May 27, 2020, 12:44 pm
The Los Angeles Lakers came into the season with huge expectations, but that’s basically the case every season with the purple and gold. With one of the most demanding fanbases around, the Lakers knew they needed to make a big move this offseason and so they did, making a 6’10”, 250 pound move in the form of Anthony Davis.
For years the Lakers had been building a young core, starting in 2014 with Julius Randle and continuing with Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr., D’Angelo Russell, Ivica Zubac, Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball. They were hoping that at least one of those guys would figure things out and be able to become a superstar but the Lakers slowly began to realize that it might take longer than they were willing to wait. So they didn’t re-sign Randle, traded Clarkson and Nance, gave Russell to the Brooklyn Nets for free just to get Timofey Mozgov off the roster and shipped out Zubac in one of Magic Johnson’s last (thankfully) moves as a piece of the Lakers front office.
The final piece was adding another true superstar to go alongside LeBron James, and the Lakers made that happen by sending out Hart, Ball, Ingram and the fourth overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft to acquire Davis.
The trade was controversial at first, with some claiming that the Lakers got robbed and others claiming that the Pels gave up Anthony Davis for two young players who had never really proven anything. Well, turns out both sides won the trade because the Lakers were sitting at 49-14 when the season was unfortunately paused and all three of Hart, Ball and first-time All-Star Ingram look to be well on their way to success.
With 63 games in the books, the Lake Show is in firm possession of the best seed in the West and has somehow maintained it while going through one of the biggest tragedies in the history of sports.
Let’s see just how they got here.
The Black Mamba
It’s pretty safe to say that Kobe Bryant was bigger than basketball.
He was an icon to not only myself but millions of people in the world. He was the kind of person that just felt invincible, the kind of person you never actually thought you’d see pass away; he was basically Superman with no form of Kryptonite. So when the Lakers and the rest of the world got the news that Bryant had perished in a helicopter crash with his youngest daughter and seven others, the world stood still.
For fans, losing Kobe was like losing a superhero because it was someone that most of us had never really met but still loved, adored and looked up to. So imagine what it was like for the players themselves, hearing that someone that they’d just seen and talked to in-person hours before was no longer alive. For LeBron himself, he’d literally just had a conversation on the phone with Bryant the night before he passed away.
Someone you probably had plans to see in the very near future, just gone in the blink of an eye.
Most people take weeks off of work when loved ones die, but the Lakers suited up and took the court against the Trail Blazers only five days after Bryant passed. It hadn’t even been a week since most of them had seen him and somehow people expected them to come out and blow the Blazers out by 50 in honor of Bryant. Well, that obviously didn’t happen and the Lakers ended up losing by eight points while Damian Lillard dropped 48 on them.
There’s absolutely no way that any of those players, LeBron James and Anthony Davis included, were in the right mental state to play that night. They did honor Bryant though, just by taking the court that night and then proceeding to go 13-3 in the 16 games that followed, which was the best record in the league during that timespan.
For Lakers fans, part of why the season being postponed was so daunting was because this season means so much more than any other one. If the purple and gold win the championship at the end of it all, it’ll be more than just a 17th championship. In one way or another players and fans alike will all look up and whisper “we did it” and the Mamba will hear every word, looking down on us all while giving us a quick smirk and telling us to go do it again now in the most Kobe Bryant way imaginable.
I personally wrote an entire piece about what Kobe Bryant meant to me that Hoop Ball was kind enough to post that you can check out here.
The GOAT (no, not the one you’re thinking of)
With all of this talk surrounding The Last Dance, I think we all forgot who the true GOAT is.
No, I’m not talking about Michael Jordan or LeBron James, but the 6’5″ balding man that is Alex Caruso.
If you don’t believe me, let me just give you a quick rundown of what three of the top-5 google searches for Caruso are:
1. Is Alex Caruso the GOAT?
2. Why is Alex Caruso the GOAT?
3. Is Alex Caruso good?
The fact that people are searching up whether or not he is good while also searching up if he’s the GOAT or not is the definition of comedy but on a serious note, Caruso is one of the leading contributors to the Lakers’ success this season. Coming into the season one of the biggest criticisms of the roster was that it didn’t have a true point guard and LeBron would be forced to overwork himself by running the offense.
Those criticisms still ring true, but Caruso has managed to emerge as the best option at point guard and is miles better than Rajon Rondo. I don’t even think miles is a large enough scale to truly display the difference in skill level between the two if we’re being completely honest. For example, per Basketball Reference, Rondo has the second-most turnovers on the team due to “bad passes” with 67 but he’s played just 984 minutes in 48 games, which makes him one of only four players that have played in at least 40 games and under 1000 minutes for the Lakers this year.
On the other hand, Caruso leads the Lakers in on-court plus/minus per 100 possessions with a +11.3 and is second on the team in Net plus/minus per 100 possessions with a +5.7, behind only LeBron James. Caruso also comes inside the top-7 on the Lakers when it comes to both Win Shares and Defensive Win Shares as well as VORP and sports the second highest Defensive Box Plus/Minus on the team behind Anthony Davis.
