The activity served a greater purpose than finding something safe and entertaining to do in the middle of a pandemic.
When Los Angeles Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka spent his free nights watching NetFlix’s “The Queen’s Gambit,” he discovered the show taught him more than just how to master chess. It symbolized how to master both the free agency sweepstakes and the NBA’s upcoming season.
“You see the ins and outs of chess and how to study the board,” Pelinka said. “But you don’t know until you play the game and how it’s going to go.”
Likewise, the Lakers have no idea how other moving pieces will pan out in the 2020-21 NBA season.
Can the Lakers defend their NBA championship amid unique circumstances? They are only about two months removed from winning an NBA title on a quarantined site, but do they have enough energy to begin the quest again?
With Lakers star LeBron James defying Father Time with his fourth NBA title and Finals MVP performance at age 35, can he keep his old engine running smoothly? With Anthony Davis winning his first NBA title and first Defensive Player of the Year award, can he win the league MVP both to maximize his greatness and reduce James’ workload?
Forward LeBron James (23) and forward Anthony Davis (3) make the defending champion Lakers the team to beat. (Photo: Mark J. Rebilas, USA TODAY Sports)
The Lakers navigated a challenging season that included a disrupted training camp in China, a new coaching staff and roster, Kobe Bryant’s death, a suspended season during a pandemic and a resumed season in a bubble. Can the Lakers navigate this season out of the bubble while fighting fatigue and every opponent’s best effort?
“The bull’s-eye just becomes even greater, if that’s even possible,” James said. “For me personally, the bull’s-eye has always been on my back – or my front – since I entered the league. You add in the Laker name on top of that, the Lakers franchise, the bull’s-eye has been on this franchise for a long time as well.”
To deal with their increasing bull’s-eye, the Lakers made some moves that might make it difficult to opponents to become more accurate with their darts. The Lakers did not just bring back the championship band together.
The Lakers upgraded some of their members with youth, secondary scoring and toughness. They dealt Danny Green and their No. 28 draft pick to Oklahoma City for Dennis Schroder, who was second last season in bench scoring and became a replacement for Rajon Rondo. Instead of fretting about keeping Dwight Howard, JaVale McGee and Avery Bradley, the Lakers upgraded their frontcourt with last season’s Sixth Man of the Year (Montrezl Harrell) and a former Defensive Player of the Year (Marc Gasol).
They bolstered their wing depth by retaining Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and adding Wesley Matthews. These moves partly persuaded James (two years, $85 million) and Davis (five years, $190 million) to agree to lucrative extensions.
“As a champion, you’re going to get everyone’s best shot,” Davis said. “But you’re going to find that motivation. I think we have a bunch of new guys too who want to compete for a championship and want to win a championship.”
To win that championship in July, the Lakers will have to calculate how to begin their journey in December.
Lakers coach Frank Vogel conceded that how he will handle this season will become “dramatically different” than his first. The reasons?
The Lakers start the 2020-21 season 71 days after winning the title in mid-October. Therefore, Vogel will handle James, Davis and their supporting cast with care at the beginning of the season. And Vogel will oversee this process while handling a potentially fluid roster because of possible fatigue and COVID-19 infections.
Because of this, can the Lakers still maintain the same championship hunger they had last season to end the franchise’s 10-year title drought?
“100% yes,” Vogel said. “We will play every minute of every regular-season game like it’s the championship.
“That’s part of what won for us in the playoffs last year – that mindset. Every time that we’re on the floor, we’re playing harder than our opponent.”
The Lakers have the talent, experience and motivation. But can they match the same level of health and chemistry? As Pelinka has learned watching “The Queen’s Gambit,” the game of chess often takes unpredictable turns no matter how well thought out.
“It’s everybody’s opportunity to go out there and do it, as long as we go in with that mind-set and be humble about our process and not worry about what we did last year,” James said. “We need to worry about what we’re going to do this year. We’ll give ourselves a possible chance to be able to go out and try to win another one.”
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