The Damian Lillard saga was the dominant storyline of the 2023 NBA offseason. It took three months of back-and-forth drama before the Portland Trail Blazers struck blockbuster deal that sent Lillard to the Milwaukee Bucks as part of a three-team trade.
A few days after the Lillard trade, the Boston Celtics took away some of the Bucks’ shine by acquiring defensive stalwart Jrue Holiday. Back in June, the Phoenix Suns made a huge splash by acquiring Bradley Beal from the Washington Wizards. Many basketball pundits have already penciled the Celtics and Bucks in the Eastern Conference finals, and the Suns are the popular pick to come out of the Western Conference.
While all the Dame drama was going on, the Los Angeles Lakers were busy restocking their shelves with the same pieces that reached the Western Conference finals.
Austin Reaves (four years, $56 million), Rui Hachimura (three years, $51M), D’Angelo Russell (two years, $36M), and Jarred Vanderbilt (four years, $48M) all re-signed with the Lakers. General manager Rob Pelinka also added free agents Gabe Vincent, Taurean Prince, Jaxson Hayes and Cam Reddish, and drafted guard Jalen Hood-Schifino. The biggest piece of a potentially championship was the commitment to Anthony Davis. The Lakers and Davis agreed to a three-year, $186 million contract extension that keeps Davis in a Lakers uniform through 2028.
With Davis as the anchor and LeBron James coming back for his 21st season, L.A. has arguably the deepest roster in the NBA, and it’s a nice problem to have if you’re Lakers head coach Darvin Ham. During the Lakers media day aired on Spectrum SportsNet, Ham said he welcomes the healthy competition during training camp.
“I’ve told my team internally,” Ham said, “we don’t want to compete from a mental standpoint saying, ‘I’m better than this guy or I’m better than that guy.’ Compete with your work habits. Compete with submerging with yourself in the information and picking it up and executing in what it is that we’re trying to give to you guys.”
Ham continued: “Naturally, you’re going to have guys going at each other. That’s always healthy as well. But the biggest thing is to make sure that we’re competing in the right areas. When we do put these jerseys on and toss it up and play against the 29 other teams that we can still all be on the same page.”
The theme of the 2023-24 Lakers season is “run it back.” The organization feels it now has the right combination of players to compete for the franchise’s 18th NBA title.
“We have a speed lineup. We have a small ball lineup. We have a powerball lineup from 6-8 to 7 feet that we can put out there,” Ham said. “We’re super duper excited on what we can do with this lineup.
“But first and foremost, everybody has to know that everybody has to be on the same page. We have to trust one another, support one another. Everyone has to have both hands on the rope pulling in the same direction.”
The key to a successful Lakers season hangs on the broad shoulders of AD.
When he’s healthy, AD is one of the 10 best players in the world. He could easily make a strong case for best defensive player. His stellar defense during the 2023 playoffs — he had the No. 1 defensive rating by a wide margin — was a major reason why the Lakers were able to knock off the Memphis Grizzlies and Golden State Warriors. And if AD can replicate those 2023 playoff performances, he could be in the running for MVP in 2024.
Davis said he’s grateful and thankful for the Lakers for being committed to him, and having enough faith and trust in him to be the face of the franchise beyond the LeBron years.
“I owe it to them to go out every night and put my body on the line for this organization,” he said.
The biggest roadblock for AD and the Lakers are the defending champion Denver Nuggets, led by their MVP Nikola Jokic. The Lakers are still salty on how their playoffs ended last season as they were swept by the Nuggets in the WCF. The sweep has given AD plenty of motivation not only to get another shot at Jokic and Nuggets, but to also put his name in the MVP conversation. He added some MMA workouts and boxing training regimen during the offseason in preparation for wrestling matches in the paint with The Joker.
“Whether I’m in [the MVP conversation] or not, it’s the expectation of playing to that caliber because I know it’ll benefit the team. I am my biggest critic,” Davis said. “I am on myself after every game, even in wins. You can’t control wins and losses. You can control energy and effort. This year, I want to come out and build on last year, and hopefully let everything play out, I’ll be in that conversation.”