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All of King James’s Men Are Helping to Keep the Lakers Atop the West

Questioned abounded about Los Angeles’ roster beyond LeBron and Anthony Davis, but Kyle Kuzma and Co. stepped up in a win over the scrappy Suns, and are slowly turning a Big Two into one of the most complete teams in the NBA

Los Angeles Lakers v Phoenix Suns Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Since LeBron James brought the circus to town with his arrival in July 2018, he has, for the most part, been the sole proprietor of Lakers fans’ focus. When general manager Rob Pelinka swung a deal for Anthony Davis a year later, ditching almost all of their roster in the process, it seemed fair to assume the spotlight would grow to include the All-NBA forward but wouldn’t extend far beyond. Unlike the crosstown Clippers, with their flashy stars and deep well of veterans, the Lakers were a two-man team; beyond Davis and James—and maybe Kyle Kuzma and Danny Green on a good night—there wasn’t much to speak of.

On Tuesday, the Lakers’ supporting pieces did their part to dispel that notion. Los Angeles escaped a surprisingly pesky Phoenix team 123-115 on the road, thanks in large part to contributions from Kuzma, Green, JaVale McGee, and Dwight Howard. Kuzma—the only member of the Lakers’ young core whom the front office refused to trade for Davis—finished a mark shy of Davis’s game high, notching 23 points on 9-for-16 shooting, with four boards and a steal.

After dropping 13 points in the first half, Kuzma went ice cold in the third quarter, missing all three of his tries from deep before saving the day in the final frame. The third-year wing played as well down the stretch as his 100 emoji tattoo is dumb, nailing back-to-back 3s to grow a one-point Laker advantage to seven with under two minutes remaining. The Suns wouldn’t narrow their deficit to fewer than five for the rest of the night.

“I’ve been finding my rhythm all season,” Kuzma said after the game. “I feel like every single game, I’m getting better and better with my rhythm and timing. … I just got to do me. I’ve got to play like Kuz play.”

In a vacuum, Kuzma’s emergence would be reason for celebration. Coupled with the play of his fellow secondary castmembers, it’s cause for fear across the league. Most assumed the other Lakers would eventually be able to help their two stars reach their ceilings; few thought it could happen this quickly. Through 10 games, Los Angeles sits atop the Western Conference at 8-2 and look more complete than could have been expected this early in the season.

James, who made up for an off scoring night (19 points on 8-for-18 shooting) with a series of clutch passes (11 assists, matching his league-leading season average), and Davis, who led the charge with 24 points and 12 boards, are talented enough to lift a team through a seven-game playoff series. Both have done it on their own before. But the true mark of a contender is how it manages when its go-to guys are having off nights. Against a Suns team similarly showing resolve, there were plenty of Lakers ready to cry Spartacus.

Green tied Kuzma with a team-high three 3s, including a dagger that put L.A. up five midway through the fourth quarter en route to 14 points. McGee sat for the entirety of the fourth as head coach Frank Vogel opted for Dwight Howard’s revitalized hand, but went a perfect 5-for-5 from the floor—all in the third quarter, and all on dunks. And offseason acquisitions Howard and Avery Bradley each turned back the clock, combining for 20 points on 59 percent shooting, 11 rebounds, and six dimes. On a night when neither Davis nor James looked like their typical world-beater selves, it kept a triumvirate of 20-plus point Suns scorers (Aron Baynes, Devin Booker, and Ricky Rubio) at bay.

It’s notable that the Lakers’ most well-rounded team performance of the season came against the Suns. Phoenix has been one of the surprises of the early stretch, sitting at 6-4 with the fourth-most effective offense in the league and a top-half defense. Even without star center Deandre Ayton, who was suspended for 25 games after testing positive for a diuretic, the Suns have looked superb.

Monty Williams’s squad is sprinting up the floor at a top-10 pace, and the backcourt combo of Booker and Rubio paired with shooters in the frontcourt in Baynes and Dario Saric have kept the Suns competitive in nearly every game they’ve played. There were 29 lead changes in Tuesday’s contest with the Lakers, and five different Suns nailed at least two 3s. It’s still too early to tell whether Phoenix is built to last late into the calendar, but at the very least, it’s safe to assume they’re not the same doormats that stumbled into the second-worst record in the league last season.

The Lakers’ ability to rise above those troublesome Suns on Tuesday should be lauded; they did so not because of the King, but because of all of his men. In the coming days, Paul George will make his Los Angeles debut, and with Kawhi at his side, the Clippers may well assert themselves as the class of the city, and the West. But for now, Los Angeles is what it’s always been: a Lakers town. And it’s a team effort that’s gotten them there.