EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Los Angeles Lakers center Dwight Howard wasn’t prepared for such an abstract question to begin his post-practice chat with the media.
“Damn, that’s the first question?” Howard said when asked what letter grade he would give the Lakers, 41 games into the regular season and exactly at the halfway mark.
After a few pauses to mull it over, he demurred.
“Man, that’s the coach’s job. I just go out there and play hard,” Howard said. “I think our team is just going to continue to go out there and play hard win, lose or draw. But yeah, we’ll let coach give us grades, and just go out there and play the best we can.”
Lakers Head Coach Frank Vogel offered no such hesitation when assessing what grade he’d give his team.
“I’d say probably a B+, off the top of my head. I think we’ve done a good job of taking care of business, and we’ve won at a high rate,” Vogel said, while still allowing room for improvement.
“We still have a long way to go in terms of execution pieces and growing in the second half of the season.”
Spoken like a true coach, because most would not look at the Lakers’ resume and call them a team with very much to figure out. At 33-8, the team has the best record in the Western Conference, and the only blotch on their record is that they haven’t beaten any true contenders for the title yet, going 0-3 against the Milwaukee Bucks (one loss) and LA Clippers (two losses).
But all that has been talked about ad nauseam at this point. Just about everyone covering this organization has given their thoughts on the Lakers at the halfway mark already, whether on a podcast, in a column or in some other format. It’s worth considering what the team themselves will look back upon as their favorite parts of the first half of the season, and luckily, a few of them spoke about as much over the past few days.
“Probably the highlights so far are things that y’all don’t see,” said Lakers forward LeBron James while speaking with reporters on Wednesday, citing the chemistry the team is building on plane and bus rides to games, and while spending time together in road cities.
“We’re a very close group, so that’s been the highlight of the season for me,” James said.
Lakers guard Quinn Cook has appreciated the moments on the court, too.
”Just winning. Being No. 1 in the West,” Cook said of his favorite part of the season. “We’ve fought a lot of adversity thus far... We’ve just got to keep going, keep getting better and building better habits.”
For JaVale McGee, those habits include improved transition defense, as well as just improving the team’s defense overall.
“I feel like our defense is pretty good, but we’ve got little things we have to fix, and then I think we’ll be great,” McGee said.
But Vogel, Cook and McGee all talking about ways the Lakers can get better, while James discusses how much the Lakers like each other pretty much fully encapsulates the vibe coming from this team all season. They’re a really focused and tight-knit group who are extremely motivated to prove themselves and win a title.
Howard was part of the last Lakers team that appeared set to deliver that promise, and while he wasn’t addressing that ill-fated 2012-2013 roster when talking about what he’s enjoyed most about the first half of this season, it was hard for someone who watched both teams extremely closely not to juxtapose the two while listening to him speak.
“Every game. Every moment has been great. I’ve enjoyed my time back here in L.A,” Howard said. “We have a great group of guys who enjoy the game of basketball, enjoy winning. The culture is amazing, our fans have been great and we just want to keep doing what we’re doing.”
If the Lakers can do that, the rest of the season and playoffs might end exactly how the team wants it to: With this roster raising the franchise’s 17th banner.
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.