What winning the NBA championship meant to each Laker

We have so much coverage from the championship run. From the Lakers’ social justice messages, to the mental health aspects of being in the bubble and what executive got to bring pets. There’s also my story on Jeanie Buss and what she went through to get to this point. She and I talked about how she handled the last two years, why she stood by Rob Pelinka and, yes, the sexism she sees still.

All of that is in the above ‘Lakers are champions’ link.

And now it’s already time to look forward, starting with Anthony Davis. He was asked about his future while still covered in champagne. My outstanding colleague Broderick Turner examined why he is likely to opt out of the final year of his contract and re-sign with the Lakers.

Rather than do a bunch of links to stories at the end of the newsletter, I’ll share notes about each player who isn’t LeBron James or Anthony Davis. There are so many stories of redemption, of human emotion or even just quirky notes about these players and what winning the NBA Finals meant to them.

Frank Vogel said that again and again about James.

“He’s the greatest player the basketball universe has ever seen, and if you think you know, you don’t know, OK, until you’re around him every day, you’re coaching him, you’re seeing his mind, you’re seeing his adjustments, seeing the way he leads the group,” Vogel said. “You think you know; you don’t know.”

I asked Vogel if he could share an example that taught him that.

“It literally happened every day,” Vogel said. “Every day we’re in film and we’re talking about our team. Every day I talk to him before practice or before a game, this is what I’m feeling about the team, this is the direction I think we can go, I think we can move the needle some in this direction.

“You know, decisiveness is an incredible quality to have, and to have his mind and be able to use him as a resource to, partner with him, the things I’m seeing on tape, believing in, with his mind, to collaborate with the decisions on how to move forward with our group, it’s just — I don’t know if there’s one or two instances that you can point to. But just every damn day.”

What this title meant to the Lakers

Danny Green — On Sunday, Green became one of four players in NBA history to win championships with three different teams, joining James, John Salley and Robert Horry. Green won a championship with the San Antonio Spurs, then another one after the Spurs traded him and Kawhi Leonard to the Toronto Raptors. In the summer of 2019, when Leonard chose the Clippers, Green chose the Lakers and started every game he played this season. He took a lot of heat while in the bubble, particularly for one shot he missed in Game 5 of the Finals that might have won the game. None of his teammates blamed the loss on him but some others did. Sunday night he posted a photo of himself smoking a cigar with the words: “What they gon say now?”

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope — It was true that signing Caldwell-Pope gave the Lakers a chance to show James’ inner circle — the two have the same agent — what their organization was like. Caldwell-Pope handled that conversation with grace, just as he did at the start of this season when he took criticism. But Caldwell-Pope also proved his value to the team and was critically important during their postseason run when he started due to Avery Bradley opting out of the bubble. “It was just all about having a clear mind and a clear head space to go out there and play, not worry about what everybody else was saying about me,” Caldwell-Pope said. “Because I know my job and I know I do my job very well.”

Alex Caruso — Postgame, he watched James and Davis be interviewed while standing on the court with his parents, who had been in the bubble for more than a month. He couldn’t help but think about his journey. “I was holding back emotions on the court,” said Caruso, who was a two-way player last season before landing a two-year deal this season. “I worked so hard and been to so many different workouts, practices, arenas and flights. I just kept grinding and believing in myself. People may have doubted me. Maybe even teams doubted what I was capable of, but at the end of the day, I know what I’m capable of. Coach put me in the starting lineup tonight and I was ready.”

Rajon Rondo — His presence and his mind were missed dearly when he left the bubble in July to deal with a hand injury. After Sunday’s game, Rondo sat on the court for a while, surrounded by confetti, with this son, Rajon Jr., next to him. The kid drank apple cider straight out of the bottle while the dad drank champagne. Neither father nor son slept well after their Game 5 loss. “I think the first question he asked when we won, he was like, ‘When do I get my ring?’” Rondo said. “I’m extremely excited to be able to get his size, his ring size, and order him one, as well.”

Dwight Howard — Seven years removed from his first stint with the Lakers, Howard returned to Los Angeles humbled and ready to be a role player for another opportunity. He spent all season talking about how he had no ego (though he’d said that before) and saying that he’d visualized his team as champions. On Sunday his image came true. “I know a couple years ago I said I am a champion and people laughed,” Howard said after the game. “It wasn’t being a champion of a basketball game but a champion in life. Knowing that there’s many times that we all fail and I fail, but instead of folding and laying down, a champ gets back up.”

Kyle Kuzma — His NBA journey led him from being one of the older players on the team before the Davis trade to a younger player trying to find his place on a team with two superstars. After the Lakers won, he thought more broadly about his path. “It’s still setting in,” Kuzma said after Game 6. “I’m half-drunk right now from all the champagne, so I don’t know how to act exactly. But, man, just a kid from Flint, Michigan. It’s crazy. Crazy, crazy. I almost didn’t go to college. Wasn’t supposed to get drafted. NBA champion. It’s unbelievable.”

Avery Bradley — Bradley watched the Finals from his home in Texas, having opted out of joining the team in the bubble because of family health concerns, but the Lakers wanted to make sure he felt included. He stayed in touch throughout the playoffs. His contributions were critical to the Lakers getting to this point. As Vogel tried to set the tone early that the Lakers would be a defensive team, Bradley embraced it immediately. His fearless defense rubbed off on teammates, and the Lakers became one of the league’s best defensive teams.

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