Fifth in a series about the 2009-10 Lakers, the last Lakers team to win an NBA title.
With a dozen games left before the start of the 2010 playoffs, owner Jerry Buss, coach Phil Jackson and the rest of the Lakers gathered at the team’s El Segundo practice facility for their annual team photo.
With the team’s championship trophies in the building, Buss and Jackson thought back to 2002 and the road the Lakers had to traverse on their way to an NBA title.
“We just talked about the time we went through the three toughest teams in the West in Portland, San Antonio and Sacramento one year,” Jackson said at the time. “Somehow or another, it makes your team really prepped for a championship round.”
While a stacked playoffs awaited the Lakers for the 2010 championship run — its most recent — first came a season-long fight through a Western Conference full of great teams, shoo-in Hall of Famers and the next generation of NBA stars.
The Lakers’ three consecutive trips to the Finals to close out the decade came against the backdrop of a loaded Western Conference. In 2008, all eight playoff teams in the West won at least 50 games. In 2009, the eighth-seeded Utah Jazz won 48. Again in 2010 each of the playoff teams in the conference won at least 50. The 2008 and 2010 playoffs are the only times in the last 20 years that’s happened, and the Lakers claimed the conference title both times.
The 2010 championship came at a pivotal time in the NBA — one when the league was getting younger quickly, with a new breed of player ready to grab hold of the league’s future. Of the leagues’ top 40 scorers, only eight were 30 or older. Eighteen of the 40 were 25 or younger and five of those players were 21 or younger.
On the way to the Finals, the Lakers had to survive three future most valuable players in the first round when they outlasted the Oklahoma City Thunder and their young stars in six games. In the second round, they made quick work of the Jazz before staring down Steve Nash and the Phoenix Suns in the conference finals.
Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Deron Williams, Carlos Boozer, Amar’e Stoudemire, Grant Hill and Nash stood between Kobe Bryant and the Lakers’ destiny. And that’s just a slice of the talent that was in the West at the time.
The seedlings for the next decade in the conference began to sprout among nonplayoff teams. The Clippers were developing Eric Gordon, one of the players that helped them land Chris Paul in a trade and breathe life into the franchise, while Blake Griffin got ready to debut the next season.
Mike Conley, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph teamed up for the first time in Memphis, with the Grizzlies on the cusp of seven straight playoff trips. The Golden State Warriors were trying to acclimate their top draft choice, a baby-faced, narrow-shouldered Stephen Curry, to the NBA, a league he would soon help revolutionize.
The Lakers wouldn’t have to deal with Dallas’ Dirk Nowitzki or Jason Kidd in the 2010 postseason. They’d miss out on Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and the rest of the familiar San Antonio Spurs. Same goes for LaMarcus Aldridge, Brandon Roy and Portland, and Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups and Denver.
But to get back to the Finals, the Lakers would have to deal with a team on the way up and one on the way out.
Against the Thunder, the Lakers had to fight a team of players who had their careers directly influenced by Bryant.
Westbrook and Harden were among the superstars so inspired by Bryant that they attended his memorial earlier this year. Durant, at the time, pointed directly to Bryant for why his game had accelerated so rapidly to the point where he led the league in scoring in 2010.
“He’s such a fierce competitor, can do anything on the floor. It’s just amazing the things he does,” Durant said before the series. “He’s all about his team. A lot of people say this and that about Kobe, but he’s a true teammate.
“Playing with him in USA Basketball and being around him there, he’s just a good teammate and you can see why he has [four championship] rings. He’s a great guy to learn from and I know playing in this series is going to make us better as a team and better as players as each game goes by. … He’s another one of those guys that helped me without even knowing it.”
The Lakers and the Suns were last the point of inspiration, with Jackson spending the build-up to that series needling Nash about uncalled carrying violations. Six games later after Bryant’s heroics, Phoenix was gone, headed toward a rebuild that still hasn’t gained traction 10 years later.
The stage for an epic series with Boston was finally set. But even before the playoffs began, Buss and Jackson knew the tests of the West would have them ready for it. It had happened before. And it would happen again.
Tomorrow: Metta World Peace had an epiphany about mental health during the 2010 title run. How it changed his life.