Prior to the start of this NBA season, the Los Angeles Lakers were widely expected to contend for a championship. With LeBron James and Anthony Davis on the floor, Los Angeles had the talent to compete against any team in the league. Still, questions remained about the Lakers’ depth and playmaking, and they didn’t even appear to be the best team in their own building — not with the Clippers adding Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. But flash forward to a little over a month later, and Los Angeles has stormed out ahead of the rest of the NBA. With a 17-3 record and several dominant performances on their resume, the Lakers are now the league’s best team. How did this happen and what changed so quickly? There are several key reasons for the improvement.
First off, the team revolves around James, who has responded to offseason doubters with a tremendous start to his season. He has shown a renewed commitment on the defensive end, looking more active and mobile when guarding opposing players. James is also distributing the ball at even higher levels than he was before (and he was already known as one of the greatest passers in league history). He trusts his Los Angeles teammates more this season and the results speak for themselves, as James is averaging a career-high 10.9 assists per game. And even if his athleticism has declined slightly — he is now 34 years of age, playing in his 17th NBA season — James can still score at will, averaging 25.7 points per contest. A happier and more energetic James has set the tone for the rest of the Lakers.
Meanwhile, Anthony Davis has fit in seamlessly with the team. Davis can hit threes at a passable rate, which helps floor spacing when he is on the court at the same time as James. And Davis’ talents in the paint allow James to rest on offense; the 26-year-old is averaging 26.1 points, 9.3 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game, taking over in several wins. Los Angeles’ two stars work well together — James can feed Davis with alley-oops, or take advantage of all the attention that Davis draws and drive unimpeded to the basket. Davis, of course, is also imposing on defense, averaging 2.8 blocks per contest and ensuring that opposing players have trouble scoring at the rim against the Lakers. Los Angeles gives up only 104.1 points per game, the fifth-best mark in the NBA.
Another major contributor to the Lakers’ stout defense has been Dwight Howard. The center signed with Los Angeles this past offseason, a move that few thought would make a major impact. But Howard is noticeably quicker and more agile after significant weight loss. He has committed at last to simply rebounding, dunking and defending, no longer demanding touches in the post like we saw him do in past seasons. Howard has accepted his role in the NBA and is averaging 6.8 points (on 75.0 percent shooting) and 6.9 rebounds in 19.9 minutes per game. The 33-year-old has emerged as an important role player and continues to earn far more time on the court than anyone anticipated.
Los Angeles’ roster has plenty of other depth in addition to Howard to support the two stars. Danny Green is a perfect fit for a LeBron-led offense — he’s shooting 39.8 percent from three-point range and is defending well. Kyle Kuzma provides scoring with his usual array of turning and twisting moves. JaVale McGee throws down dunks and blocks shots in the paint. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has drawn plenty of criticism from Los Angeles fans, but he’s done a better job of avoiding bad shot attempts and is shooting 40.4 percent from behind the perimeter. Alex Caruso battles on the defensive end and accordingly has received more and more playing time. When Avery Bradley returns from injury, he will also provide strong defensive efforts against opposing guards. In short, as this list indicates, Los Angeles has a variety of solid players who all fill important roles.
Other teams have impressed so far in the NBA season, but no one can match the Lakers in both talent and results. The Milwaukee Bucks are currently 17-3 and on an 11-game winning streak. Giannis Antetokounmpo has improved yet again. But Milwaukee doesn’t boast a second superstar like the Lakers do. The Clippers, with Leonard and George, have two superstars, but have experienced some bumps over the first few weeks. Kawhi’s knee remains a concern, and he’s missed several games because of it. If the Clippers stay healthy, they are the greatest threat to the Lakers, but health remains a big issue.
The Lakers should be the favorites to win the championship this year. James is eager to win his fourth ring, and Los Angeles has assembled a terrific roster to support him in his quest. The offense runs smoothly, the defense battles — all the pieces are in place for a long playoff run and a lot of wins. This edition of the Lakers might go down as one of the all-time great teams.
George Klein ’20 can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and op-eds to email@example.com.