During the 10-11 NBA season, I assumed that the reigning NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers would, at minimum, be going back to the Finals. I was far from alone; many in fact wanted this, wanted it very badly, so that Kobe Bryant could meet the likely Eastern Conference champion Miami Heat, led by LeBron James, for a best-of-seven championship bout between the two biggest stars in the sport. LeBron and the Heat held up their end of that deal, but the Lakers fizzled out in spectacular indignity in the second round of the playoffs, getting swept by the eventual champion Dallas Mavericks and losing their cool in the process.
This was, for me, a cornerstone learning experience. From my expectation of a certain inevitability and my ensuing wrongness, I came to better understand what we can call Lakers Dread. Unless you are a Lakers fan, holding the inverse version of this in your heart—Lakers Hubris, or Lakers Chauvinism; pick your phrasing—you watch professional basketball with a healthy amount of Lakers Dread in your system. You believe, beyond reason, that they will rise to glory no matter the circumstances. This was wrong in 2011, and much more hilariously so in 2013, when a Steve Nash-Dwight Howard pairing alongside Bryant barely made the playoffs and was then swept in the first round instead of marching to the promised land as many assumed they would.
To be sure, Lakers Dread often foretells exactly what it fears: another title for the 17-time champions. And you can’t blame anyone for feeling that either of their two wins over their past eight games is a microscopic sneak preview of the greater glory to come; a tip of the iceberg, the swole whole of which is guaranteed to dramatically emerge. Lakers Dread, that classic negative bias, tells us that it doesn’t matter whether Anthony Davis has looked particularly good since returning from injury, or whether LeBron immediately re-tweaked his ankle upon returning from his. It is only concerned with a 93-89 victory over a similarly devastated Denver Nuggets team and how this is, of course, the mere beginning of an unstoppable streak pulled from the lessons of a weeks-long mediocrity.
The substance of the matter is this: the Lakers are not favorites to win another title. No one really is—the 20-21 season has been defined by randomness, luck, inflation, and unpredictability. The Field is certainly the strongest contender, tied with the Coronavirus. The Lakers had an unprecedented two-month offseason, winning the title in October and booting up a truncated training camp in December. They needed a longer one, having turned over roughly half their roster in the microwaved offseason. LeBron and Davis were able to ride the high of bringing a title to L.A. for the first several weeks of the season, but eventually all the factors working against them coalesced into a long-term Davis injury, a four-game losing streak, and a descent in the standings.
Then, LeBron had his own injury absence. And now, with seven games left in the regular season, the Lakers are trying to crash-course their way to championship-level basketball with several new rotation players—some of whom LeBron and Davis saw limited time with earlier in the season (Montrezl Harrell, Wesley Matthews, Marc Gasol), and two of whom were mid-season adds (Andre Drummond, Ben McLemore). A sixth, Dennis Schroeder, is currently out for the next 10-14 days, because of the league’s new COVID-related health and safety protocols. With the Lakers dangling near the play-in tournament cut-off, it’s unclear whether their new point guard would be able to join them for a potential single-elimination contest.
This morass of issues is only mildly distinct in the overall landscape of the season. Most teams, even amongst contenders, have taken considerable lumps. Even so, the Lakers have had an objectively tougher route than almost everyone this year, and putting all these disparate parts together on the fly, effectively enough to win another title, would be a pretty much unseen feat. The closest comparison point would be the 94-95 Houston Rockets, who similarly struggled through a title defense season, and re-made their roster partway through the year as they stumbled to a six seed in the playoffs. The Rockets, led by Hakeem Olajuwon, won three tough, long series against higher seeds to then sweep the young Orlando Magic in the Finals.
Lakers Dread might be telling you that what’s about to happen is something much more improbable than that, which is what an 18th championship for the franchise in 2021 would be. It could certainly still happen, of course; The Field does include the Lakers. But a more rational form of begrudging reverence for the Lakers is built around the expectation that, next year, LeBron will continue to defy time, and a full training camp, combined with regular amounts of rest and practice time, will again make them the team to beat. But when it comes to this year, they will either be the most spontaneous, sensationally improvised championship team of all time—or, more likely, a monster that is not actually under anyone’s bed.