Sports

The Lakers Look Like Defending Champions Again

With L.A.’s two superstars back sharing the floor together at last, their competitors for the title should be worried.

Anthony Davis drives on Jae Crowder
Anthony Davis drives the ball against Jae Crowder of the Phoenix Suns during the second half of Game Two of the Western Conference first-round playoff series at Phoenix Suns Arena on Tuesday in Phoenix, Arizona. Christian Petersen/Getty Images

For a brief window from late Sunday night through Tuesday evening, there was, if you’d believe it, a questioning of faith in the crown. After needing a last-minute (potentially blinded) prayer to beat the Golden State Warriors and stumbling on the road in their first-round series opener against the Phoenix Suns, murmurs about the Los Angeles Lakers’ chances of defending their title began to grow louder.

Anthony Davis looked lost in Sunday’s 99–90 Game 1 defeat, floating through the affair, often preferring to fire from the mid-range than attack the rim, while his matchup—fellow former No. 1 draft pick Deandre Ayton—ate on the glass. It was a recognizable if upsetting sight for Lakers fans. All too often before last season’s COVID-induced halt, and at times during his tenure in New Orleans, Davis would have games like this—nights when he’d go through the motions, seemingly zoning in and out of focus, and never quite taking the game by charge.

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In last season’s Orlando bubble, where Los Angeles looked every bit the best team in the league, a switch seemed to click in his head: Here stood a 6-foot-11 behemoth, blessed with size and agility, a feathery touch, and a penchant for scoring. If he struck first and struck often his team could not be matched. They weren’t, en route to Davis’s first and the franchise’s 17th NBA championship. But still, for all his talent, the threat of an inconsistent night unbecoming of a superstar persisted.

He meandered his way to 13 points on 5-of-16 shooting, seven rebounds, and two assists in 39 minutes during L.A.’s Game 1 defeat to Phoenix, and with LeBron James seemingly still nursing the ankle injury that kept him out of action for most of the past two-plus months of the regular season, many fans and pundits wondered whether the Lakers would ever regain their championship form.

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About that though: It turns out L.A. is fine. Better than fine.

On Tuesday, the Lakers roared past the Suns, 109–102, in a game that never felt as close as it was. LeBron’s 23 point, nine assist performance was a marked improvement on his 4-for-16 shooting in his prior outing, and Davis’s 34 point, 10 rebound, seven assist game that saw him go 18-for-21 from the charity stripe hardly resembled the lackluster night he had a few days earlier. And a chorus of critiques about the media’s “small sample sized” skepticism rained down from the Laker masses, cursing us nonbelievers for doubting the chosen ones.

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For all the concern surrounding James’s health, his age, and the wear-and-tear associated with logging nearly 61,000 minutes across 18 seasons, he remains the alpha on whatever team he suits up for, as he will until he chooses to abdicate his throne. Though time has weathered him, he’s adjusted, attacking the rim less often than he did in his youth, firing more threes than before while making them at a higher clip than in his early prime, and still dishing out enough dimes to earn a point guard classification in the eyes of his coach; his current passing game has only buffered his reputation as the league’s premier point forward.

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Davis is one of the chief beneficiaries of James’ largesse, and he is also the man poised to extend LeBron’s historic career. With respect to Dwyane Wade, Kyrie Irving, Chris Bosh, and Kevin Love, in Davis, James not only has his most talented teammate, but a player uniquely well-suited to complement his enormous talents. Davis is allowing James to transition into his final form, wherein he’s a distributor first, and a scorer second. In his first season with Davis, James led the league in assists (10.2 per game) for the first time in his career, and he threw dimes to Davis three times more often than the Brow’s next most prolific teammate, and more than all other teammates combined.

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Offensively, they’re a perfect pairing. James’ ability to slash at the rim, even at 36, and then kick out to open shooters opens driving lanes for other teammates, and his late-career development as a deep-ball shooter gives others—like Davis—room to eat on the interior. Likewise, though Davis has largely made his living bulldozing through foes inches away from the rim, his ability to stretch the floor as a big man—even despite shooting a dismal 26 percent from 3 this season—allows room for creators like James, Dennis Schröder, or Alex Caruso to dissect the defense.

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The Lakers are five points better per 100 possessions on offense when Davis and James share the floor than they are when the latter sits, and two points better than when the former takes the pine. On paper, that may seem obvious: good players make a team better. But it’s how the pair impact the team defensively that sets the Lakers apart from their competition. Coach Frank Vogel’s squads often rank among the best defensive units in the league, and these Lakers are no different. After running out the third-most effective defense last season, Los Angeles shut opponents down this year, allowing just 106.8 points per 100 possessions—best in the NBA.

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At the center of that shutdown defensive effort is L.A.’s reluctant center. Davis hasn’t been quiet about his misgivings having to play the position, announcing his displeasure with being asked to do so in his introductory press conference with the team in 2019. He split his time between power forward and center last season about 60-40 in the regular season, aided by the presence of traditional rim protectors JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard, but saw that ratio flip in the postseason as the Lakers waltzed to a ring. This year, despite replacing McGee and Howard with more talented, less natural fits in Marc Gasol, Montrezl Harrell, and Andre Drummond, Davis has managed to avoid his best position even more emphatically, playing 91 percent of his minutes at power forward in the regular season.

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But as games begin to matter, and both Davis and James return to full strength, the lineups Vogel runs more closely resemble the ones that helped carry the Lakers to glory a year ago. Davis played more minutes at center against the Warriors in the play-in game than he did in any of the 13 games he played leading up to the playoffs after returning from injury, according to ESPN’s Kevin Pelton. And through his first two games against Phoenix, he’s started ceding time at power forward, down to 78 percent of his minutes.

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The change might not seem significant, but it does allow the Lakers to more frequently return to the lineups that wreaked the most havoc on opponents last year and for much of this season, featuring James and Kyle Kuzma at the forward spots, Davis in the middle, and some combination of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Caruso, and Schröder in the backcourt. With his size and shot-blocking prowess, Davis is an adept rim protector, while James still has the strength to contain all those who dare enter the paint, and his speed allows him to limit perimeter threats as well. Likewise, KCP is one of the team’s most consistent defenders on the outside, and Caruso was the best defensive guard in the league, by FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR metric.

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Whichever way you slice it, this Lakers team is a force to be reckoned with on the defensive end, and as James regains his health, and the team rebuilds its chemistry after missing its two best pieces for months, it’s a safe assumption the most effective defense in the NBA will find its footing once again. The more time Davis and James share, the better their chances of winning another title.

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“Those are two of the top five players in the NBA,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel told reporters on Tuesday. “We have a formula where those guys carry a big load, especially at crunch time.”

How much of a load each can carry is the biggest question surrounding Los Angeles. Davis missed 32 games between early February and late April, and James sat for 26 of his own, with 16 shared games watched in street clothes. When Davis went down in a Valentine’s Day loss to the Denver Nuggets, the Lakers were 21–7, and a game and a half out of first place in the West. When LeBron exited a March 20 loss to the Hawks with a high ankle sprain, they were 28–14, and still locked in second position. In the ensuing weeks without one or both of their stars, they slipped down to seventh in the league, closing the season going 14-16.

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But there’s hope after a spring clouded in doubt. Now, after splitting the first two games with Phoenix in Arizona, the Lakers return to Los Angeles with eyes on putting the second-seeded Suns in an uncomfortable 3–1 deficit. And despite breakout seasons by Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges, and impressive showings from Chris Paul and Devin Booker, Phoenix doesn’t control its destiny. Because as they showed on Tuesday, it doesn’t matter how the Lakers’ supporting cast plays, or how much of a fight their opponents throw. Even farther down the line, contenders like the Jazz, the Nuggets, and any one of their potential Finals foes in the East (Brooklyn, Milwaukee, Philadelphia) are facing the same uphill battle. If James and Davis are at their best, nothing will keep them from hanging another banner. The only question now is whether their bodies will let them.

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