Perhaps we should have known that a run like this was coming from the Los Angeles Lakers. They may have only just yesterday finished up what was supposed to be a tough road trip undefeated, but they’ve been speaking the language of true title contenders all season, even if they weren’t actually playing against many other teams with realistic postseason aspirations until just now.
And it’s not just the results that have displayed the Lakers’ contender status, either. It’s been how cohesive this team has seemed, whether they’re communicating defensive coverages, or debating the music choices in the postgame locker room. They’re constantly joking with each other, teasing each other about answers to questions during media scrums, and overall just really making it plain how much they enjoy each other’s presences.
Now, if the Lakers don’t have success, it’s unlikely everything is so hunky dory, and the key to that success has obviously been mostly the MVP-level play of their two superstars, LeBron James and Anthony Davis. But it hasn’t been just those two. Just about every Lakers win has featured one or two role players stepping up and having a big game, something head coach Frank Vogel has been able to facilitate by playing role player roulette to discover who has the hot hand on a given evening, or give a guy who hasn’t played much of late some run to stay fresh.
And while that strategy may have worked for the Lakers so far, there is a reason not every team uses it. Some don’t have the depth, and others don’t have a locker room that will accept that much role fluctuation. The Lakers don’t have either problem, as they’ve demonstrated that they’re plenty deep, and several of their role players — even the ones who don’t like that term — spent much of last Friday outlining why they’ve accepted such purposes.
“We’re playing for something bigger than just ourselves. Each night we want to come out and play championship basketball, no matter who is on the floor. We want to build those habits,” said Lakers center Dwight Howard.
Howard himself has epitomized that sentiment during his second stint in Los Angeles. From asking for a non-guaranteed contract to show how bought in he is to this opportunity, to outwardly voicing why he prefers to come off the bench, Howard has been as outwardly committed to doing what’s best for the team as anyone. The player he’s backing up — Lakers center JaVale McGee — has a theory on why most of the roster has followed Howard’s lead in doing so.
“I just think it comes from a lot of vets who know how to win being put together. Rob did a great job of putting a lot of good vets together, a lot of good guys together who can mesh and know how to play basketball,” McGee said, and he also praised Vogel for how he’s gotten the entire locker room on the same page, and made them all buy in defensively.
“He’s basically the head of the snake. He told us from the jump that there are going to be sacrifices, and we have to play extremely well on defense. I feel like the defensive scheme that he mentioned in the beginning of the season has really stuck in our heads,” McGee said. “He never says anything about offense. It’s always defense.”
Vogel’s efforts — and how the Lakers have clearly embraced them — have led the team to top-five marks in both offensive and defensive efficiency, as well as the best record in the NBA (tied for first with the Milwaukee Bucks at 20-3 overall).
“We have a really smart team, and anybody who steps on the floor, we know what our purpose is and we go out there and try to fulfill it every single night,” Howard said.
That success makes Vogel’s sales job easier, to be sure, but it also doesn’t hurt that these Lakers do genuinely appear to like each other. How much? Well, for one, they have best chemistry of any team McGee has ever been a part of, (at least according to the perpetually candid center, who you may remember has also won titles with the Golden State Warriors, a team that certainly didn’t appear to lack for camaraderie).
The team has surely bonded over all the winning they’re doing together, but according to McGee’s Lakers (and former Warriors) teammate Quinn Cook, it’s been more than that. The Lakers have spent time together bonding over stories of old playoff battles they’ve taken part in, from Avery Bradley and Rajon Rondo talking about trying to stop those LeBron James-Dwyane Wade Miami Heat teams when they were with the Boston Celtics, to Danny Green telling tales about his postseason conquests with the Toronto Raptors and San Antonio Spurs.
“I have a couple stories myself as well,” Cook says with the smile of a man that belies the fact that some of those stories probably feature him beating current teammates in the postseason. “I think the best part about being on this team is hearing the stories.”
And while Cook says that part of him accepting his role of being in and out of the rotation on a nightly basis is because he got used to going from playing sparingly for the Warriors to playing 40 minutes on nights Stephen Curry couldn’t play, and that part of it is just realizing how many capable veterans the Lakers have that need playing time, he also allowed that taking such role is also “easy because it’s fun to come to work every day.”
Most kids who grew up die-hard Lakers fans probably think they’d feel that way regardless of the roster makeup of the team they grew up rooting for, but listening to Cook talk, it’s clear their growing, team-wide bond probably has just as much to do with it.
“Everybody is respected,” Cook said. “We all genuinely love being around each other, and this is a fun environment. It’s easy to go out there and fight for your brothers every night.”
And as this Lakers season has shown, it turns out it’s easy to win for them, too.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.