A random deep dive into the past led to Earvin "Magic" Johnson's comeback year, way back to 1995-96 NBA season—the winter before Kobe Bryant joined the NBA and Shaquille O'Neal came to Los Angeles.
After suddenly retiring from the Los Angeles Lakers in November of 1991, Johnson decided he wanted to get up off the couch in the middle of the 1995-1996 season and play NBA basketball again. Medically, the world understood enough to deem the return safe, and Lakers athletic trainer Gary Vitti once famously told the story of how he made sure not to use gloves the first time Johnson got a cut to demonstrate that Johnson was not a health risk to fellow players or fans.
On Jan. 30, 1996, Johnson returned to the Lakers for a home game against the Golden State Warriors and got a standing ovation from the Great Western Forum crowd when he gave Latrell Spreewell a "head and shoulder fake," in Chick Hearn's words. Spreewell nearly fell off the court, while Johnson managed 19 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds in 27 minutes off the bench.
Nearly 22 years later, a couple 20-year-old kids named Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram face those same Warriors, only the Warriors riding into STAPLES Center on Wednesday night bear no resemblance to the team Johnson faced more than two decades earlier. Now, Johnson is a Lakers' executive, and the Warriors play the best basketball on the planet Earth.
One can confidently already label the half decade from 2015 to 2020 as the Warriors' era in the NBA.
So, why would the Lakers have any chance at beating the best team on the planet? Simple, the Lakers have beaten the Warriors at least once every season going back to the 1993-94 season, which well before Ball or Ingram existed on the planet Earth. Even when the Lakers won only 17 out of 82 games and caused eyes damage, like staring at the sun for too long, the record 73-win Warriors still could not sweep the Lakers in a season series.
At 15-6 on the 2017-18 season, the Warriors enter Staples Center on Wednesday with the second best record in the Western Conference. The first-place team is the Houston Rockets, at 16-4, and the Lakers have the unfortunate scheduling of facing the top two teams in the Western Conference five times over the next 10 games. Add in that the Lakers play seven of those 10 games on the road, and Wednesday night begins a stretch that will test the team's character and resolve.
Ball is about to go to point guard university, getting schooled by Stephen Curry, James Harden and Chris Paul. Experienced NBA point guards get embarrassed by those three All-NBA level players. Ball is a rookie about to learn the toughest lessons about life in the NBA. Sprinkle in that Ball will get his first look at his favorite player growing up, LeBron James, during this same upcoming stretch of 10 games, and the NBA is about to get real for the former UCLA Bruin like never before.
While Ball plays it cool and doesn't publicly show added emotion or voice awe about playing against the best players in the modern game, the rookie called Curry the "greatest shooter of all time" at Tuesday's practice. Ball maintained that he had been playing his similar modern style before Curry's emergence, but he acknowledged the two-time champion's importance in bringing the style to the forefront on the NBA level.
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Passing the quarter mark of his rookie season on Wednesday, Ball has been better than advertised on the defensive-end and has also surprisingly translated his rebounding ability to the professional ranks without issue. Through 20 games, averaging 8.7 points, 7.3 rebounds, 7.1 assists and 1.4 steals per game. On any given night, the 20-year-old is liable to drop a triple-double, and he flirts with that statistical feat about as often as he gets criticized for his poor shooting.
To be fair, Ball is shooting significantly below expectations, especially at STAPLES Center. In the arena the Lakers and Clippers both share, Ball is shooting 14.3 percent from three-point land. When he escapes from LA, Ball shoots 38.0 percent from distance, providing a bizarre discrepancy that will be thoroughly tested when the Chino Hills native hits the upcoming strip of the schedule.
Regardless, the first 20 games have provided enough evidence to suggest that the Lakers have a ball of talent at the point guard position. As Curry suggested, making long term career judgments after 20 games is ill-advised, at best.
"I hope you didn't judge me off my first 20 games in the league, either," Anthony Slater of the Athletic recently captured a video of Stephen Curry responding to a question about Ball at a Golden State Warriors' practice.
"Man, he's a rookie," Curry also said about Ball. "He's going through the ups and downs like every rookie has. Whether you're highly talented or not, it's all a learning experience trying to find your way and be comfortable."
Curry added, "I've already said that he's a great talent. He loves to play basketball, so he'll be able to fight through all that."
Kevin Durant echoed the same sentiment in terms of Ball simply going through the rookie learning process.
With the Lakers facing the Warriors three times over the next three weeks, Ball will get a chance to watch Curry, Durant and the best team on the planet play up close. Though losing may be painful, the experience of seeing the best up close cannot hurt.
In theory, the Lakers should lose every one of these upcoming trio of games, but history suggests otherwise. After all, the Lakers have not been swept by the Warriors since the 1993-94 season, and that was two years before Johnson made that famous mid-season comeback to beat these same Warriors.
On Wednesday, the Lakers and Warriors have a scheduled start time of 7:30 p.m. Pacific Time.