It was around the seven-minute mark during last week's Lakers and Nuggets game when Will Barton made an unfortunate decision.
With JaVale McGee in front of him, Barton — like most guards and wings facing a big-on-small switch — opted to use his speed advantage to drive baseline. For about a millisecond, it appeared to have been the right call.
Glued directly to his hip with his 7’6” tree branch-like limbs outstretched, McGee funneled Barton smack-dab into Anthony Davis — the Lakers’ always-present cloud who was ready to swallow up even the slightest speck of light.
Then the eclipse happened.
After McGee swatted Barton’s desperate attempt at the rim from a standstill position, one member of Denver’s announcing team simply sighed “he didn’t even jump.” Their exasperation is a feeling that has been shared throughout the NBA this season.
As of this article, the Lakers have won 21 of their first 24 games, have the best record in the league and sport the fifth best defense rating overall. At times, they’ve looked downright suffocating while doing so.
There are a myriad of reasons to point to when trying to decipher why the Lakers have been this good. But there is perhaps no singular component more important or responsible for their early season success than the sheer physical advantages their frontcourt possesses.
Like Barton could attest, the team's towering trio of Dwight Howard, Davis and McGee have engulfed their opposition thus far with their shared and rare combination of size, length and athleticism. These are all traits that most teams would kill for just one of their bigs to possess. The Lakers have three players with these qualities.
It’s this luxury of depth that’s given head coach Frank Vogel the chance to have an above-average-to-elite rim protector on the floor at all times. That’s a big advantage — pun intended — that has been the backbone of the Lakers’ success and team identity thus far this season.
According to NBA tracking data, the Lakers have already amassed 171 blocks this season, the most in the league and 23 more than second place Portland. Their King Ghidorah of a frontcourt consisting of Davis, McGee and Howard have been responsible for 122 of those swats alone. For context, 10th-place Boston has 122 blocks as a team.
A primary reason for the large quantity of blocks thus far has mostly been by design. Often running opposing perimeter players off the 3-point line and redirecting everything towards the paint, the defense has thrived behind the mantra of always having one another’s backs.
“We try to tell anybody guarding the ball, just be aggressive, because you have guys behind you who are going to protect you,” Davis told reporters back in early October.
So far, the frontcourt has held up their end of the bargain.
On the season, the Lakers are allowing only 89.8 points per 100 half-court possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass, which is the seventh-best defensive rate in the league.
One of the chief reasons for that has been their ability to stonewall their opponents at the rim as the Lakers have the fifth-best defense in terms of their opponents’ field-goal percentage within four feet, and also are fourth-best in deterring shots in the “short mid” area (4-14 feet from the basket).
Spearheaded by the likely front-runner for Defensive Player of the Year in Davis, the team obliged his request in the offseason by signing two centers to help soak up minutes and the grimy aspects that come with playing the five full-time. With McGee and the resurgent Howard in tow, the result has been nothing short of impeccable.
When he is at the four, Davis’ coordination and ability to hang on the perimeter and in space allows either McGee or Howard to sag into the paint or swarm over on the weak side to shore up any leakage that occurs. It’s a synergy that recently has even stymied some of the conference’s best teams.
Heading into the year, the team’s experiment to go jumbo within an era hallmarked by the evolution of “small ball” rose eyebrows. As did the question of how the offense would look with Davis having to share the floor a large chunk of the game with a non-shooting threat at center (Although Howard did recently make a three).
While the team succumbed to some of those spacing concerns early on, the Lakers have since counteracted this by simply playing to their strength — being bigger and more athletic than nearly every other team.
Although a far better outside shooting team compared to a season ago, the club has thus far been content trading in threes for a deluge of twos.
Bucking the other trademark trend of the era, the three ball has accounted for only 30.7% of the Lakers’ shot profile this season, fourth-fewest in the league. When it comes to shots coming at the rim however, only Brooklyn is attacking more as a whopping 40.2% of the Lakers’ shots are coming within four feet, and only Milwaukee is converting at a higher rate.
Perhaps no individual has benefitted from the team’s breakneck offensive barrage at the rim and its gargantuan frontcourt more than LeBron James.
James, who currently leads the league in assists at the rim (125), has masterfully leveraged his own driving gravity and his bigs’ vertical game by consistently pinpointing lobs and advantageous dishes to his frontcourt. The result has been a crap ton of dunks.
On the season, the Lakers are one of only two teams to have a pair of teammates in the top-ten in dunks (Davis and McGee) and the only squad who has three players in the top 20 (Howard is 18th).
While threes obviously account for more points than twos, dunks will forever remain an ideal outcome for the offense. And for the Lakers, this is a result that is happening often.
So far, the area that many pegged as clunky roster building by the team’s front office has in actuality been one of, if not the Lakers’ biggest strength. With a vast collection of size, wingspan, physicality and sheer effort, the team’s bigs have set the tone and made it clear that — if opposing teams plan on entering the paint — they are going to feel it.
All stats and video per NBA.com unless otherwise noted. You can follow Alex on Twitter at @AlexmRegla. For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts.