Lakers Daily Exclusive: Mike Penberthy Talks NBA Bubble Life, LeBron James and Team’s Championship Run

Ryan Ward
22 Min Read

The Los Angeles Lakers are officially NBA champions after LeBron James and company were able to take down Jimmy Butler’s Miami Heat in six games.

More than a week after the confetti had fallen and experiencing all the joys of winning a championship, Lakers assistant coach Mike Penberthy spoke with Lakers Daily about his experience in the NBA bubble and winning his first title as a coach for the same franchise he won a ring with as a player.

Ryan Ward: What was your experience like in the NBA bubble?

Mike Penberthy: The bubble was difficult. The NBA did a great job of putting it together and giving us a great place to live, practice and eat and play, but it surely wasn’t Club Med. It wasn’t beautiful and we didn’t have a ton of different things we could do.

We were there to do a job, but it was difficult for sure. More mentally than anything because your hours were different. We were playing games at nine o’clock at night. We had practices in the afternoon sometimes. We had practices in the mornings sometimes. The schedule was always changing, which made it difficult, but I thought the NBA did an amazing job of giving a place where we could stay safe and healthy and finish the season.

RW: Was it more difficult being confined in the bubble rather than traveling to play games?

MP: No question about it, yeah. No question about it. Traveling is normal for us. That’s normal. Being in one place and going back to the same hotel room every night is not. That made it more difficult for sure.

RW: So that was the toughest part of the bubble experience altogether?

MP: All the things I named were tough. Doing the same thing every day is difficult in the NBA. We don’t do that. Our routines are different than most people because of the way our jobs work, but being there every day and not being able to leave or go sit at a coffee shop or just change food or change venues gets pretty taxing. You’ve to be mentally strong enough to be able to focus and maintain your focus on the goal for 100 days.

That’s difficult. A lot of teams struggled with that. Higher seeded teams lost, and I think some of that had to do with being in the bubble.

RW: Did this bubble environment and the difficulty of being in the bubble for so long bring the team closer together?

MP: Yes, I do think that’s true. Anytime you have to face adversity, at whatever level it is at, you can either sink or swim. It’s either going to bring you closer or break you apart. I think it brought us closer for sure, so there’s a unique bond there for both the staff and players that were in there.

You see each other every day. You live on the same floor. You get up and bump into each other every other hour. You are having every meal together.

You’re walking down the hallway and walk into LeBron’s room and tease him about something. You just don’t get those things on a normal day, so that became the norm for us. Yeah, we definitely became close. I think that contributed to our success.

RW: You won a championship playing with Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal and now you’ve coached LeBron and Anthony Davis to a title. What are the differences in those Lakers superstar duos?

MP: All four of them are different players. Shaq is a true center. A.D. is a freak hybrid. LeBron is one of the most dominant forces in transition and with his basketball I.Q. and ability to pass, dribble and make big shots. And then Kobe was one of the greatest scorers and greatest talents in NBA history, so all of them were different in their own ways.

Shaq had the ability to make other people better. LeBron made other people better. A.D. and Kobe were more of the assassins of the group. They’re looking to score and looking to get the ball. Not that they couldn’t make other people better, but they were more valuable to the team scoring.

The differences are really that they were all different players, but here’s the unique thing that’s similar. Shaq and Kobe were better when they played together with each in pick-and-rolls and in post-ups and kick-outs. LeBron and A.D. got better when they played together. When they shared the ball and utilized each other’s strengths. They’re much better together than they were apart individually.

I think Shaq and Kobe came together to bring home championships and I think it’s the same for LeBron and A.D.

RW: How would you define LeBron as a leader now that you’ve seen what it’s like to win with him?

MP: He’s the leader of our team just because he’s our best player. He’s a natural leader in that regard. He knows the game really well. His ability to see what needs to happen and implement game plans as the coaches do. That was something that he’s amazing at. He sticks to game plans and he’s willing to be coached in that regard, so he leads on the floor.

I think he’s a big-time leader. He’s a great leader on the floor because he’s a naturally great competitor, but he’s also a great leader off the floor in our coaches meetings and our team meetings. He’s fantastic. He’s the leader of our team and he won with three different teams. That’s pretty amazing.

For him to do it on three different teams and be the best player on all those teams is unbelievable.

