The Lakers Are Elite Again, and Ready to ‘Turn Up’

The Lakers Are Elite Again, and Ready to ‘Turn Up’

Lakers Coach Frank Vogel could have been concerned. The N.B.A. All-Star break was looming and his team still had one more game to go. But Vogel said he could sense from his players, and from LeBron James in particular, that they were focused.

“You could just tell that he was really, really locked in,” Vogel told reporters after the Lakers’ 120-116 overtime victory over the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday, “and that this was not a foot-out-the-door-towards-the-break kind of game, that he was going to have a playoff mind-set to it. And he showed that throughout the game.”

The Lakers had their share of skeptics at the start of the season. How would Vogel, in his first season on the job, handle the team’s colorful assemblage of egos? Were the Lakers deep enough to contend for a title? Was James washed up after missing a big chunk of last season because of injuries? And how would he mesh with Anthony Davis?

These were all reasonable questions. But with about two months remaining in the regular season now, the Lakers have shown that they are, in fact, for real — and lately they have done so while the entire organization mourns Kobe Bryant’s death.

The Lakers’ win against the Nuggets — highlighted by James’s triple-double — pushed their record to a Western Conference-leading 41-12, four games better than second-place Denver. Only the Milwaukee Bucks (46-8), with championship hopes of their own, have a better record. After Wednesday’s win, James was asked about the importance of securing the top seed in the West.

“We don’t talk about it,” he said. “We really don’t. We just play the game the right way.”

Here is a closer look at how the Lakers have re-established themselves as N.B.A. royalty:

Following James’s celebrated introduction to the Lakers, last season was a disaster for him. He injured his groin on Christmas Day, missed a big chunk of the season and then watched the playoffs from home for the first time since 2005, his second year with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Was this the beginning of the end for James? His struggles fed into the narrative that he had only relocated to the Lakers because he wanted to live in Los Angeles, where he has his production company and spent last summer filming “Space Jam 2.” LeBron, in other words, had gone Hollywood. Was basketball still his priority?

Not so fast. Now 35 years old and plowing through his 17th N.B.A. season, James is back to playing some of the best basketball of his career. Pick an adjective, any adjective: efficient, polished, determined. A prolific user of Instagram, James has made a habit of punctuating his social media posts with a pair of hashtags — #WashedKing and #RevengeSeason — that allude to the unnamed critics who thought his game was in decline.

“Just very hungry,” James said of his approach to the season, “very enthused, very motivated on trying to put this team in position to be as successful as we can be.”

In addition to averaging 25 points and 7.8 rebounds a game while shooting 48.9 percent from the field, James has never been a better playmaker. He is averaging a career-best 10.8 assists per game, which leads the league. His ability, along with his willingness, to act as a pass-first distributor has been enhanced by the presence of Davis, who has been dunking a lot of James’s lobs. But James, one of just three remaining players from his draft class, is playing like he still has much to prove.

Speaking of Davis, remember his 2018-19 season? He asked the New Orleans Pelicans to trade him, a request they rebuffed when they turned down the Lakers’ heated overtures. The entire soap opera cast a shadow over both organizations for months. The Lakers’ fragile chemistry crumbled.

By July, the Lakers finally had the pieces to swing a deal for Davis and sent the Pelicans three first-round picks along with several members of their young core, including Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram, who earned his first All-Star selection this season. The Lakers had essentially decided to mortgage their future for the chance to pair Davis with James and win championships right away.

The good news for the Lakers is that Davis has been terrific. Really terrific, averaging 26.6 points, 9.2 rebounds, 2.4 blocks and 1.6 steals a game. Vogel described him as the “defensive player of the year.” The Lakers rank among the top five teams in the league in overall defensive rating while limiting opponents to 44.6 percent shooting.

At the same, Davis has, for the most part, stayed healthy, and so has James, which is the key to everything. The Lakers cannot expect to win much of anything without either of them — they are the best duo in the league. Against the Nuggets on Wednesday, they combined for 65 points and 22 rebounds.

None of which is meant to suggest that James and Davis can win games by themselves. The rest of the team has, too, exceeded expectations. To be clear: Few figured that the Lakers would have quite this much depth after they traded about half their rotation to the Pelicans.

Alex Caruso, a fan favorite who went undrafted out of Texas A&M in 2016, has solidified his role off the bench as a defensive stopper. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has developed into a dependable shooter. Danny Green and Avery Bradley are experienced pros. And Dwight Howard, in his latest reclamation attempt, has emerged as the biggest surprise of all.

Signed to a non-guaranteed deal by the Lakers in August after DeMarcus Cousins tore a ligament in his left knee, Howard has enthusiastically embraced his job as a backup center. He has also found moments to shine. Consider his performance against Denver on Wednesday: In addition to defending the All-Star Nikola Jokic for long stretches, Howard collected 14 points and 11 rebounds in 30 minutes. Caruso was solid, too: In his 22 minutes on the floor, the Lakers outscored the Nuggets by 23 points. James praised both players after the game.

“Dwight came in,” James said, “and changed the game from an offensive rebounding standpoint, just bullying whoever was on him, being able to get to the free throw, getting us into the bonus, getting us some dunks, giving us some extra possessions. And A.C. defensively was just so in tune, getting steals, getting stops, getting strips.”

In the aftermath of the helicopter crash last month that killed Bryant and eight others, including his daughter Gianna, Vogel stepped forward as the face of the Lakers. For three straight days at the team’s practice facility, Vogel was the sole member of the organization who addressed the news media.

He spoke about how his players were grieving, about how James had been a rock for his teammates and about how the Lakers intended to move forward.

“We want to represent what Kobe was about more than anything,” Vogel said at the time, adding: “It’s just strengthened what we’ve felt all year about our current group, which is that we’ve become a family in a very short time. And it’s something you talk about in the N.B.A. with your teams, but this group in particular has really grown to love each other very rapidly.”

Coaching the Lakers is not an easy job under any circumstances, but Vogel, with a deft touch, has managed everything this season: an unimaginable tragedy, outsize expectations and all the ancillary pressures that come with coaching James in one of the league’s splashiest markets. Vogel has consistently sought his players’ input and feedback.

In the process, he appears to have earned their trust, and the Lakers have been rewarding his approach by winning. They want to keep it going.

“The second half of the season, it’s time to turn up,” Howard said.

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