For most of his first seven seasons, Davis had been a happy-go-lucky and oft-overlooked superstar buried in a small market. Now he was attempting a power move with considerable awkwardness and risk. Inevitably, there was ugly fallout: The Pelicans fired general manager Dell Demps, Davis played limited minutes down the stretch of a lost season, and the Lakers, unable to weather the first major injury of James’s career, missed the playoffs and parted ways with team president Magic Johnson and coach Luke Walton.
All this was just the beginning of a rocky 20-month ride that culminated Sunday with a championship that was the 17th for the Lakers, the fourth for James and the first for Davis. The Lakers won Game 6 in emphatic fashion, with a 106-93 victory. James was named Finals MVP, while Davis fulfilled every bit of his prodigious potential, delivering in clutch moments and captaining a disciplined defense. James had a triple-double in the decisive Game 6 with 28 points, 14 rebounds and 10 assists. Davis finished with 19 points and 15 rebounds.
“When I left [New Orleans], I just wanted to be able to compete for a championship,” Davis said after sinking a buzzer-beater in the Western Conference finals. “I know that moments like this comes with it — especially being in L.A., the biggest market in basketball.”
On paper, this was easily the quickest title run of James’s career: He needed dramatic seven-game series comebacks to secure each of his previous three championships, and the Lakers avoided all of his top rivals, including Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Los Angeles had the bubble’s two best players and blitzed through the playoffs with a 16-5 record, winning a tense Finals over the Miami Heat in six games.
Yet the Lakers’ title, clinched in the wake of a four-month hiatus caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic, was anything but a cakewalk. There were hurdles, potholes, self-inflicted wounds and a horrific tragedy — the death of franchise legend Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, in a January helicopter crash — before the Lakers even arrived for their three-month Disney World stay.
Landing Davis, of course, was the critical transaction, and it required a host of assets, including Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart and three first-round picks. Rob Pelinka, Johnson’s successor, handled the negotiations, although the influence exerted by Paul and James was ever-present.
“This is the reason why I wanted to be a teammate of [Davis], why I brought him here,” James said after the Lakers won the West last month. “I wanted him to see things he hasn’t seen before in this league. To be able to come through for him means a lot personally.”
The Lakers’ other offseason moves didn’t go as smoothly. Their pursuit of Leonard saw him sign with the crosstown Clippers, leaving the Lakers to scramble with veteran role players such as DeMarcus Cousins, Danny Green, Jared Dudley and Avery Bradley. Cousins promptly suffered a season-ending knee injury, necessitating a desperate flier on Dwight Howard. Coming off six straight lottery trips with so many new faces, including Coach Frank Vogel, who didn’t seem to be the organization’s first choice, the Lakers were not viewed as the West’s leading contender. That designation belonged to the Clippers.
Before the two Los Angeles teams could go head-to-head on opening night, the Lakers traveled to China for a preseason tour. The exhibition trip was sidetracked when Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey posted a message of support for Hong Kong protesters. Incensed, Chinese authorities cut ties with the NBA, sparking a firestorm that saw James receive intense criticism from American politicians who accused him of siding with China while criticizing Morey.
“I believe [Morey] wasn’t educated on the situation at hand and he spoke,” James said after the Lakers returned to Los Angeles. “So many people could have been harmed, not only financially but physically, emotionally, spiritually.”
The controversy never carried over to the court. The Lakers raced to the top of the standings with a 36-10 start thanks to the instant chemistry between James and Davis.
Then, on Jan. 26, a helicopter carrying Bryant, perhaps the most popular player in franchise history, crashed into a Calabasas hillside, leaving no survivors. Lakers owner Jeanie Buss and Pelinka, Bryant’s former agent, had both known the Hall of Fame guard for years, and the organization was so traumatized that a Jan. 28 game against the Clippers was postponed.
“Seeing Kobe playing the game of basketball for 20 years,” James recounted after a loss to the Portland Trail Blazers in the first game after Bryant’s death, “you know what’s crazy? Out of all the success he had — five rings, MVPs, first-team everything, all-life, all-world, all-basketball — I felt like the last three years were the happiest I’ve ever seen him. Being able to be with his daughters and his family.”
The Lakers found their footing in the weeks that followed, dedicating the season to Bryant’s memory and going 13-3 heading into the March 11 shutdown. Suddenly, James’s shot at a fourth title seemed as if it might be wiped out by the pandemic, and multiple Lakers tested positive for the coronavirus. In mid-May, as the season seemed in doubt, James joined other superstars on a telephone call in which they decided to pursue a summer return.
“If LeBron James said he [is] hooping,” Clippers guard Patrick Beverley wrote on Twitter in June. “We [are] all hooping. Not personal. Only BUSINESS.”
James and Davis were inseparable in the bubble. The Lakers paced themselves during the resumed regular season, adjusting to life without Bradley, who remained at home because of coronavirus concerns, and Rajon Rondo, who broke his thumb shortly after arriving in Florida.
As the playoffs commenced, James and Davis ramped up in tandem, and their combined force overwhelmed the Blazers, Rockets and Nuggets. Their biggest scare came from a shutdown prompted by the Milwaukee Bucks’ protest of Jacob Blake’s shooting by Wisconsin police. For a few hours in late August, the Lakers seemed prepared to go home, but cooler heads prevailed.
James, who had spent months advocating on behalf of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and other stars joined conference calls with NBA owners to craft a return plan. They focused their efforts on voting rights, and play resumed after a three-day break.
“I’ve had numerous nights and days thinking about leaving the bubble,” James said on Aug. 30. “I think everyone has, including you [media] guys. There’s not one person who hasn’t [thought], ‘I’ve got to get the hell out of here.’ It probably crosses my mind once a day.”
The Lakers then watched as the Clippers and the Bucks, their fellow favorites, crashed out before the conference finals. James sensed his golden opportunity, but he and Davis kept repeating the mantra, “Job not done.”
James played in the two most dramatic Finals of the past decade — 2013 and 2016 — and this year’s series didn’t quite compare. The Heat suffered a rash of injuries in Game 1, leaving the mostly empty, neutral-site arena feeling flat. Still, James called Game 4 “one of the biggest games of my career” and Davis delivered the pivotal win with a dagger three-pointer. The Heat then won a thrilling Game 5 to make the Lakers sweat.
The Lakers never lost sight of Bryant in the bubble, wearing T-shirts, jersey patches and sneakers with handwritten tributes. Davis shouted out “Kobe!” when he beat the Nuggets with his game-winner, which Vogel deemed a “Mamba shot.” In numerous playoff games, they wore “Black Mamba” jerseys designed by Bryant.
One year and 14 days after they first met the media before training camp, the Lakers celebrated their long-awaited title in front of a few hundred spectators at nondescript AdventHealth Arena. Jack Nicholson, Rihanna and the rest of the Staples Center celebrities were nowhere to be found, and the ongoing pandemic will delay plans for a parade to celebrate the Lakers’ first title since 2010.
The NBA invested more than $150 million in the bubble to protect its players from the coronavirus so that it could crown a champion, and it was the ageless James, at 35, who outlasted the competition. But he couldn’t have done it without Davis, who looked so at ease in the bubble after looking so lost in Charlotte. Together, they emerged victorious from the longest season in NBA history.
“This has probably been the most challenging thing I’ve ever done as far as a professional,” James said in September. “I would be lying if I said I knew [about] everything inside the bubble [and] the toll it would take on your mind and body. It’s been extremely tough.”