughout the league who vote. (That might explain why Ham got only one second-place vote for Coach of the Year, which went to Sacramento’s Mike Brown, his former boss with the Lakers.)
In other words, it’s not east coast bias when you have to wade through the play-in game.
But it’s better to be going strong in May, rather than peaking in the first 81 games. The Lakers team we’re watching now is a completely different unit from the one that slogged through the first half before being rejuvenated at the trade deadline.
The transformation of the Lakers might have gone into overdrive with the Rob Pelinka acquisitions that brought D’Angelo Russell, Jarred Vanderbilt and Rui Hachimura into the fold at the trade deadline. But you can make a case that it starts with the head coach, and in fact it might have started way before Ham was hired as Frank Vogel’s replacement last June.
Because of his first assistant coaching job with the Lakers, under Brown and then Mike d’Antoni, Ham has kept his eye on this team even in subsequent stops in Atlanta and Milwaukee. And his teams, like most in the NBA, assign specific teams to each coach to scout over the course of a season, and Ham often drew the Lakers.
Last season was one of those, and it’s fair to say Ham wasn’t impressed by what he saw. That was a roster of mismatched parts, with a good number of older players who were convinced that they were still as good as they’d been when they were younger.
They weren’t, of course, which is why they were 33-49, missed the playoffs and got Vogel fired.
“Last year in particular, I saw a lot of nights where guys would just quit and they weren’t competitive,” Ham said. “A five-point (deficit) would turn into the blink of an eye to 15 or 25. Guys would not run back on defense, or you could just see the deflation in people’s faces and body language.”
Ham said that the goal from day one, with an eye toward any type of postseason success, was “competitiveness, togetherness and accountability. From that, our work and our preparation will carry us as far as that takes us. And we stayed true to form with that. … One of the things I wanted to re-establish here was our competitiveness, and to work toward building a team, a roster of players that were together and that weren’t afraid to acknowledge what we’re doing wrong and how we can fix it, starting with themselves. You know, how can we all be better individually, come together as a group?”
You’ve seen the results in this series. Wednesday night, for example, the Warriors – with the motivation and desperation you’d expect from an elimination game, as well as the home crowd on its side – jumped to a 17-5 lead 4½ minutes into the game. Five minutes later, it was 24-22.
At times the Lakers have seemed to be doing the rope-a-dope, encouraging – daring? – the Warriors to wear themselves out. Of course, that’s playing with fire when Golden State is draining its 3-point attempts.
Then again, for much of the series, the Lakers have been a deeper team than the defending champs. Again, kudos to Pelinka for surrounding James and Davis with a roster whose pieces seem to work together. If you nail him for bad roster construction – which we have often enough in this space – you’ve got to applaud him for assembling a jigsaw puzzle that actually looks good.
It was predicated on James and Davis being healthy by now. When they weren’t, Ham said, they still were instrumental in bringing this group together.
“Just the constant of those guys, even though physically they were inactive, I think just verbally and their (mentality) and their focus still was helping the young guys try to figure it out,” he said.
“So I just felt great about, once we became whole, what we would be able to be again if we prepared and we put the work in. And just took things one day at a time. And here we are.”
Yep, there they are.