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Can Anyone Dethrone The King and His Lakers?

After returning the Larry O’Brien to LaLa land last season, the Lakers look like the prohibitive favorite to retain the trophy in the early part of this season. Led by the seemingly indestructible LeBron James, flanked by the versatile Anthony Davis, and reinforced by a supporting cast both new and old, the Lakers have flown out of the gate and currently sit third in league standings with a 16-win 6-loss record. Championship hangovers are a real thing, and much was made of the Lakers having the shortest off-season in league history — so how are they doing this? 

As with any LeBron James led team, it begins with him. In a very real challenge to the notion that “father time is undefeated,” LeBron is very much in the MVP conversation through the first quarter of the season, despite this being his 18th campaign. While his per-game averages are down nearly across the board, this is more because head coach Frank Vogel is playing him a career-low 33.0 minutes per game, nearly two full minutes per game lower than last season. Analyze his numbers as per-36 averages and we can see that he is playing at a rate essentially matching last season’s numbers, where he finished in second place for MVP, and actually has the equal highest points per game average of his career per-36. The same is true with his rebounding and his 3-point percentage is at an all-time high. WTF? No seriously WHAT THE ACTUAL F***???

LeBron Per-36 Numbers Last Two Seasons (Highlighted Numbers Indicate Career Highs)

 Season  PPG  RPG  APG  SPG  BPG  FG%  3P%  FT%
2019-20  26.4   8.2  10.6   1.2   0.6  .493  .348  .693
2020-21  28.0   8.6   8.0   1.0   0.5  .500  .411  .714

Advanced metrics paint a favourable picture of LeBron, where he is still putting up a Player Efficiency Rating of 25.00 – 14th ranked in the league for players who have played at least 10 games and average at least 30 minutes. Personally, I prefer the Player Impact Estimate Rating or PIE rating as it relates more specifically to an individual impact on each game relative to total team stats, and this paints LeBron as the fifth most impactful player in the league through the quarter mark of the season. He is a part of the second-highest net-rated 5-man line-up in the league – the Lakers starting unit of Gasol, Davis, James, Caldwell-Pope and Schroder. The most important ability in the league is availability and LeBron has shown up for all 19 games. Just as notably the Lakers have not had any COVID related postponements, meaning his leadership qualities and laser focus off the court have rubbed off in some capacity on the rest of his team. The King has a real shot at his 5th MVP award at this stage of the season, especially with other threatening players like Doncic, Jokic and Durant playing on teams struggling to maintain records over .500. 

I don’t know if Anthony Davis is Robin to LeBron’s Batman, he might be more along the lines of Iron Man to Captain America. He has the clear capability to be the best player on the floor, like how Tony Stark led three entertaining solo movies, but when the entire Avengers assembled it was Captain America who led the Avengers. Davis possesses a truly unique playstyle of mobility, physicality, and a feathery outside shot all inside a 6’10 body with a 7’6 wingspan. He reminds me a lot of Kevin Garnett with his unique inside and out scoring capabilities and his capacity to consume opponents in a vortex of speed and long limbs on the defensive end. His stats are excellent again this season and like LeBron, his per-36 numbers are comparable to last season.

Anthony Davis Per-36 Numbers Last Two Seasons.

Season   PPG  RPG  APG   SPG  BPG  FG%  3P%  FT%
2019-20  27.3   9.7   3.4   1.5   2.4  .503  .330  .846
2020-21  24.0   9.7   3.8   1.4   2.1  .522  .326  .711

The scary part for the rest of the league is that Davis claimed he has “sucked” in the early part of the season. The Lakers star cited a lack of aggressiveness on the interior and a significant drop in free-throw attempts and percentage. Declaring that Davis has “sucked” is a reach, most players in the league would kill for his numbers, but he has been complacent at times rather than the forceful and dominating beast we saw last season. This is evidenced by him taking only 25.3% of his shots at the rim (lowest rate of his career) and the Lakers having a superior defensive rating when he sits than when he is on the floor. I have really enjoyed his maturation as a passer this season, where he is calmly dissecting double teams from the post. Davis may be easing himself into the season, but if the Lakers coaching brass can implement strategies to get him back to scoring at his best, while merging this newfound penchant for effective passing, then the rest of the league should be truly concerned. 

