As the Los Angeles Lakers romped their way Sunday night to a record-tying 17th league title with a 106-93 blowout victory over the Miami Heat, the majority of conversations around their win figured to focus on the superstar combination of LeBron James and Anthony Davis that ultimately returned them to glory.
But while those two will understandably share the brightest spotlight, the totality of this particular Lakers club — and what helped it prevail — was always more than met the eye.
Make no mistake: James and Davis were incredible all season. And there’s a solid case to be made that James — who previously played with Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love — has never had a partner this perfect.
The Big Three in Miami was a terror, but it’s easy to forget how out of sync James and Wade were offensively early on,1 as Bosh took time to settle into a tertiary role after being a No. 1 option in Toronto. And even in Cleveland, where James got the biggest lift of his career off a clutch Game 7 triple from Irving, his Cavs sidekicks weren’t all that skilled on defense, making it more of a challenge for them to hold the line whenever James had to go to the bench for breathers.
This year, when Davis was asked to hold down the fort without James on the floor in the regular season, the Lakers weren’t anything special, getting outscored by 3 points per 100 possessions, per NBA Advanced Stats. But the big man found a new level in the playoffs, when Los Angeles beat up opponents by 8 points per 100 possessions when Davis played as James was sidelined.2
The importance of Davis was on display repeatedly, whether on a series-altering game-winner or over a quarter of using his condor-like wingspan to stifle the guy who had just gone off for a 40-point triple-double the game before. His presence was an enormous factor in Sunday’s Game 6 clincher, as Miami often looked reluctant to shoot anywhere near the rim, fearing that Davis might be nearby, ready to swat any close-range tries.
But it would be wrong to think that this title was solely about James and Davis.
Frank Vogel, who hoisted a championship trophy in Orlando just two years after being fired by the Magic, did an outstanding job with this group. Long known for his defensive acumen, Vogel often got fantastic buy-in on that end from James, who, after years of less-than-consistent effort, generally locked down his opponents when it mattered most. (Davis, of course, was the runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year.) But even on the offensive end, Vogel and his staff developed a game plan designed to blow up Miami’s zone — placing either James or Davis in the middle of it, then taking the other man and putting him along the baseline, which forced the Heat to scrap the plan altogether.
After the Lakers’ disappointing flame-out last season, general manager Rob Pelinka was under pressure to assemble a roster after holding out for, then missing on, Kawhi Leonard. He didn’t bring in a third star, but it’s worth noting that Alex Caruso, Rajon Rondo, Markieff Morris and Dwight Howard (!) made up just 7 percent of the team’s salary cap, while ultimately contributing far more than that to the Lakers’ championship run.
Howard, acquired after free-agent signee DeMarcus Cousins tore his ACL, was deemed a small risk — if only because of his wishy-washy reputation and the agitation in Laker Land over his first stint. But his ability on the glass was enormous throughout the NBA Finals against Miami, and he was usually a steadier backup presence than the undisciplined JaVale McGee. (And to Vogel’s credit, he adjusted in Game 6 by playing small and leaving Howard on the bench as a way to space the floor offensively. This change allowed the Lakers to turn the game into a track meet early, and the Heat were never able to locate their sprinter’s spikes.)
Talented as the Lakers are, the offense outside of their supremely talented Top Two was a fair question coming in. Yes, they could score with the best of them because of Davis and James. But it wasn’t crazy to wonder where any other high-level ball-handling would come from, or if a lack thereof would place too much of a burden on an aging James.
As they illustrated Sunday, the team feasted and brought opponents to their knees when they couldn’t appropriately set their defense, with James throwing transition touchdown after transition touchdown to Davis. Yet the Lakers’ half-court offense was mediocre throughout the regular season, having posted slightly below-average efficiency numbers. They weren’t all that good from deep either, and the team endured a notable cold spell to end the regular season, ranking 20th of the 22 bubble teams in offense.
But we had no idea that Kentavious Caldwell-Pope would morph into an elite role player for the second half of the Finals. Nor did we know that Rondo, who has a well-worn reputation as one of the league’s most errant-shooting guards, would suddenly become a relative flamethrower during the postseason. Perhaps aided by improved depth perception in the smaller arenas, Rondo — a 29 percent postseason shooter from three before this year — shot closer to 40 percent on three tries a game this postseason.
In Second Spectrum’s quantified Shot Quality stat, which measures how an average player would be expected to perform on the same attempts, Rondo went from being 5 points worse than expected on jumpers during the regular season to now shooting 6 points better than expected in the playoffs. (For context: That 11-point swing in effective field-goal rate would be the equivalent of going from the wayward-shooting Michael Carter-Williams to marksman Khris Middleton.)
Rondo becoming a reliable shooter was a massive development for Los Angeles, as it gave defenses a bit more to consider before abandoning him beyond the arc. It meant that Davis and James were likely to see less aggressive double-teams than they otherwise would have, allowing them to have an advantage in most of their matchups.
As always, there will be some who seek to poke holes in this title. Aside from the one-off weirdness of the bubble itself, there’s also the fact that the Lakers didn’t end up having to face the team with the league’s best record. Or the team with the second-best record. Or the team with the second-best record in the West. (Though Los Angeles did take down the Bucks and the Clippers in consecutive games just before the league shut down, and then they beat the Clippers again the night the league resumed.)
Even the Miami club that earned its way to the Finals was hobbled shortly after getting there, with Goran Dragić sitting out four games and Bam Adebayo missing two.
In a way, to focus more on those circumstances would be a lot like crediting James and Davis alone for the title. Yes, that tandem was a massive part of it, and they did much of the heavy lifting. But overlooking everything else would be ignoring the nuances of what made this team special.