In terms of fantasy, Caruso isn’t the most appealing guy to own currently being ranked as the 241st player in 9-cat leagues, which is quite the drop from the 203rd ranking he finished with last season. The big difference is in minutes and opportunity for Caruso as last season he played 21.2 minutes compared to 17.8 this season.
Stats don’t tell the complete story with Caruso though, he’s one of those guys that makes an impact just by being on the court whether he’s leaving his mark on the box score or not. His basketball IQ is criminally underrated and he makes the kind of hustle plays that every championship-caliber player needs. For example, one of his most famous plays is this one:
Alex Caruso boxing out Giannis to create a rebound for a teammate is why he has a cult following pic.twitter.com/Ym7qjleuGh
— Josh Toussaint (@josh2saint) May 14, 2020
It seems like something so simple, but Giannis has used his strength to bully so many players out of the way and get that rebound, but not this time. At a critical point in the game, Caruso made one of the biggest impact plays that he could and was visibly excited about it coming up the court. It’s plays like this that make him a crucial part of the Lakers’ best season in recent memory.
Combine that with the fact that the Lakers have a net rating of 23.4 when Caruso and James are on the floor, which is the highest of any two-man combination that’s shared at least 250 minutes together during the 2019-20 NBA season, and it’s easy to see why he’s a fan favorite.
After all, he didn’t get the fourth most fan votes of any Western Conference guard for no reason, right?
Superman Returns and Kuzmania Dies Down
When the Lakers had completed their roster heading into the season, outside of the concern at point guard, everyone wondered who would step up and become the third star to complement James and Davis. After DeMarcus Cousins went down, most people, including myself, just naturally appointed Kuzma the Lakers’ next star, however as the season unfolded it became more and more clear that he might not be the guy we thought he was.
Instead, the long lost superstar that is Dwight Howard has emerged as the Lakers’ third most consistent player behind James and Davis. Howard came into the season not even knowing if he’d finish it with the Lakers as Rob Pelinka rightfully chose to not guarantee his entire contract up front.
If Howard wanted all of his money, he had to earn it.
Well, fast forward to mid-May and it’s a forgone conclusion that if not for Dwight Howard, the Lakers would not be having as much success this season as they currently are. Howard has managed to put his mark on multiple games this season and is fourth on the entire roster in PER, as well as top-3 in both Offensive and Defensive Win Shares behind only James and Davis. He’s not only managed to pile up stats compared to the rest of the Lakers, but the rest of the league as well, boasting the fifth-best Defensive Rating, the second-highest Offensive Rebound Percentage and the ninth-highest Total Rebound Percentage.
If you drafted Howard in fantasy, you’re most likely already punting Free Throw percentage, in which case Howard is the 122nd ranked player and posting good value considering he could be scooped off the waiver wire in most leagues, making this fantasy season a success for him so far.
While he’s been busy reviving his career, Kyle Kuzma has managed to put a small damper on his own.
When the Lakers were bad, Kuzma’s talent was shining through as seen by his averages of 16.1 and 18.7 points in 2017 and 2018. However, now that there’s actual competition for shots on the team and he can’t just throw up whatever he wants, Kuzma has taken a major step back. While some of it might be mental, some of the blame should also be placed on head coach Frank Vogel for playing Kuzma while James is off the court a lot of the time.
To put things into perspective, Kuzma and James have spent a total of 760 minutes on the court together, only the 13th-most of any duo on the Lakers despite having the second highest Net Rating of any duo on the team with at least 400 minutes played together. Instead, Kuzma spends a ton of his time on the court with Rondo, with the two of them having played just 78 fewer minutes than James and Kuzma in seven fewer games due to injuries.
How can we expect him to truly break out when he’s playing alongside someone who isn’t doing anything but making the players around him worse? Of course not all of the blame is on Vogel and Rondo, Kuzma has taken a step back in terms of field goal percentage and 3-point percentage but let’s not bring the pitchforks out just yet, unless you own him in fantasy.
Kuzma probably cost most of his owners a mid-round pick and is currently the 278th ranked player in fantasy, which is bad enough to be dropped in most leagues. Touted as a breakout candidate, Kuzma has actually followed up last year’s top-150 finish with one that will be well outside the top-200. If not for the clear talent and potential he has, he wouldn’t be on most rosters but he’s just one of those guys that everyone knows will be picked up immediately if dropped thanks to the hype machine. He’s still rostered in 61% of leagues.
The Battle For LA
The battles between the LA Clippers and the Lakers have been some of the most incredible games of the NBA season thus far. Throughout the season the two teams have made moves to simply match up with each other come playoff time with both teams acquiring the services of a Morris twin around the trade deadline.
