If ever we needed more proof of the performance-enhancing properties of sleep, LeBron James offered it Wednesday. Twelve hours after hitting Twitter to lament having Rip Van Winkle’d his way through his company holiday party—which company remains unclear as of press time—James showed the San Antonio Spurs just how restorative all those Z’s can be, scoring a game-high 42 points with six assists, five rebounds, and two steals in 40 minutes of work to lift L.A. to a 121-113 win at Staples Center:
Less than a month away from his 34th birthday, James saved his best for last against Gregg Popovich’s crew. He put the finishing touches on the Spurs with one of his now-trademark very deep 3-pointers over the outstretched arms of Rudy Gay, followed by a lefty finish in traffic after a give-and-go with Kyle Kuzma in the final minute. He poured in 20 points in the fourth quarter alone and assisted on seven more, helping erase an eight-point deficit and wrap up a 4-0 homestand.
The win kept the good times rolling in Hollywood. Since losing two straight to drop to 2-5 before Halloween, the Lakers have now won 13 of their past 17 games, evolving past mere watchability to a top-10 position in both winning percentage and net rating. Only the Raptors and the red-hot Thunder have a better record since October 31 than the Lakers, who now sit fifth in the tightly packed Western Conference, just two games behind the first-place Nuggets.
After a rocky start, the Lakers appear to have locked into the kind of groove that James expected when he was preaching patience earlier in the season. And yet, if you look long enough, it’s easy to wonder how exactly this is happening.
Entering the season, the Lakers profiled as a team that would be able to score easily but struggle to get stops, and would try to mitigate its defensive failings by maintaining a quick pace. That’s how things started out. Before veteran point guard Rajon Rondo sustained a broken right hand in mid-November, L.A. ranked ninth in offensive efficiency, 20th in defensive efficiency, and third in both possessions per 48 minutes and average length of offensive possessions. Since Rondo’s injury, though, the team’s performance has inverted.
It’s tempting to credit the Lakers’ recent form to a surge by James, who has possessed the ball more often with Rondo shelved. (LeBron exploded for 51 in Miami and 38 against the Pacers to go along with his 42 on Wednesday.) But while the amount of time James spends on the ball has nudged north in Rondo’s absence, the difference hasn’t been dramatic. He’s tied for 16th in the league in time of possession since Rondo’s injury, slotting in next to De’Aaron Fox and Reggie Jackson rather than über-ball-dominators like James Harden and John Wall, and he’s still spending significantly less time with the rock in his hands than he did in either of the past two seasons. (This could change quickly if Brandon Ingram misses considerable time after spraining his left ankle in Wednesday’s win. Coach Luke Walton suggested that an injury to one of L.A.’s other top creators could lead him to split up James and starting point guard Lonzo Ball, who have played the bulk of their minutes together as the Lakers look toward the future. Also, for what it’s worth, when everyone’s healthy, maybe Walton should consider a different separation of playmakers.)
Beyond that, several crooked numbers aside, James’s individual production hasn’t changed drastically from the Lakers’ first 14 games to their past 10 (which is to say, he’s been MVP-caliber ridiculous throughout the entire season). The team’s overall offensive efficiency has remained closer to average than stellar, too, even when James is on the court; in fact, since Rondo went down, the Lakers have fielded the NBA’s sixth-worst offense.
But the Lakers have transformed on the defensive end. Over their past 10 games, they rank an eye-popping third in the NBA in defensive efficiency. They now sit fourth for the full season in points allowed per possession in the half court, according to Cleaning the Glass, behind only elite defensive outfits from Oklahoma City, Toronto, and Memphis.
The arrival of Tyson Chandler has been a godsend on defense for a team that had no size to speak of behind starter JaVale McGee. The veteran center still boasts the best net rating on the team, with the Lakers allowing a microscopic 93.4 points per 100 possessions when Chandler’s manning the middle; opponents are shooting roughly the same percentage at the rim with Chandler in the area that they do when Anthony Davis or Rudy Gobert is defending, according to NBA.com’s Second Spectrum tracking data.
How good has @tysonchandler been for the @Lakers ? You won't see a bunch of blocks but the Lakers are the BEST IN THE LEAGUE at defending shots within 6 feet of the hoop since he joined.— Vinay Shah (@lakerstandard) December 5, 2018
His play against Indiana was huge in close game situations like below: pic.twitter.com/xSsaQkGmsM
Some of the Lakers’ rise up the defensive rankings can be attributed to more concerted effort. Since Rondo’s injury, they’ve allowed the second-fewest points per possession after an opponent’s defensive rebound and the eighth-fewest points per possession after committing a live-ball turnover, according to Inpredictable, which suggests that they’ve been doing a better job of hustling back on defense than they were earlier in the season. (As it turns out, trying harder can help a lot!)
Some of that improvement could also be credited to a friendlier break in the schedule. The Lakers have rolled up wins over struggling squads in Atlanta, Miami, Cleveland, Utah (with Donovan Mitchell leaving the game early due to a rib contusion), and Phoenix (with Devin Booker exiting early with a hamstring injury). L.A. got a hold of Minnesota just before the end of the Jimmy Butler debacle and knocked off Indy without Victor Oladipo. The Lakers don’t have to apologize for taking advantage of that good fortune, especially after a tough opening slate, but it does make it hard to believe that they’ve suddenly become a defensive juggernaut—especially with memories of Orlando and Denver carving them up, and of DeMar DeRozan and Rudy Gay combining for 63 points against them, so fresh in our minds.
Add it all up, and you’ve got … well, honestly, I’m not really sure what you’ve got. A quarter of the way through LeBron’s first season in purple and gold, the Lakers still seem like a team with more questions than answers—in terms of non-LeBron offense, overall defense, youth development, rotation management, coach–front office power dynamics, and general standing in an incredibly competitive conference. It seems like all we really know about them, definitively, is that they have LeBron James, who is still freaking incredible. So far, that’s been enough to get L.A. back to relevance and into the middle of the Western playoff chase. How far it will get them, though, remains to be seen.