The Los Angeles Lakers’ close win over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday happened exactly one month after their season-opening loss to the Clippers. In that time period, the team has already changed greatly and there’s a lot to take away from the early portion of the season as the team takes a 13-2 record into the second month.
1. The defense is for real
No storyline has been bigger for the Lakers than their top-tier defense and how quickly it has formed with a lot of new parts. Their 102.1 defensive rating ranks fourth in the NBA through the first month of the year but even that’s not quite enough to describe how dominant it has been. That rating is majorly skewed by the second win to the Thunder in which the Lakers posted an abysmal defensive rating of 123.3, by far their worst outing of the season. Their rolling average tells a different story as the team has hovered around the 100.0 mark nearly all season:
The Lakers recent slide, if you can call it that, has corresponded to Avery Bradley’s absence due to a hairline fracture. In the last four games, all of which the starting point guard has missed, the Lakers have posted a 109.2 defensive rating. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has done an admirable job covering for Bradley, who has arguably been the team’s best perimeter defender but extended minutes for Quinn Cook and Rajon Rondo have negatively impacted the Lakers’ defense.
Still, when the team needs a stop or a situational tactic, as it did against the Thunder when they blew up a play for a 3-pointer in the final seconds, it has continued to perform like the league’s best defense.
2. KCP Revenge Tour
Speaking of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, the young guard deserves a ton of credit for the turnaround he’s had already this season. KCP had an abysmal start to the year – mainly on the offensive end with his shooting struggles and poor decision-making – leading to a lot of fan ire and even some boos at Staples Center. (Side note: Booing a Lakers player at Staples is despicable. Don’t do that.)
Since Dwight Howard led the charge in publicly supporting KCP amid his struggles, however, the third-year Laker has picked up the pace and turned into a major difference-maker for the squad. In particular, since starting for Bradley, Caldwell-Pope is averaging 14.8 points per game while shooting 61.1 percent from the field and 62.5 percent from three. He’s done so while playing excellent defense on the likes of Chris Paul, leading to the team outscoring opponents by a total of 17 points when KCP is on the court over that stretch.
KCP deserves a ton of credit for that turnaround and he’s become a really invaluable part of the roster even when Bradley returns.
3. LeBron James is the MVP
The Lakers made a big deal out of LeBron James opting to take a step back and make Anthony Davis the first option. And while the former MVP has deferred to AD on many occasions, especially early in games, it’s still very clear that this is his team.
James has adopted a #WashedKing persona after questions about his age and health were raised following a disappointing first season in LA. LeBron, fresh off the longest summer of his career, has looked spry and fresh, playing the best defense he has in years (just don’t look at the tape from Friday’s game) and taking over games with a combination of his scoring and passing.
LeBron leads the league in assists but his scoring is down to the lowest it has been since his rookie year as the team plays through Davis. But the all-around game that The King is showing in his 17th season is one of the most impressive feats in basketball and for my money, he’s in the lead for the MVP trophy at the end of the year.
4. Anthony Davis is the DPOY
James isn’t the only Laker that could be atop awards leaderboards. The Lakers’ prized summer acquisition has been the consistent anchor in the paint for the team leading the way for their aforementioned devastating defense.
Davis is leading the league in blocks at 2.9 per game and is adding 1.4 steals. In fact, the big man’s steal rate and block rate so far this season have only been matched by five players in NBA history who appeared in at least 25 minutes per game. The others are David Robinson, Marcus Camby, Andrei Kirilenko, and Johnathan Isaac this season.
Davis (in addition to Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee) has been such a force at the rim that’s allowed perimeter players like Bradley, Caldwell-Pope and Danny Green to play their opponents tight around the arc and gamble for turnovers, knowing AD can correct their mistakes. That is a huge (in both a literal and figurative sense) advantage for the Lakers.
