Dwight Howard stood in the back of the room and stared at the podium. His shirt was off, a lit cigar in his hand with a paper cutout of the Larry O’Brien Trophy stuck between his muscled shoulders in the center of his back.
For as much as LeBron James and Anthony Davis, arms wrapped around one another, signified what the Lakers accomplished inside the NBA bubble, so did the image of Howard, a bull-dozing presence who collected fouls and delivered bruises with sadistic glee.
If Magic’s Showtime teams got out and ran, if Kobe and Shaq — and later Kobe and Pau — delivered flawless footwork and skill, the 2020 Lakers title was borne of toughness and grit, defense and force.
The Lakers know that’s the recipe to repeat, but they’re entering the upcoming season with a new batch of ingredients.
“We were a great defensive team last year and a lot of our defensive guys have left,” Davis said Friday in a videoconference, listing Howard, Danny Green, Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley. “… I think that’s what’s going to help us repeat — continue to be a defensive-minded team. And I think the guys we brought in, their roles on teams have been to lock down defensively and guard some of the best guys at their position.”
The Lakers essentially replaced Green with Wesley Matthews, a swingman with similar defensive credentials. Howard‘s and JaVale McGee’s defensive impact at center will be handled mostly by Marc Gasol, one of the NBA’s best defensive minds.
New point guard Dennis Schroder has some of the on-ball tenacity that Bradley used last season to set the tone for defensive possessions.
Both general manager Rob Pelinka and coach Frank Vogel praised new center Montrezl Harrell for his motor, but that only gets you so far on the defensive end — a lesson the Clippers learned as Denver feasted against him in the playoffs.
This group is similar, but can it be as effective?
The Lakers had the best defense in the West last season and led the NBA in blocked shots. It’s a decent bet that both of those things won’t happen again next season.But it’ll be on Vogel to get the Lakers fully invested again on that side of the basketball.
“We’re going to have to be even better. The first thing you have to understand about going into a repeat is that it’s going to be harder than the year before,” he said. “The bull’s-eye is going to be bigger. And we played longer than everybody else and had a shorter offseason than everybody else, so, the odds are stacked against us from that standpoint. And the identity of what and who we were last year has got to be repeated if we’re going to try to repeat as champions. We’ve got to have the defensive mindset. That’s got to be the first message of Day 1 of camp.”
That buy-in might be more difficult with the Lakers already trying to figure out the best ways to handle their stars and veterans after such a condensed offseason.
Vogel didn’t commit to how much he’d play James in the preseason, acknowledging that it likely wouldn’t be a lot.
“We don’t want to underdo it and then he’s not ready to play in real games. But obviously don’t want to overdo as well,” Vogel said. “We really don’t know where that’s going to land.”
Whether it’s returning stars headed for load management or new pieces, Vogel said it’s imperative that the Lakers recapture some of what made them champions — that in-the-moment, all-out effort players like Howard delivered.
“We will play every minute of every regular-season game like it’s the championship because that’s part of what won for us in the playoffs last year, that mind-set — that every time we’re on the floor, we’re playing harder than our opponent, period. We’re caring more than our opponent, period,” Vogel said. “This is just a way of life for us.”