RW: Do you think the title with the Lakers puts LeBron over the top in the G.O.A.T. debate?

MP: I don’t know if it’s possible to compare eras. As a player, the NBA calls the game differently from a referee standpoint and the gameplay is played differently in all the eras.

What rules are you comparing these guys in? I think [Michael] Jordan was the greatest in his era. I think Magic [Johnson] and [Larry] Bird were the best in their era. I think Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar], who doesn’t get any love, I’ve always thought Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the greatest basketball player to ever walk the earth because of what he did from the time he was 15 until the time he was 40.

You look at everything he did. He was a four-time New York City Player of the Year. That’s insane! He won state championships. He won NCAA championships. Kareem gets no love.

I think he, personally, from my standpoint, is the greatest basketball player to ever walk the earth, but do I think LeBron is the greatest player in his own era? Absolutely! And there’s no question about it.

How do you compare them though when the referees call the game differently in all four of those eras? You know what I mean? It’s difficult to say.

I will say this, all those guys I mentioned, would be great in all the other eras. Kareem, Magic, Bird, Jordan and LeBron would be superstars in any of those eras. I think that’s really a tribute when you think about what makes a guy the best player in his era is that he could play in all the others eras no problem. I think that’s what LeBron James can do.

RW: Do you have a story about LeBron from your experience in the NBA bubble?

MP: Game 6. We sat down. We had a game plan set in place. We sat down to do our usual. We turned on the video. We walked through Miami.

LeBron says, “Coach, I want to guard Jimmy [Butler]. I want to match his minutes. I feel like I need to match up with him the whole game. I don’t want anybody else to guard him. I want to guard Jimmy Butler.”

That’s leadership in a nutshell right there. You just basically said, “I’m going to be the best player in the game and I’m gonna guard the other team’s best player and that’s what we’re going to do.”

So, that tells you a little bit about him. He was going in that morning to say, “I got Jimmy Butler and I’m going to play 48 minutes if I have to.”

We didn’t have to play 48 (laughs). The game was over in 24, but that tells you a lot right there.

RW: Alex Caruso is now a household name. What do you think makes him so special to this team?

MP: He fits! He’s like the perfectly fit puzzle piece. What makes Alex good, similar to what I did, you have to be a good player alongside superstars. You have to be a complementary player and then those guys got to want you on the floor, which was what was great about Shaq and Kobe with me. They always wanted me in the game because I add space.

Caruso, LeBron and A.D. always want him in the game because they know he can handle the ball. They know he can shoot the three. They know he’ll guard. They know he won’t make stupid mistakes. They know he likes to push the ball in transition. He fits alongside those two guys’ strengths as well, so that’s a big part of why Alex Caruso is so coveted around the NBA as well.

Every time we wanted to do a trade in the offseason or before the trade deadline, every team wanted Alex Caruso. He’s known throughout the league and respected throughout the league.

I think his basketball I.Q. is really high. His NBA skill set is very high. He’s an above-average athlete and he’s an excellent defender. That’s what makes him so good.

RW: Who impressed you the most on this Lakers team outside of LeBron and A.D?

MP: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was unbelievable defensively. That guy guarded Dame Lillard, Jamal Murray. We put him on [James] Harden. We put him on [Russell] Westbrook. We put him on Butler sometimes.

The job he did on Duncan Robinson is one of the best I’ve ever seen. KCP was probably the most impressive and the biggest surprise in terms of his consistency. I thought he was consistently one of the top five defenders in the bubble for sure. I thought he was great.

RW: Talen Horton-Tucker didn’t play that much, but when he did he made an impression. What do you think the future holds for him?

MP: Talen is my favorite player coming up. He’s my favorite guy. He’s a guy I’m going to spend a lot of time with this offseason.

If it wasn’t for the players that we had that were veterans, Talen would’ve played a lot more. We had discussions every day about getting Talen in the game more, but we just didn’t have time. We just couldn’t find time for him, but we were trying to.

He’s a fantastic player. He’s going to have a great career.

RW: Do you believe that Anthony Davis makes a case to be the best player in the NBA right now?

MP: I think what A.D. does is he’s a superstar on offense and he’s a superstar on defense. He can guard all positions. I think he makes a case for it.

Obviously, LeBron is phenomenal at what he does. I think Anthony may be a better defender. He’s a better defender over an entire game. LeBron, when he wants to guard, you are not scoring, so I would say that’s the main thing.

