In a literal sense, the Los Angeles Lakers are not off to a perfect start.
Two weeks ago, after losing to the short-handed LA Clippers on opening night in a game in which Paul George didn't play and Kawhi Leonard looked like the best player on the floor, the Lakers were served notice in their own building that the road through the West does not go through them. At least not yet.
By dropping that game right out of the gates, it released some pressure and removed the Lakers from the spotlight, at least as much as one could expect for a franchise that operates on the proverbial red carpet. Getting off on the wrong foot then could ultimately be what propels the Lakers towards putting their best foot forward now. Without that target on their backs as the widely presumed and uber-hyped favourite, the Lakers could roll up their sleeves and get to work on the 82-game grind free from the burdens of unrealistic expectations.
Two weeks into the long and winding regular-season road, here are five reasons why the Lakers are off to the best possible start.
LeBron James is finding a perfect balance
Entering his 17th season and coming off a year in which he missed more games than ever before, one unavoidable truth crystallized for all to see: LeBron needs help.
For the Lakers to be at their best in April, May and potentially June, they need James to pick his spots and assert utter dominance only when he sees fit. Few questions that when push comes to shove, James can still reach a gear that few - if any - can match.
This, of course, is not a ground-breaking revelation. James has bided his time and played the long game for several seasons now, as evidenced by the fact that he hasn't won an MVP award since 2012-13. But this time feels different.
Whenever James has coasted or at least gone into fuel conservation mode in the past, it's still looked the same. Take last season for example. The version of LeBron that can sleepwalk to a 27-8-8 and All-NBA Third Team looks and feels largely the same even when it's apparent that the pedal is most certainly not pressed to the metal. Aside from a few added wrinkles to his game here or there (hello, post-game!), "take it easy, LeBron" is still fundamentally the same player as "destroyer of worlds, LeBron".
With Anthony Davis on board, James is able to adapt.
With Anthony Davis on board, James no longer has to look like the best player in the world any given night. Instead, he's free to take a back seat and more appropriately pick his spots, as he did in last week's Tour de Force against the Dallas Mavericks when he finished with 39 points, 16 assists and 12 rebounds in an epic duel with Luka Doncic.
If you give him 5 extra minutes, he'll do this to you. @KingJames dominates overtime for a fourth straight #LakersWin 👑💪 pic.twitter.com/fCIONCQkou- Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) November 2, 2019
With Anthony Davis on board, James is actually able to sit back and play the role of conductor as he has thus far in leading the NBA in assists per game and racking up more dimes in his first six games than he ever has.
With Anthony Davis on board, James is able to find balance...
... a very good thing if you're a Lakers fan.
Anthony Davis warming up to the five
NBA pundits have shouted from every rooftop that for the Lakers to reach their ultimate goal, Anthony Davis needs to play the five. That's what makes the Lakers unguardable, that's what makes the Lakers switch-proof on D, that's what allows the Lakers to put their five best players on the floor at the same time.
For his entire career, the idea of playing the five is one Davis has met with resistance.
The early success - particularly in their second game of the season in which Davis switched to playing the five almost exclusively in the second half against Rudy Gobert and the Jazz - has warmed Davis up to the idea of doing so more when called upon. "If it makes sense, then obviously I don't mind doing it. And it made sense tonight."
Against the likes of Gobert, the Lakers are more inclined to lean heavily on those 'Davis at the five' minutes than they would be against almost every other team. It's something they likely won't resort to unless absolutely needed. So far this season, Davis has played just 65 minutes without either JaVale McGee or Dwight Howard on the floor.
It's INCREDIBLY early and way too soon to take any lineup splits too seriously or without an entire shipping container of salt, but early returns point to the success of those lineups based squarely on whether or not LeBron James is also on the floor.
|James on Floor||James off Floor|
Regardless, Davis warming up to the idea of playing more center unlocks even more potential for a team dreaming big.
All it took was two games in for their newest superstar to start buying into that idea.
The Dwight Howard gamble paying off
There are certain conclusions which can't be reached two weeks into the season.
And then there's declaring the Dwight Howard decision a win.
When the Lakers made the decision to sign Dwight Howard, it was not only a calculated risk but also a tell as to how desperate things had for finding players in the immediate aftermath of not signing anyone while they waited Kawhi Leonard's decision. That JaVale McGee's stamp of approval on signing Howard was a real thing that happened further fanned the flames on rampant speculation about whether or not this could ever end well.
We still don't know how this ends and likely won't for quite some time.
But six games in, it's hard to imagine the D12 gamble paying off any more than it has. In just 21.3 minutes a game, Howard is blocking more shots than he has seven years while his 3.9 rejections per 36 minutes would be by far the best of his career.
On the offensive end, he's a ridiculous 19-24 from the floor. It would be ludicrous to suggest that Howard will continue shooting 79.2 percent for the entire season, but I'll just plant this seed now: the NBA single-season record for FG percentage is 72.7 by Wilt Chamberlain in 1972-73.
The minutes with Howard alongside James and Davis have been surreal. In 38 minutes together, that 3-man lineups has posted a net rating of +63.1 which is by far the best in the NBA.
Frank Vogel's identity shining through
There were some questions about whether Frank Vogel would ultimately be the right man for the job. A stickler for defence above all else, Vogel's teams in Indiana gave James's Heat teams all they could handle while playing a style that's distinctively not Showtime.
After winning fewer than 30 games in each of his two seasons at his last stop in Orlando, Vogel arrived in Los Angeles without the championship pedigree that James has long coveted. There were doubts about whether or not Vogel would be able to reach through to his team and that's before even getting into the rest of the bench which features a pair of former head coaches in Jason Kidd and Lionel Hollins.
So far, so good.
At the time of this writing, the Lakers have the NBA's top-rated defence as they are allowing just 96.3 points per 100 possessions. That number, of course, is not the end-all, be-all and certainly not six games into the season. But there reasons to believe it's no fluke.
In addition to ranking near the top of the league in both deflections and charges - two basic if imperfect indicators of effort - the Lakers also rank towards the top of the league in defending inside the paint as opponents are shooting just 53.4 percent inside of five feet, a mark which ranks behind only the Raptors and Bucks which were arguably the two best defensive teams in the league last season. Only a handful of teams are giving up fewer corner 3s, also a sign of a disciplined defence.
"We're just scratching the surface, but we're a very good team defensively." - @KingJames pic.twitter.com/Q91t38NrX9- Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) November 4, 2019
Having perhaps the league's most physically gifted defensive player in Anthony Davis helps as does veteran grinders like Danny Green and Avery Bradley. But make no mistake, this is a well-coached and well-disciplined team that fits the Vogel mantra to a T.
They still aren't healthy
Regardless of whether or not the Lakers' front office tries adding more pieces, this iteration of the team is not yet fully healthy.
Rajon Rondo, the team's presumed starting point guard and one player outside of LeBron James that can reliably manufacture easy points for others, still hasn't suited up.
Kyle Kuzma, widely considered the team's third or fourth-best player depending on your thoughts about Danny Green, missed the first four games of the season and has averaged just under 18 minutes a game coming off the bench in his first two games back.
Aside from Rondo and Kuzma, the Lakers avoided any serious setbacks following recent brief scares with Davis and Bradley, both of whom had to leave games recently.
The Lakers aren't yet whole and yet they're off to their best possible start.
The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.