More than a meme: The Lakers that turned rejection into rings

Photo of Dwight Howard
Scott Mecum/Creative Commons

When we talk about the success of any championship-winning sports team, it’s hard to shine the spotlight away from its most notable superstar(s). In the context of the 2019-20 NBA season, the Los Angeles Lakers are no exception.

LeBron James, who now boasts four NBA Finals MVP awards, averaged a near triple-double against his former team, the Miami Heat, in a hard-fought six-game series. Alongside him was a once-in-a-generation talent Anthony Davis, who averaged 25 points and 10.7 rebounds while shooting 57.1% from the field. Combined, they tallied up nearly half of the Lakers’ total points.

As such, this year’s edition of the “Lakeshow” has been centered all around the dynamic duo. But what about the rest of the team? Have the media given the No. 3 through No. 16 players their fair share of credit?

The answer is no. Or at least, perhaps not enough. After years of ruthless “memeification,” it’s about time we give a lot of these players the “respect” they deserve.

Rajon Rondo

During the earliest stages of Rondo’s career, the up-and-coming point guard out of Kentucky looked especially promising. Having played eight straight seasons for the Boston Celtics, in which he earned four All-Star appearances and one championship ring by age 22, Rondo held quite the resume for a No. 21 overall NBA draft pick.

Thereafter, though, his career started to take a turn for the worse. For the next six years, he’d bounce around, moving from team to team and failing to find nearly as much postseason success as his Celtic days. As Rondo started to visibly show his frustration on the court — with lackluster effort and accusations of “quitting” on teammates — the memes started rolling in.

By the time Rondo hit age 32, he tested his luck with a new team: the Los Angeles Lakers. It’d be here that the now-veteran point guard would mount his fortuitous comeback.

Alongside James and Davis, two elite scoring options available to dish the ball out to, Rondo thrived. During the 2019-20 NBA Finals, he stayed levelheaded and embraced his role as a pass-first floor general. As a result, he won his second championship ring while matching the level of tenacity and grit that he used to make a name for himself in the first place, just a little longer than 12 years ago.

Dwight Howard

After watching Dwight Howard pour his heart out on Instagram Live while clutching the coveted Larry O’Brien NBA Championship Trophy, it’s really hard not to root for the guy. If there’s anyone on the Lakers roster who’s experienced a rollercoaster of ups and downs, it’s him.

Yet people often forget just how good he was. For the first decade of playing in the league, the 6’10” center was unstoppable, making eight straight All-Star appearances and leading the Orlando Magic to an NBA Finals appearance. Ironically enough, it wasn’t until he was traded to the Lakers back in 2012 that his credibility as a player started to deteriorate.

During his first layover in LA — which only lasted for one year — Howard caved under pressure. Meeting the demand of Lakers fans was tough enough, but playing to the level that the legendary Kobe Bryant expected you to play at was a whole other challenge in itself. Hence all the “soft” memes.

So when Howard came back to LA during the 2019-20 NBA season, no one knew exactly what to expect.

As it turned out, he proved all of his doubters wrong. Howard played with a rejuvenating energy in the playoffs. During the eight-year gap, he seemed to have come to terms with his new role as a key contributor off the bench rather than a first-option scoring superstar. Much to the Lakers’ satisfaction, he did exactly what he was asked to do: gobble up rebounds, block shots and pressure anyone who dared to step into the paint in front of him. The result? A true redemption story that earned Howard a shiny, new championship ring. Props to you, Dwight.

Alex Caruso

Ok, it may admittedly be a stretch to describe the “GOAT,” or “greatest of all time,” memes of Alex Caruso as “ruthless.” After all, Caruso himself admitted that there’s no such thing as “bad publicity.” But, to be fair, it seems as though more people have been fixated on the 26-year-old’s “receding” hairline than his worthy impact on the star-studded Lakers roster.

All throughout his career, Caruso has been an underdog. After going undrafted in 2016, the point guard out of Texas A&M signed with the Oklahoma City Thunder only to be cut from the team less than a month later. Consequently, he then spent the next year in the G League grinding his way back to the top, proving his worth as a more-than-capable 3-point shooter, unselfish secondary playmaker and highly efficient defender.

To complement a ball-dominant superstar such as LeBron James, the Lakers figured that Caruso was just the kind of role player they needed. So they gave him a chance with a two-way contract. And boy, they were right to do so.

Throughout the entirety of the 2019-20 playoffs, Caruso stepped in when the team needed him the most. In the game against the Portland Trail Blazers, in which Rondo was out after suffering a left hamstring injury, Caruso posted up incredibly efficient plus/minus ratings. He hounded the ball while defending. He forced crucial steals that led to easy points in transition. He set the necessary screens for his teammates.

For a second-string role player, Caruso is everything you could ask for and more. He doesn’t need to demand the ball to command respect, yet he does so effortlessly by giving it his all, game in and game out. As such, it’s about time we recognize him as more than a “meme,” rather as an NBA champion.

Ryan Chien writes for Bear Bytes, the Daily Californian’s sports blog. Contact him at [email protected].