It’s been a while since Lakers fans have been in a position halfway into the season to feel good about something. Last year at this time, the team was in the midst of a swoon caused in large part by the Christmas Day injury to LeBron James. An injury the team (and LeBron himself) never 100% fully recovered from. But a year has passed and the fading promise of last season and the dark times of the five years prior have faded into the rearview mirror as the team streaks into the halfway point in the season with a gaudy 33-8 record. So what has gone so right for the Lakers this season that has everyone else in the Western Conference looking up at them with a comfortable four-game margin over their nearest competitors? And what factors still are hovering over the team as they make a determined run toward an NBA Championship?
Welcome To Hollywood, Anthony Davis!
The timetable for the Lakers dramatically changed when the long-rumored trade for Anthony Davis was finally pulled off. No longer could the team afford to be patient on a youth movement that had not yet proven its worth. In its place comes an urgency to do whatever it takes and a “Win Now” mode that has the team soaring above everyone’s expectations.
Bringing Davis over brought an improved focus on the defensive end for the Lakers. The team’s 104.6 defensive rating (as of this writing #3 in the NBA) can clearly be attributed to a new mindset brought on by the presence of Davis. His comments on setting a defensive tone early on in training camp have carried over into the season, giving the team confidence that they can win against any team, even when the offense isn’t working on all cylinders. If the team is to continue its winning ways, the defense has to continue to be a major part of that equation.
A Motivated LeBron James Is A Dangerous LeBron James…
The arrival of Davis signaled to LeBron just how serious the Lakers had become to going “All In” on winning a championship. An extended rest (for him) this past summer after being part of the last eight straight NBA Finals has rejuvenated LeBron who has clearly taken some sips from the fountain of youth in his 17th season. Leading the league in assists for the first time in his career, James has played at an MVP-like level. His real plus-minus value has pushed him past fellow superstars Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, and Kawhi Leonard making it appear on paper to be more valuable to his team than anyone else in the league.
But one can only assume that LeBron playing at this level for the Lakers has a finite window. The allure of finishing his career with his son (possibly as early as 2023), and the inevitability of Father Time catching up at some point sooner rather than later has James playing with a determination rarely seen from him during the regular season. While this has come as must-see watching for Lakers fans, as they now have the LeBron they envisioned when he decided to join the team as a free agent in 2018, it does spark the debate on how much energy James needs to put forth during the season. And also ignites the conversation about how/if LeBron can be utilized (i.e. rest and/or diminished playing time) less in order to have a more refreshed #23 for the playoffs.
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The Rest of the Team and the Kuzma “Konundrum” (Yes, I know it starts with a “C” but roll with me here…)
While the Kawhi free agent sweepstakes may have left the Lakers a bit short-handed, GM (and now VP of Basketball Operations as well) Rob Pelinka managed to scrape together enough spare parts to assemble a championship-level team. What the club lacks in consistency makes up for it with a camaraderie that has created some of the best team chemistry in the NBA. Shooters like Danny Green, Quinn Cook, and Troy Daniels are all under their career average percentage from behind the three-point line but have trended upward in recent weeks. Alex Caruso has become a key piece to Lakers’ defensive core and become a walking meme (and fan favorite) in the process. Rajon Rondo, after a period of excellent shooting, has reverted back to his prior season’s status on both the offensive and defensive end bringing about a need for a playmaker (Darren Collison perhaps?) that can take some of the load off of LeBron James’ broad shoulders.
JaVale McGee and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope have shaken off early-season struggles and fan backlash to become some of the brighter spots in the rotation. But it’s the resurrection of one Dwight Howard that has had Lakers fans do a total 180-degree turnaround in their feelings toward him. Seemingly on the verge of becoming an outcast in the league headed for basketball overseas or the Big3, an unfortunate injury to DeMarcus Cousins paved the way for his return to the team. Despite the misgivings of virtually every Lakers fan, Dwight’s play off the bench has been a key to the team’s defensive standing. Just as important for the team, the play of McGee and Howard allows Anthony Davis from playing too much at the center position (which Davis has said he does not like to do).
The player most talked about these days is one of the few holdovers from the Lakers past. Kyle Kuzma’s inconsistent play, whether due to injuries, not enough playing time or just not being a great fit with LeBron and A.D. has put him right in the middle of trade rumors and speculation. His relative youth (he’s 24), ability to score and cheap contract (just under two million this year, three and a half next season) has put him front and center as the trade winds continue to blow as we head toward the February 6th deadline. The questions that arise for the Lakers with a possible Kuzma trade is should you break up the chemistry by trading him? And will the team get something that would put them over the top in return?
The Second Half Awaits…
As the Lakers set out on the road on their yearly extended Grammy trip, those nagging questions that have popped up during the season still remain. The team has beaten virtually everyone they are supposed to beat (22-1 vs. below .500 teams) but have struggled against the two teams most talked about as NBA Finals competition (0-3 against the Milwaukee Bucks and LA Clippers). The Clippers losses have been particularly painful, due to the hometown rivalry and speculation on where both teams will end up in this year’s playoffs.
Coach Frank Vogel, whose tenure started out as somewhat insecure, has drawn up a winning plan so far that has given the team the foundation to squash much of the scrutiny and criticism that came its way early on in the season. With the back half of the NBA year starting in Houston, Vogel and the rest of the Lakers organization will have plenty of opportunities to continue to shut down the doubters and nay-sayers by answering those questions with a historic run to their 17th Larry O’Brien trophy.