Don’t look now, but the Los Angeles Lakers have the best record in the Western Conference (5-1), are only allowing 96.3 points per 100 possessions (the best defensive rating in the league) and still clearly haven’t hit their full stride as a team. We knew a roster with LeBron James and Anthony Davis would be good, it just wasn’t clear they’d be this good, in these specific ways, this quickly.
Making matters more impressive is that the Lakers have attained all of this success while facing teams that are very transparently geared up and ready to give them their best shot every night.
The Charlotte Hornets and Memphis Grizzlies don’t scare anyone, but they were clearly jazzed up for their shot at arguably the most hyped team in the league, with both requiring strong counterpunches from the Lakers to put them down. The Dallas Mavericks and their league-best offense were obviously determined to show out against L.A. on national TV, with Luka Doncic going blow for blow with LeBron in an incredibly fun showdown. The same goes for a young San Antonio Spurs squad led by Dejounte Murray trying to show they’re for real.
But the Lakers have so far absorbed all of those body blows, responded by locking down defensively, and ended all but one of their games with a win so far as a result. And the extra attention isn’t bothering the team (yet), either. After their latest victory over San Antonio, Davis actually admitted that he and his teammates have enjoyed having a target on their backs (via Spectrum Sportsnet):
“We know that we’re going to get every team’s best shot. It makes the game more fun. When you’ve got to come in and play each and every game like a championship game, it makes the game more fun for me and it makes the game more fun for everyone… We know that we have a target on our back and we’ve just got to continue to get better and approach each game like a championship game.”
That’s an admirable mindset from Davis, but would it really be sustainable for the Lakers to approach every game with the mindset that it’s similar to a championship? As his more veteran teammates could probably tell the enjoyably eager 26-year-old superstar, probably not.
It’s also fair to wonder if this will wear on the Lakers eventually. Six games into the season it’s fun to be on national television every night, having another huge comeback or tight game with a team on the rise. But what about 20 games into the year? 40? 60? It will be important for the Lakers to pace themselves, although the way they’ve won may allow that to be a little bit less necessary.
As their defensive rating above suggests, this team is really, seriously stout and hard to score on defensively when they want to be. That travels a bit better and is a bit more replicable than just trying to outscore teams every night, and the fact that the Lakers are already playing so well despite ranking just 18th in offensive efficiency — considering the talent they have on that end of the floor — suggests that there is another leap this team could make into the top 10 in the NBA on both ends. Such a jump would potentially allow them to start blowing some teams out and saving their legs at the end of games, regardless of how hard their opponents are going at them. And when Kyle Kuzma starts making positive contributions, that ratchets this roster’s ceiling up another level.
So yes, given all the airspace the Lakers accrue in the national coverage conversation, they are going to have a California-sized target on their backs all year. But so far, signs are pointing to a team that’s prepared for that, both mentally and in terms of having another level of potential they can still rise to as they get used to playing together under Frank Vogel. It’s hard to blame Davis, his teammates or their massive and ready fanbase for being excited as a result.
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