The 2019-20 NBA season was supposed to be full of possibilities. A year after leading the Toronto Raptors to their first NBA title, Kawhi Leonard went to the Los Angeles Clippers in hopes of bringing another franchise its first championship. With Giannis Antetokounmpo fresh off an MVP campaign, the Milwaukee Bucks had the potential to win the Finals for the first time since 1971.
Instead, the inevitable happened. The most famous franchise in the sport rode the best player in the sport to a dominant championship run. With Sunday’s 106-93 win over the Miami Heat in Game 6 of the Finals, the Lakers capped a 16-5 playoff performance that featured 10 double-digit wins. LeBron James now has four NBA titles, which is a lot for someone who’s spent much of his career being criticized for not winning enough championships.
The triumph represents the Lakers’ 17th franchise title, tying them with the Boston Celtics for the most ever. (Five of the Lakers’ championships came when they were the Minneapolis Lakers, but for some reason they count. Minneapolis also won an NBL championship in 1948, but the NBA considers the BAA its immediate predecessor, so that one doesn’t count. I don’t make the rules.) The two teams have always dominated the sport—they have 34 of the league’s 74 total championships—but for decades, Boston was the clear leader. Before Sunday night, Boston had spent 57 years in sole possession of first place in the all-time title race. The Celtics took over the top spot from the then–Minneapolis Lakers in 1963, during an era in which Boston absolutely dominated. Led by Bill Russell, the Celtics won eight consecutive championships in the 1960s, and 11 in 13 seasons. Seven of those 11 titles came in Finals wins against the Lakers. After winning two more championships in the 1970s and three more with Larry Bird in the 1980s, the Celtics led the Lakers in titles 16 to nine. Boston’s seven-championship lead should’ve been insurmountable; to date, no team besides the Celtics or Lakers has seven championships. But through Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, and now LeBron James, the Lakers have evened the score. Since 2000, the Lakers have won six championships; the Celtics have only their 2008 title.
I don’t think we’ll see anything like the Lakers’ franchise championship comeback in any other major American professional sport. Much like in the NBA, the all-time winningest teams in two other sports collected stockpiles of titles in the early days of their leagues’ existence. In MLB, the New York Yankees won 16 championships in the first 50 years that there was a World Series; no other team has more than 11 World Series in total. In the NHL, the Montreal Canadiens won the Stanley Cup 22 times by 1980; no other team has won the Cup more than 13 times. The NFL has experienced a few changes atop the all-time leaderboard because no franchise ever built up a huge lead: The San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys topped the leaderboard with five in the 1990s; the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots are now tied for the lead with six.
The teams that ruled the early eras of their sports have largely stopped churning out championships. Like the Celtics, the Yankees have just one world championship since 2001. (Yes, I compared the Yankees to the Celtics specifically to upset everybody who roots for either team.) The Canadiens haven’t won the Stanley Cup since 1993; they’re actually the last Canadian team to win the Stanley Cup, which is extremely funny to me and extremely not funny to Canadians who insist on pointing out that all NHL teams are basically Canadian because so many of their players are from Canada. In spite of their 21st century doldrums, the Yankees’ and Canadiens’ leads atop the championship leaderboard are eminently safe. The Yankees still have more than twice as many championships (27) as any other team (second is the St. Louis Cardinals, with 11); the Canadiens still have won 10 more titles (23) than the second-place Toronto Maple Leafs (13). The Cardinals have gained a championship on the team they’re chasing since 2001; they’ll just need to keep up that pace for a few hundred years to finish the job. The Leafs have still made up no ground.
The reason the Celtics, Yankees, and Canadiens haven’t kept winning scores of championships in the 21st century is because there is more competitive balance in pro sports now that leagues have evolved from quaint sideshows into billion-dollar industries. The number of teams in each league has expanded, limiting the talent that any single roster can amass. During the Celtics’ dominant 1960s stretch, there were between eight and 14 teams in the NBA. Now, there are 30. (MLB has expanded from 16 franchises to 30; the NHL has gone from six to 31 and counting.) The leagues have also enacted measures designed to level the playing field, like the NBA introducing a salary cap in the 1980s, and the overall quality of competition has generally increased. Between 1950 and 1970, just eight NBA teams, five NHL teams, and 10 MLB teams won championships. Between 2000 and 2020, nine NBA teams, 12 NHL teams, and 13 MLB teams have won championships.
Only one franchise seems to be immune to the norms of the modern era: the Lakers. They’ve now won six championships in the 21st century, as many as any other non-Celtics team has won in the history of the NBA. In the NFL, the Patriots have also won six post-millennium titles, but all of them came with the combination of head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady. We don’t know whether their ability to win championships will hold after inevitable roster and management changes, as it has for the Lakers. Just as the Yankees won with teams led by Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, then teams led by Joe DiMaggio, and then teams led by Mickey Mantle, the Lakers have won with teams led by Shaq, then teams led by Kobe, and now a team led by LeBron.
It’s remarkable, because the Lakers haven’t always been a well-run organization. For most of the 2010s, they were defined by baffling choices and poor management. In 2012, the Lakers traded away a slew of valuable players and future draft picks to acquire Dwight Howard and late-career Steve Nash. In 2016, the Lakers made two impossibly bad free-agent signings, spending $136 million on Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov, who combined to play just 111 games for the team. Between 2011 and 2019, the Lakers were utterly rudderless, posting the league’s fifth-worst record (249-391), firing four head coaches, and missing the playoffs in six consecutive seasons. In April 2019, Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson abruptly quit, explaining in detail that he didn’t like the job and saying that general manager Rob Pelinka was a back-stabber. This was last season.