This much tension between the two teams doesn’t exist simply because they’re both good, it goes much deeper than that. This offseason the Lakers genuinely thought that they had a chance of forming an outright super-team consisting of James, Davis and Kawhi Leonard. All the way up until the final hour, Leonard led the Lakers to believe that he might actually sign with them, taking them out of the running for free agents that they would’ve had a shot at otherwise such as D’Angelo Russell, Jimmy Butler, and to a lesser extent Seth Curry.
In the end, Leonard signed with their crosstown rivals while the Lakers were left to pick up the pieces of a free agent market that had already been swept dry with the exception of Danny Green. In the eyes of the Lakers, LeBron specifically, Leonard went out of his way to spite them and give them a disadvantage coming into the season. Outside of that, all of the New Balance commercials hailing Kawhi as the new king of LA and calling it his town don’t help much. To say nothing of Paul George’s repeated flirtations with the Lakers, only to re-sign with the Thunder when he had a chance to come to LA and then request a trade to the Clippers.
At the end of the day, LeBron has something to prove and it’s been a joy to watch. The difference in points between the two teams in their three battles thus far is only 24 and oddly enough the winning team has scored exactly 112 twice. The word “dogfight” is used to describe a lot of matchups nowadays but you’d be hard-pressed to find one that truly lives up to that description in the way that this one does.
Between Patrick Beverley doing absolutely everything in his power to rattle LeBron, Anthony Davis’ matchup with Montrezl Harrell and the Morris twins going at each other, these two teams have as many storylines connecting them as any two in the entire league.
All of the jabs back and forth between each team, the commercials and the billboards were supposed to come to a head in the playoffs when each team had seven games to send the other packing. We’ll now have to wait and see if we’ll get those matchups this season, if we’ll see LeBron throw the crown on once again or if we’ll see Kawhi take his seat on the throne that has already been deemed his.
The King’s Fifth MVP?
One of the biggest narratives that was starting to heat up before the NBA was paused involved the battle between James and Giannis Antetokounmpo for the MVP award.
It seemed as though the Greek Freak had ran away with it yet again until the Lakers bested the Bucks on March 6 in a game where James dropped 37 points, eight rebounds and eight assists. All of the sudden the media began to think that maybe the King would be able to snatch the award from Antetokounmpo although it seemed unlikely.
Well, let’s take a look and see if he actually deserves it.
James is averaging 25.7 points, a league-leading 10.6 assists, 7.9 rebounds and 1.2 steals while shooting 49.8 percent from the field and 34.9 percent from beyond the arc in a career-low 34.9 minutes. If he finished the season shooting under 50 percent from the field it would be the first time since the 2014-15 season that he’s done so and he’s also shooting a career-high 6.4 triples per game. He’s shooting so many threes that his “stare at the ball and then proceed to pull it back and shoot it” technique is one of NBA Twitter’s biggest memes.
The fact that defenders don’t just crowd James when they see him look at the ball is truly a testament of how scared they are of him driving right past them. If he looks at the ball, he’s probably shooting it right in your eye but they’d rather live with that than see all 250 lbs come pummeling down the lane. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if he’s been doing that this entire season just to set up defenders just so that in Game 7 of the NBA Finals he can look down at the ball and blow right by his defender for a game-winner or something.
James is also playing 57 percent of his minutes at point guard this season, which is obviously due to the Lakers’ inability to sign a proper one this offseason. However, he’s thriving in the role and as stated before, leading the NBA in assists while being in command of the seventh-highest scoring offense with the fourth-best offensive rating in the league.
For context as to how new this all is for James, he hasn’t played more than one percent of his minutes at point guard since his rookie season, in which 14 percent of his minutes were allocated to being the lead guard. In total, James has only spent three percent of his total career minutes at point guard while he’s spent 62 percent playing small forward.
Outside of that, James is in possession of the fourth-highest plus-minus in the league at +8.1 and has 13 triple-doubles this year, second to only Luka Doncic. He’s also doing all of that while having just the 13th highest usage rate in the league at 30.8. On top of all of that, the Lakers have the top spot in the loaded Western Conference and are only three games behind the Bucks for the league’s best record. The Lake Show also have the best win percentage against teams that are .500 and above, are 32-4 against teams that are below .500 and were starting to really heat up before the break.
While the Greek Freak might be the advanced stats and analytics favorite, don’t sleep on James because he’s having quite the season himself. Winning his fifth MVP would place him in rare company, with only Michael Jordan and Bill Russell having achieved that before while Kareem Abdul-Jabbar holds the NBA record with six. In a year in which his claim to be the GOAT has been questioned more than ever, tying his biggest competition in MVPs would be the cherry on top.
In the end, throughout all the criticism and tragedy, the Lakers were well on their way to what might’ve been their 17th championship before COVID-19 put a pause to all of that. Hopefully, if the league is able to resume, the well-rested and highly motivated Lake Show led by LeBron James, Anthony Davis and yes, Alex Caruso, will be able to pick up right where they left off.
Like James said, he’s got broad shoulders for a reason, and he’s going to try and carry this Lakers team to the promised land not only for the fans, but for the Mamba.