SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Fifteen years ago this week I got a call I’ll never forget from a friend on the Lakers as I walked into a Super Bowl party in Scottsdale. The Lakers had just made a trade. But not just any trade.
“This is a championship trade,” he said. “Probably championships, plural.”
It didn’t seem possible. The Lakers had improved but they weren’t a championship team. In the three years since they traded Shaquille O’Neal in the summer of 2004, they missed the playoffs and were bounced out in the first round twice. This team was better. The day the Lakers made the trade, they were 28-16 and the fifth seed in the conference. They had a chance to win a playoff series but no one was talking about an NBA Finals run.
That all changed on Feb. 1, 2008 as I walked into a party in the desert with the undefeated New England Patriots preparing to play the New York Giants in a few days in Glendale, Ariz.
The Lakers had just traded Kwame Brown, who was averaging 5.7 points and getting booed every time he touched the ball, rookie Javaris Crittenton, who was averaging 3.3 points as a sparsely used reserve, and two future first round picks for Pau Gasol. They also threw in the contract of Aaron McKie, who had essentially retired, and the draft rights to Marc Gasol, Pau’s younger brother who the Lakers had selected with a late second round pick the previous year and was playing basketball in Spain.
The Lakers instantly became championship contenders and for the first time I could envision a possible Lakers-Celtics NBA Finals in four months.
I’m not going to pretend as if Tuesday’s trade was on par with the Gasol trade 15 years ago that led to three straight trips to the NBA Finals and back-to-back championships for the Lakers but I certainly had flashbacks as I once again walked into a Super Bowl party in Scottsdale Tuesday a few days before the Philadelphia Eagles are set to face the Kansas City Chiefs in Glendale, Ariz.
I can envision the Lakers going on a run in a wide-open Western Conference and playing the Celtics in the NBA Finals in four months. Why not? They’re just two games out of the play-in tournament and four games out of skipping the play-in tournament altogether and being in the playoffs as the No. 6 seed. The NBA All-Star break is next week and there’s plenty of time for the Lakers to make up that ground.
Tuesday’s trade wasn’t the same blockbuster deal the Lakers made 15 years ago but it wasn’t a minor transaction either. The Lakers traded Russell Westbrook, Juan Toscano-Anderson, Damian Jones and a protected 2027 first-round pick in a three-team deal that netted them D’Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley and Jarred Vanderbilt. This comes on the heels of the Lakers trading Kendrick Nunn and three second round picks to Washington for Rui Hachimura.
After two disappointing seasons, Rob Pelinka’s two best trades as the Lakers general manager came when the team needed it most. The Lakers’ championship window should have been shut by now but it’s not. The West is wide and the top four teams in the conference (Nuggets, Grizzlies, Kings and Clippers) have never made the NBA Finals before in franchise history. This isn’t the same Western Conference where every team outside of the Golden State Warriors was playing for second place. The Lakers led by LeBron James and Anthony Davis with a revamped supporting cast know they have a chance.
One of the reasons they have a chance is James, fresh off passing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to become the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, is averaging 30.2 points, 8.5 rebounds and 7.0 assists this season. It’s on par with the best seasons he has had during his career. No one expected him to do this at 38 years old during his 20th season. Meanwhile, Anthony Davis is averaging 26.7 points and 11.9 rebounds per game and is having one of his best statistical seasons when he is healthy.
The combination of James and Davis playing like two of the best players on the planet again (when healthy, of course) and the West unexpectedly being wide open forced Pelinka and the Lakers to do everything they could to try and widen the sliver of an opening left in their championship window.
Time will tell how the Lakers’ moves will play it this season but it was hard not to have flashbacks to 15 years ago in Scottsdale when the Lakers’ fortunes changed after one unforgettable phone call.