We know that James and Davis will be great, but what about the so-called “others” on the Lakers roster? Much was made in the off-season of General Manager Rob Pelinka and the upgrades he made to the roster. Complacency is death in the NBA and the front office was extremely active, adding 6th man of the year winner Montrezl Harrell, runner-up Dennis Schroder, veteran Marc Gasol, and swingman Wes Matthews. Harrell has been fantastic off the bench, where his toughness, grit, and intensity has provided an element not present on last year’s championship squad. Vogel has allowed him to isolate on either block for 25.1% of his offensive possessions each game and he has shown an ability to get inside with physicality and a newly revealed mid-range pull-up game that wasn’t present (or potentially not allowed) on the Clippers last year. Too much attention was paid to Harrell’s bubble struggles last season. The man lost the most influential person in his life (his grandma) and had to leave to attend her funeral. Playing with a heavy heart and lack of rhythm from league-mandated isolation upon return, he naturally labored and bore a large brunt of the Clippers-related criticism. Truly puzzling when he was on a roster of players that did NOT have those same excuses. *cough* Pandemic P *cough*. Schroder has been fantastic off the dribble and as a  point of attack creator, a far cry from Avery Bradley last season. Compare his numbers from last season and it’s clear that he is struggling with making shots from all over the floor. If he can raise his percentages closer to what he did last season the Lakers will become even more dangerous.

Dennis Schroder Field Goal % by Distance from Rim Past Two Seasons.

    Season   0 – 3 feet  3 – 10 feet 10 – 16 feet 16 – 3point     3 point
   2019-20      .639      .444      .440      .456      .385
   2020-21      .583      .333      .455      .400      .295

Gasol is no longer a rotational player who can average upwards of 32 minutes per night, but the playoff reps he gained in Memphis, title run in Toronto, and FIBA world championship he won representing Spain in 2019 mean that this is a player who has seen everything. The cerebral elements of his game (passing, screening, and defensive co-ordination) are as sharp as they have ever been. Despite what a lot of people think, there are a lot of post-dominant big men in the NBA today – Embiid, Jokic, Sabonis to name probably the three most prominent stars and 11 players are using the post up over 25% of the time offensively – a significant increase over the 5 players who did this all last season. Gasol is about as effective as you can hope for in guarding these big men, so expect his minutes to fluctuate dependent on match-ups. Matthews has struggled for consistent minutes; he has played between nine and 33 minutes in his past ten games alone. With the Lakers boasting a deeper-than-expected assortment of capable guards this is understandable, and like Gasol, his on-court minutes will likely vary game to game. Competitive wing defenders who can also shoot the three-ball at a league-average rate will always have value though, so don’t expect Matthews to completely disappear from the rotation.

The hold-overs from last year have also been performing at elite levels. Look at these startling 3-point shooting numbers from Caruso (who is currently the league leader in 3P%), KCP and Kuzma this year compared to last:

3P% Caruso, KCP, and Kuzma 2019-20 VS 2020-21.

                Player            2019-20 3P%            2020-21 3P%
           Alex Caruso                  .333                  .545
 Kentavious Caldwell-Pope                  .385                  .500
           Kyle Kuzma                  .316                  .380

The ability for players to knock down open shots is essential for anybody playing with LeBron James. He is one of the two or three best players in league history at collapsing defenses, so it is imperative for his teammates to knock these shots down. The Lakers have jumped from the 21st ranked ranged shooting team last season to the 5th ranked team this season – a remarkable feat considering two of their better distance shooters from last season (Danny Green and Avery Bradley) are playing elsewhere. This increase has largely come from retained roster members. All these players pass the eye test on the defensive end as well. Kuzma, in particular, has made a noticeable jump, with numerous effort plays on the glass and a real knack for blocking unsuspecting opponents shots from behind. Traditionally, having an offensive and defensive rating inside the top-10 is a definable parameter for team contention and the Lakers rank 7th and 1st in these respective categories (the Bucks and Jazz are the only other 2 teams to meet this benchmark). This has translated to a league-high net rating of 9.2.

So, what does this all mean? It basically means the title runs through LA (health permitting) until proven otherwise. The Lakers have an embarrassment of riches, both new and old, and are led by this generation’s defining player. He heard all the slander two years ago and is eager to retain his reclaimed spot upon the throne. As Omar Little so famously said on The Wire, “You come at the King, you best not miss.” Long live the #washedking.

One thought on “Can Anyone Dethrone The King and His Lakers?

  1. Great article Yates. If someone was to tell us LBJ would be able to shoot over 40% from 3 (albeit through 1/4 season) back when he was in Miami they would’ve been laughed out the room. LLTK

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