5. Alex Caruso continues to be special
Many fans saw Alex Caruso’s impact last year as an unknown undrafted guard who played major minutes for the Lakers. The organization saw the same and paid him a decent sum of money to keep him around the franchise. That contract may be a steal.
Caruso has forced his way into the crowded guard rotation and before the season is over, he may force himself into the starting point guard role as well. Caruso’s not going to blow you away offensively but he’s a perfect complement to the attention that James and Davis get with his cutting ability. He will have to beat the defense with his shooting to keep them honest.
Defensively, however, Caruso is special, as Frank Vogel has called him. He not only does an admirable job staying in front of his assignment but he is arguably the best help defender among the Lakers perimeter options and makes the right play nearly every time in tagging big men on the roll before recovering on his own man.
6. The center rotation is set
Another surprising positive for the Lakers has been the state of their center rotation. JaVale McGee struggled to start the year but has picked up the pace. Dwight Howard has been a revelation off the bench, contributing immensely to the defense and doing the dirty work down low.
But when the Lakers get to crunch time, it’s Davis that moves up a spot and creates a matchup nightmare for teams. That’s what led to his clutch four-point play to ice the game against the Thunder on Friday with the big man getting free in the corner and canning the shot against a wild closeout. The center position is a major area of strength for the Lakers as long as McGee and Howard continue to excel in their respective roles and pick up the slack for each other when one is struggling.
7. Kyle Kuzma complementing LeBron James and Anthony Davis
Kyle Kuzma entering the lineup after his offseason injury was a much-needed jolt to the Lakers’ offense. The third-year pro was billed as the third piece behind LeBron and Davis and while he may not quite be the team’s third-best player (for my money, it’s Danny Green), he’s been doing everything right in a complementary role.
Kuzma is up to 33 percent shooting from behind the 3-point line after an abysmal start. In fact, he’s made 45% of them over his last seven games. His cutting ability, especially off LeBron, adds movement to a sometimes stagnant offense and he’s even been much better on the defensive end with the advantage of always having shot-blockers behind him. Kuzma’s chemistry with Davis is a work in progress – the two have an 85.5 offensive rating and a 111.6 defensive rating in 64 minutes without James on the floor – but you can see flashes of that potential with Kuz playing alongside either of the two stars.
8. Oh, Rondo
The Rajon Rondo experience has been…pretty much exactly what we expected. Rondo’s first game back from injury – a five point, six rebound, seven assist outing – was actually a great performance that showed what his peak ability for the Lakers could provide.
Unfortunately, the same problems still persist. Rondo’s defense is a major issue that at times can be circumvented by good help defense but routinely puts his teammates in difficult reactive situations. Offensively, his defender will always crowd the paint and affect the Lakers’ spacing even though he’s shooting 40 percent from three so far this year.
On Friday, Rondo had maybe his ugliest moment as a Laker, hitting a Thunder point guard in the Schroders and getting kicked out of the game. Rondo’s primary attribute at this point is supposed to be his leadership and smarts but those kinds of moments really put that into question.
9. The offense is coming together
While the Lakers’ defense has taken a slight dip over the past week or so, the offense has reached a new level. The two-man game between James and Davis has been used more and the Lakers have almost abandoned post-ups for their big man, trying to get the ball to him in space. In addition, some regression to the mean has meant that the Lakers 3-point shooting is approaching levels that we believed to be possible; they made 17-of-31 attempts against the Thunder on Friday in their best shooting performance of the season.
As a result, the Lakers shot profile is getting better as the season goes along. They still take a few too many midrange jumpers per game, but the team is taking the vast majority of its shots at the rim and getting good looks at corner 3-pointers. Their shot charts for the season show how cold they’ve been from behind the arc thus far but that seems to be shifting as the season progresses.
The Lakers suddenly have the sixth-best offense in the league through the first month of the season with an offensive rating of 110.6. If they hover around the top five in both offense and defense all year, they will be the favorites to win the title.
10. Lakers on pace for a 71-11 record.
That’s it. That’s the takeaway.