What We Got Wrong About the Lakers

Fueled by the idea of being labeled "washed", LeBron James is having his most complete season since he played in Miami and Anthony Davis looks rejuvenated by playing for a contender. So what did we miss?
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What did we miss?

The Lakers are 24-3, the class of the Western Conference. Only Milwaukee has a comparable record. LA has a top-five offense. They have the NBA’s second-ranked defense. They have a win differential of plus-9.4. They aren’t just beating most teams—they are clobbering them.

The Lakers were supposed to be good.

Were they supposed to be this good?

So … what did we miss?

Was it LeBron James? Six years removed from his last MVP award, James is making a strong case for another one. His offense continues to be otherworldly—the 26.1 points, the league-high 10.7 assists—but it’s his defense that has been the shocker. James has always been capable of elite defense, but the combination of age (he’ll be 35 in a couple of weeks) and enormous offensive responsibility has reduced him to a part-time defender in recent seasons.

Not this one. Motivated—James seems fueled by the idea, perhaps manufactured, that some view him as washed up—James is having his most complete season since he played in Miami.

Was it Anthony Davis? Well … no one should have missed this one. Last season was a dysfunctional one for Davis, a clunky trade demand detonating it at midseason. But Davis is 26 and an annual MVP candidate. He’s on a mission to win Defensive Player of the Year and his offense hasn’t skipped a beat playing alongside James. He’s scoring (27.4 points) and swatting shots (2.6 per game), all while still trying to find consistency with the three-point shot.

Was it Dwight Howard? Everyone missed on this one—with good reason. Two seasons ago, Howard played 81 games for Charlotte. He averaged 16.6 points. He pulled down 12.5 rebounds. He was a healthy, former Defensive Player of the Year in his prime. Another player might have received a max-level contract. Howard got the mid-level exception from the only team (Washington) that was interested.

Howard was radioactive. Nobody wanted him. Nobody wanted him in the locker room. Nobody believed he could play a role. The Lakers gave Howard a non-guaranteed contract. And he has run with it. Howard is a reserve for the first time in his career. He has gone from superstar to super sub. He’s platooned with JaVale McGee in the middle, backboning the Lakers defense. Frank Vogel says the McGee/Howard pairing is providing All-Star level production. He might be right.

And what about Vogel? For months, Vogel was a coach on a clock. He was the Lakers third choice, after Ty Lue and Monty Williams turned the Lakers down. He was a placeholder for Jason Kidd. He wasn’t supposed to last. He has. Vogel’s defense-first message has been well received. Players have praised his eagerness to teach—and how he goes about doing it. James has completely bought in. The assistant coaches have fallen in line. Any early season list for Coach of the Year has to have Vogel’s name at the top of it.

“There’s a great attention to detail [with Vogel],” Lakers GM Rob Pelinka told SI.com in the preseason. “And I also quickly learned that he's a collaborative thinker, but then a decisive decision-maker. I think sometimes collaborators can overthink things too much and then not be able to make a decision, but he takes input and then he's decisive with his decision. And I think we wanted to have a more structured, accountable philosophy with the basketball here, and he fit that.”

And what about Pelinka? When Magic Johnson quit, napalming Pelinka on his way out of town, there were calls for the Lakers to clean house. Jeanie Buss ignored them. The Lakers owner stuck with Pelinka. And after striking out on Kawhi Leonard, Pelinka quickly assembled a roster that just … works. The supersized front court works. Danny Green works. The Lakers shooting, a question mark before the season, has been a surprising strength. LA is in the top half of the NBA in three-point shooting with Green, Rajon Rondo and Kentavius Caldwell-Pope leading the way. They figure to be better when Kyle Kuzma, who has battled injuries this season, finds his rhythm.

Pelinka, too, has to be on any early short list for Executive of the Year.

Reasons to doubt the Lakers are disappearing. A soft November schedule? LA has won seven straight in December, collecting wins in Denver, Utah, Portland and Miami along the way. An overworked James and Davis? Vogel admitted recently that he had encouraged James to look for “smart opportunities” to “recharge the batteries.” And Davis’s injury history will always be a concern. But James is averaging the fewest minutes of his career and Davis seems rejuvenated playing for his first title contender. For now, any issues are hypothetical.

There are more tests coming. The current road trip ends in Milwaukee, on Thursday. The Lakers will return home to play Denver before a Christmas Day showdown with the Clippers. They could scuffle. They could come back to the pack.

Or they could keep rolling. The Lakers were a fun story in October, a surprise in November and emerged as an unquestionable title frontrunner in December.

That’s something no one can miss.