For most of the decade, the Lakers’ strategy of trying to land big-name free agents failed. They met with LeBron’s agent in 2014; at the time, he wasn’t interested. They wanted to meet with Kevin Durant in 2016; he didn’t even grant them a meeting. (The Mozgov and Deng signings were the drunken splurge after Durant spurned them; they had a lot of money to spend and nobody good to spend it on.) The Lakers wanted to spruce up the last few years of Kobe’s career by pairing him with Carmelo or LaMarcus Aldridge, but both said no. As recently as last summer, the Lakers wanted to sign Kawhi Leonard, and he picked the other team in their city.
Yet things turned around, because the Lakers are the Lakers. LeBron wanted to play for the Lakers. He never publicly explained why—he learned his lesson about free agency announcements after the first one—but he probably wouldn’t have chosen just any old franchise that hadn’t made the playoffs in six years. Other teams can be near-perfect all the time and achieve less success than the Lakers. The San Antonio Spurs were the pinnacle of excellence for about 20 years, a period in which they won five championships. The Lakers won five with Kobe, then dicked around for seven years and won a sixth like it was easy.
I suspect that the Lakers will soon move into sole possession of first place on the all-time title leaderboard and stay there. My reasoning is simple: The NBA’s modern era is defined by the biggest stars, and those stars often want to play for the Lakers. The Lakers’ three-peat in the early 2000s happened because Shaq signed with L.A. as a free agent. (Shaq later signed in Boston too, but on the veteran minimum contract after finishing dismal stints with the Phoenix Suns and Cleveland Cavaliers.) In 2018, the Lakers signed LeBron, and they traded for Davis a year later with the expectation that AD will lead them to championships after LeBron’s career wanes. (It will eventually wane, right?) I guess the Lakers would be in trouble if Davis doesn’t re-sign, especially given how much they gave up to get him. I mean, Lakers fans haven’t figured out what number to give Giannis on his Photoshopped Lakers jerseys. Folks, no. 34 is retired!
The Celtics, for their part, have been very well-run for most of the 21st century. They won a championship in 2008 by capitalizing on the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to trade for both Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in the same offseason. Danny Ainge has ripped off just about anyone he’s traded with: He made a famously lopsided 2013 trade with the Nets by exchanging an aging Garnett and Paul Pierce for a haul of high-round draft picks. He traded down in the 2017 draft and picked Jayson Tatum at no. 3; the Philadelphia 76ers, who traded up, got Markelle Fultz at no. 1. Ainge also cashed in on a remarkable postseason showing from Isaiah Thomas by sending him to the Cavaliers for Kyrie Irving. As a result of these moves, the Celtics made the playoffs nine times in the 2010s; the Lakers made the playoffs only four times during that span.
But Boston’s biggest free-agency coup ever was either Al Horford or Kemba Walker. The Celtics’ highest-profile signing might have been Gordon Hayward, who signed in 2017 but immediately suffered a gruesome injury he’s never quite recovered him. As such, the Celtics haven’t won many recent titles, in spite of their overall success. They didn’t make the Finals once in the 2010s, losing to LeBron in the conference finals three times. Meanwhile, the Lakers signed LeBron, a strategy which almost instantly yielded the Lakers the same number of championships as Boston’s decade-plus of savvy trades.
Some would argue an NBA era defined so prominently by free agency will lead to dominance by big-market teams in warm-weather cities. But the results don’t bear that out. The NBA has historically been dominated by two teams, but has recently had a diverse set of champions. Within the past 10 years, a Canadian team won a title; the Golden State Warriors became a dynasty after going 40 years without a championship; LeBron made the Miami Heat into a superteam and won two Finals there; he then returned to Cleveland and won the city’s first pro sports championship in 52 years. Next season could see several historically blighted teams win it all. In addition to the Clippers and Bucks, who will run it back after shaking off postseason disappointment, the KD-and-Kyrie Nets could win their first title.
And then there are the Lakers, a perpetual homing beacon for the sport’s best players. The power of the Lakers isn’t that they’re always good, or that they’ll land every free agent. It’s that they don’t need to play the same game as everybody else. Everybody else needs to be right all the time to win; the Lakers just need an occasional signature. Any other team that consistently based its strategy around “just hoping the best player in the world will sign with us in free agency” is doomed. (Trust me, I’m a Knicks fan.) But the Lakers know they have a better shot than anybody else. It’s just easier for the Lakers to pop back up. The Lakers are always looming as a championship contender, even if they’re not far removed from breaking the bank for Timofey Mozgov.
This is the premise of Lakers Exceptionalism, the idea that the Lakers have a fundamental advantage over everybody else. To believe in Lakers Exceptionalism is not exactly a compliment to the Lakers. It has nothing to do with moral or intellectual superiority. It merely means that even when their hull is full of holes, they are unsinkable. For fans of the other 29 teams, the Lakers are evidence that sometimes supervillains are the ones who get to be invincible. For fans of the Lakers, all that matters is that they’re no. 1—and as soon as they get championship no. 18, they officially will be.
An earlier version of this piece misstated the last time the Maples Leafs had won a title.