LeBron is still an elite defender when he wants to be and when he has the energy to be, but I think Anthony Davis is a top-two player in the NBA. I think you can make an argument he’s the best player in the NBA right now.

He can do it all, man. I’m telling you. I saw it up close this year. This is my third year being with him. I thought this year he made huge strides in his development and really took a step forward. He made some big-time clutch shots for us. Shots that won games and sealed games. That was a big focus of ours when I was working with him in the offseason and during the bubble break was obviously shooting, but he got better in the post. He read double teams better. He figured out how to get to his midrange in the Portland series. He guarded everybody in all those series that we played.

A tough question. It’s not an easy one to answer because you have LeBron James, who I think is phenomenal, but I think Anthony Davis is right there with him.

RW: Were you guys looking forward to facing the [Los Angeles] Clippers in the Western Conference Finals?

MP: We really didn’t care. I mean, I think the Clippers made a lot of hype about the Clippers.

Look, they’re a really good team. I thought they were really well-coached and talented. They had their own issues that they had to deal with, and I don’t know the details for that one that didn’t involve my staff, so whatever reason they weren’t able to close the deal against Denver, but we really didn’t care to be honest with you.

Denver beat them. So we knew we had our hands full with Denver because they were obviously a better team. The best team always wins in seven games. So obviously they weren’t better than Denver. There’s no way that you can say that after a seven-game series that Denver beat them four times in seven games and they’re not a better team. The best team always wins.

It didn’t really matter to us. I think everybody wants us to be like, ‘Oh yeah! We can’t wait to take on the Clippers!’ Look, we were trying to win. It didn’t matter who was in front of us, so if the Clippers were going to be there, we didn’t think it was going to be a tougher test than Denver. Obviously, right? Denver beat them. We figured we were in for a dogfight either way, but I don’t think any of us, to be honest with you, at least in our inner group, none of us really cared. We definitely weren’t scared of them.

RW: That’s all I’ve got for you, Mike. Is there anything you’d like to add?

MP: Frank Vogel is an amazing coach. He did an amazing job managing both our staff and our players. That’s such a hard job to do with superstars, right? Because they can really do whatever they want. You know what I mean? They have the ball in their hands. It’s not like we can control that, so I thought Frank was amazing. Jason Kidd did an amazing job as a head assistant. Those two guys deserve a ton of credit and Frank was just incredible.

He’s a grinder. He has a staff full of grinders. We were all workers. It fit perfectly with him and his late-night texts and his early morning change of plans and our discussions. We would have two-hour discussions on who we were going to play and how we were going to sub.

What are matchups? What are our minutes going to be? Those kinds of things come up every day. I don’t think people realize that about coaching. It isn’t just, ‘Here’s our plan.’ The plans change based on personnel. The plays change based on who’s playing more minutes and the 110 plays that we had in our playbook we had to figure out the best ones that worked. We had those discussions.

I would just say that Frank Vogel did an amazing job. He deserves so much credit. He really does.

RW: What was the feeling like winning a title as a player compared to winning as a coach?

MP: I would say when you’re playing, you are not preparing in a mental way as much as you are physically. You’re sleeping more. You’re physically getting ready. You’re practicing. You’re working on your skillset. You’re keeping your conditioning up. You’re lifting weights. It’s more of a physical preparation.

On the coaching side, I watched every one of our games three times getting ready for our coaches’ meetings and having notes and stuff ready for discussion, and then I’d watch all the teams we were playing. I’d watch their games two times.

Whatever teams are in those rounds of playoffs, we don’t know who we’re going to play, so we’re watching everybody and were watching everybody twice. So the mental fatigue and the grind is a totally different ball game. You know the teams, the plays, everybody’s tendencies so much better than even as a player you would because you are reacting really as the game goes on.

So there’s a preparation that goes into it and really that preparation as a coach is just to be ready when LeBron James comes to you and says, ‘I’m going to have the ball on this wing here. What are they going to do defensively?’ You’ve got to have an answer.

Winning as a player was more physical. Winning as a coach is more mental.

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Ryan is a veteran sportswriter who has covered the NBA and NFL for nearly a decade. Along with numerous exclusive interviews with professional athletes, Ryan has been credentialed by the Los Angeles Lakers since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWardLA.