The Los Angeles Lakers have outperformed their preseason expectations, and proved a lot of prognosticators wrong in the process. At the moment, Los Angeles (21-16) sits at seventh in the conference and only four games back of the Denver Nuggets, who lead the Western Conference. The Lakers are without LeBron at the moment—he's currently recovering from a groin injury—but their long-term outlook remains positive. So how have the Lakers pulled it off? Chris Mannix and Rohan Nadkarni discuss on The Crossover NBA Show.
Chris Mannix: The state of the Lakers. Let's talk about them, Rohan. The Lakers dodged a bullet this past week when a groin injury to LeBron James turned out to be relatively minor. We are past Christmas into the New Year and the Lakers are firmly in the playoff mix in the Western Conference. They're playing with some pace—top 10 there—which we expected. They're also defending. Owners of a top 10 defense, which was unexpected, at least by me. Big picture: What have you made of the Lakers? Have they surprised you with how they've played so far this season?
Rohan Nadkarni: The Lakers have absolutely surprised me. This is like a total Jekyll and Hyde team. You don't know what you're getting from them on a night-to-night basis almost. I owe an apology to JaVale McGee, first and foremost. I thought it was frankly a joke that they were entering the season with him as their starting center. He's been really, really good for them. I mean, way beyond my expectations. He's anchored that defense when healthy and on the court. I remember Luke Walton was in Brooklyn and I asked him, "Does the defense match the expectations that you had before the season?" He said they wanted to be a top 10 defense, and he admitted that the first week that seemed like more of a dream than a goal, and here they are. They've definitely overachieved.
At the same time, they have these baffling losses. They were blown out in Denver, they lose to the Magic. They have all these weird losses that it's so far to know what to make of them. It's weird, because JaVale has been way better at this point than Brandon Ingram. And it's like, 'We thought you were going to ascend next to LeBron' and his game looks better whenever LeBron's not playing. They've definitely overachieved in the sense that I thought they were going to be fighting to get into the playoff picture for much of the first half of the season. I mean, that's kind of how it went with LeBron's return back in Cleveland and you could argue that was a better team in an easier conference. So in that sense I'm surprised at how firmly they've stayed in the playoff picture, but the way the West is stacked up it wouldn't surprise me if two weeks from now they backslid a little bit. But JaVale, I owe you an apology and that defense is way better than I ever imagined. Nbsp;
CM: See, if we're on the Laker apology tour, I'll jump in on this because I owe an apology to LeBron James. People hit me on this all the time on Twitter, about how I predicted the Lakers wouldn't make the playoffs. I didn't believe. As great as LeBron is as a player, I didn't believe in that conference he could've elevated those players to the level they're playing right now. You can argue too that he's benefitted from the collapse of some teams like the Jazz. They've been a mess. The Rockets haven't been the same team so those games are more winnable than they've been in years past.
That being said, this was a team of goof-offs last year. The rap battles and the immaturity that they showed. You also had a bunch of mercenaries brought into the mix with Lance Stephenson and Rajon Rondo and JaVale McGee. I didn't think that LeBron, as great as he was, would be able to glue all of this together to get him to this point. But LeBron James has shown once again that his mere presence elevates players, average players or good players, to another level. The Ingram's, the Lonzo Ball's. I'm with you, this team doesn't really have an identity yet. Are they going to be a defensive stopper team? Are they going to be a team that beats you by putting up 130 points? They're very unpredictable on a weekly basis, but LeBron has elevated them. LeBron has almost singlehandedly made them a playoff team by his talent and his presence out there on the floor. That is something, Rohan, I just didn't believe was possible with this group.
RN: I want to say another thing that's really surprised me about the Lakers and LeBron in particular. I did not think they'd play at the pace they have with LeBron on this team. That was one of the big question marks I had going into the season. Everyone said LeBron is the perfect guy to have on your team to run up and down the court, and in many ways that's true except his teams always play incredibly slow. The Lakers are playing at a fast pace and I'm shocked that in year 16 LeBron is playing almost definitely the fastest pace of his career. They had blown my mind, how well he's held up considering how fast they want to play and how willing he's been to play that style. I didn't see that coming, either.
CM: I wouldn't say he's a frontrunner for MVP, and the games he's going to miss and where the Lakers land in the standings are all going to factor in that. Giannis is right there in that MVP debate, Kawhi is going to be mentioned in the MVP debate. But where does he belong, in your opinion, in that MVP discussion? Because barring a collapse, the Lakers are going to be in the middle of that playoff picture this year.
RN: As great as he's been, and I'm probably going to catch some flack from this, I think he's been a little overrated in the MVP conversation so far. Obviously the stats are incredible, his impact is incredible. He's also really not trying half the time on defense, man. At what point do we hold that against him? I understand that he needs to conserve energy. Last year he played all 82, dragged the team to the Finals. I get it. I'm glad to make excuses for LeBron James. At the same time, a guy like Paul George has been a two-way star for the Thunder the entire way through. He's guarding the other team's best player every night. Kawhi Leonard guarding the other team's best player every night. LeBron, letting Jared Dudley back cut him to death in Brooklyn. I am not saying LeBron is not a great player, that he's not still at his best or one of the best players in the universe, I just think the MVP is a regular season award. LeBron is just not trying hard enough on both ends for me to say he's in the top two. I think he's getting the narrative Lakers bump. I'd put him probably four or five on my MVP ballot right now.