Lakers Are the Best Team in the NBA, and We Haven't Even Seen Their Best

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistJanuary 22, 2021

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James reacts during a stop in play in the third quarter against the Houston Rockets in an NBA basketball game Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2021, in Houston. (Troy Taormina/Pool Photo via AP)
Troy Taormina/Associated Press

Following Thursday's 113-106 road victory over the Milwaukee Bucks, the Los Angeles Lakers are 12-4. That's the best record in the NBA

They have the best net rating in the league too, with a mark that's just over a full point better than second-place Milwaukee's. They're fifth in offense and first in defense.

And yet, it still feels like this updated version of the Lakers hasn't quite hit its top gear.

Anthony Davis is averaging 21.1 points, his lowest mark since 2013-14, when he was an NBA sophomore. LeBron's 24.4 is his lowest average since his rookie campaign in 2003-04. Thursday, he topped 30 for the first time in 2020-21. Again, you have to go back to '03-04 to find a season when it took him longer to drop 30.

A simple recitation of their scoring averages doesn't do the cruise control justice, though. If you tuned into about any Lakers game this season, you likely saw long stretches in which L.A. just sort of wandered its way into winning basketball.

That probably doesn't give the coaching staff enough credit for schemes that have led to top-five efficiency on both ends, but it just feels like the Lakers still have more to give.

"I've been talking to players on the team, my coaches, my family," AD told the TNT broadcast following Thursday's 8-of-18 performance. "Just trying to figure out how to get back into a rhythm."

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He also verbalized a desire to help newcomers Marc Gasol, Montrezl Harrell, Wesley Matthews and Dennis Schroder acclimate. That could certainly be contributing to a lack of rhythm, but his game against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks offers an example of another factor.

In the first half, AD aggressively got to 13 points on 6-of-10 shooting. Six of his attempts were in the lane. Three more came from barely outside it. In the second half, he was 2-of-8 (almost exclusively jumpers) for five points.

Milwaukee did a decent job of walling off the paint before Davis even caught the ball, but a sense of urgency seemed to be lacking. And it's tough to blame AD for that.

"We're still winning," he told Marv Albert and Chris Webber. Why would he push for gaudier individual numbers if the team is doing fine with him in cruise control?

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

You get a similar sense while watching LeBron (at least until Thursday's 34-point outburst). The 4.8 box plus/minus he brought into the game against the Bucks was his lowest mark in the catch-all metric since, you guessed it, his rookie year.

The Lakers are still comfortably better with him on the floor, but the swing isn't as dramatic as it's been through most of his career. And the way he's running possessions now looks more like the pace of Driving Miss Daisy than Mad Max: Fury Road (L.A. is in the bottom half of the league in actual pace).

His thorough outplaying of Giannis in a potential Finals preview was a reminder of how quickly he can rev things up, though. Beyond his season-high 34 points, LeBron had eight dimes, six threes and a fourth-quarter dagger that felt like a statement.

The two-time reigning MVP, meanwhile, was minus-six in 35 minutes, fouled out and turned the ball over nine times. With just under eight minutes left in the game and his team down by nine, he rhythm-dribbled into a 19-foot pull-up that he left about two feet too short.

The contrast between the athletic phenom who eventually added the jumper and the one who hasn't was stark. And if these teams do indeed meet in the Finals, that difference will matter.

The Lakers' deeper roster will obviously help too. This offseason, Milwaukee mortgaged much of its future and bench for Jrue Holiday. A head-to-head comparison of Holiday and Eric Bledsoe is one thing, but what that deal led to for the entire roster is another.

Solid (if aging) role players like George Hill, Wesley Matthews, Ersan Ilyasova, Kyle Korver and Marvin Williams were replaced by less proven names like Bobby Portis, Torrey Craig and Bryn Forbes.

L.A., on the other hand, replaced Danny Green with Schroder, who'd just finished second in Sixth Man of the Year voting. JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard were gritty defenders and rim-runners, but the versatility of a center rotation with Gasol's passing, shooting and basketball IQ and Harrell's spark-plug energy was a clear upgrade.

And even those newcomers (with the possible exception of Harrell) seem like they haven't peaked either.

Schroder is the team's third-leading scorer, but his effective field-goal percentage is six points lower than it was last season. Gasol is playing fewer than 20 minutes per game. That can be ramped up for the postseason. Over the course of this campaign, Harrell can improve as a defender playing alongside and practicing with elite defenders like Gasol and Davis.

Maybe this all sounds a bit nitpicky. It isn't meant to be. It's more of a comment on just how scary this team's potential is.

Even when playing in second or third gear for most of this young season, it looks like the Lakers are in a tier of their own, with squads like the Los Angeles Clippers and Bucks creeping up behind them.

Whenever L.A. hits that top gear, it's hard to imagine anyone matching the balance and talent of this roster.