The Los Angeles Lakers are headed back to the NBA Finals for the first time in 10 years, the longest the iconic franchise has ever been off of the league’s biggest stage.
When last season ended all of that seemed a long shot.
The Lakers had just missed the playoffs for the sixth straight season (the longest drought in franchise history), LeBron had missed 17 games with a groin injury leading to questions about his durability as he was about to turn 35, and the fit between LeBron and a young core of Lakers players seemed off.
What LeBron heard through all of that was doubters, and that fueled him.
“This is what I came [to the Lakers] for,” LeBron said after the Lakers’ eliminated the Nuggets in a game he took over late. “I heard all the conversations and everything that was said about why did I decide to come to L.A. — the reason I came to L.A., it was not about basketball. All those conversations, just naysayers and things of that nature. I understood that, with the season I had last year and my injury, it just gave them more sticks and more wood to throw in the fire to continue to say the things that they would say about me.
“But it never stopped my journey and never stopped my mindset and never stopped my goal.”
All season long LeBron has said he was fueled by doubters, even when they weren’t really there. He said he was motivated by the people calling him washed even if nobody outside of Twitter trolls did that. Creating strawmen motivations is something Kobe Bryant did for years with the Lakers, LeBron continues on that tradition — and the tragic passing of Kobe was another motivation for LeBron as well.
It took a lot more than LeBron James’ willpower to get the Lakers back to the Finals. The Laker roster underwent an overhaul, with most of the young players going to New Orleans in exchange for Anthony Davis. Then those roster spots were filled in by veterans that other teams were slow to snap up — Rajon Rondo, Dwight Howard, JaVale McGee — and appeared to give the Lakers unpredictable chemistry.
Then there was the coaching change, with Luke Walton out and Frank Vogel — with a veteran staff of assistants led by Jason Kidd — in.
“He’s been great,” LeBron said of Vogel. “He’s been unbelievable. I mean, we’ve faced, it’s been a crazy obstacle course for our franchise this whole year. I’m not going to sit here and give all the details, but you guys, everyone can go back and just see from the start of the season all the way up until now what we’ve gone through as a team. He’s been able to manage it the whole time. Bringing in guys, losing guys. He’s just always been the anchor, and our coaching staff has been right behind him. I can’t say anything more than that.”
LeBron brought it all in line and kept everyone focused on the goal.
That goal was not just to reach the NBA Finals but to win it. LeBron hasn’t lost sight of that. Now his body gets a few days off before that final journey starts.
And he has time to find a few more doubters to motivate him.