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The Lakers’ Old Formula Won Them the NBA’s Newest Trophy

The in-season tournament championship was a reminder that LeBron James plus Anthony Davis plus an elite defense is scary. And the players’ treatment of the NBA Cup as something worth winning was the tacit stamp of approval the league needed.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Los Angeles Lakers are one of the NBA’s most historically successful franchises. They’ve won 17 championships, tied for the most in league history. They’ve reached 32 Finals, 10 more than any other team. They rostered at least one future Hall of Famer in each of the first 68 years of the franchise’s existence.

And yet, imagine how much more the Lakers might have accomplished if the NBA handed out its trophies in the fall, instead of springtime. Because after LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and a stifling defense led the Lakers to the bubble title in October 2020, the same formula delivered the Lakers the inaugural NBA Cup, concluding the league’s first in-season tournament, in early December 2023.

Behind a 41-point, 20-rebound, four-block masterpiece from Davis, the Lakers beat the Pacers 123-109 in Las Vegas on Saturday. All the Lakers players are now $500,000 richer, thanks to the IST’s winning purse, and the franchise is now the definitive champion of oddly timed NBA competition. If only they could bottle the same energy that propelled them to the IST title and use it next spring.

“First to do it, first to win it. We know it’s not the real thing,” Davis said with a smile afterward.

Even if it’s not as prestigious as the annual battle for the Larry O’Brien Trophy, the first IST climax represented a “dream finale,” as my colleague Danny Chau termed it—a matchup between LeBron’s Lakers and a Cinderella Pacers squad, led by budding star Tyrese Haliburton, that had already defeated the Cavaliers, 76ers, Celtics, and Bucks in tournament play en route to the championship game. The matchup was a clash of ages, of market sizes, of playing styles. “LeBron has played Goliath to a number of Davids in his day, and Indiana’s 123.5 offensive rating is its slingshot,” Danny wrote.

But Davids can’t win if they shoot 24 percent on 3-pointers, and an off shooting night and a stout Lakers defense combined to doom the underdog Pacers, who never led after the first 90 seconds of game time. L.A. held Indiana to a miserable 80 points per 100 half-court plays, per Cleaning the Glass—the Pacers’ worst half-court output in any game this season, and 10 ticks below their previous low point.

Indiana was able to get out in transition at points, but not nearly enough to compensate for that half-court humbling. Across all possessions before garbage time, the Pacers’ offensive rating was only 101.9, per CtG. It was just their fifth game with an offensive rating below 117—or, it would be if the IST final’s stats counted—and they’re unsurprisingly 0-5 in those contests.

Haliburton ended the night with a respectable 20 points and 11 assists, but an aggressive trapping scheme from Lakers coach Darvin Ham largely took the ball out of the point guard’s hands and prevented the Pacers offense from ever finding a consistent rhythm.

The 2019-20 Lakers won the title for a number of reasons: chemistry and focus in the bubble, hot shooting throughout the postseason, strong contributions from winning role players like Alex Caruso and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. But that team’s recipe for success was simple: LeBron plus AD plus the third-rated defense in the league, which then-coach Frank Vogel stressed from the start of the season.

“We are a defensive team. We want to be that—we want to be the best defensive team in the league,” LeBron said early in the 2019-20 campaign, and that promise extended all the way through the bubble. Fast-forward to the 2022-23 playoffs, and again, the seventh-seeded Lakers advanced to the conference finals because of that same formula. The 2023-24 Lakers remain long and physical, with waves of now-healthy big wings surrounding Davis in the middle, and this is how they’ll win once more come spring: They’re ranked 22nd in offensive rating this season, but on defense, they’re seventh and within striking distance of second place.

On the other end of the court on Saturday, meanwhile, the Lakers bullied the Pacers with their size and relentless drive, which produced a game plan that stretched the bounds of what is possible in the modern NBA.

Out of the Lakers’ 123 points in this game, 86 came in the paint—the most for any team in a game this season—and another 27 came at the free throw line. Do the math, and you’ll find only 10 points left over—just 10 points that the Lakers scored outside the paint all game. And they won! Comfortably! In 2023!

This sort of dissonance just doesn’t occur in the modern NBA. The Lakers attempted only 13 3-pointers against Indiana, the fewest for any team in any game since March 2021. They made only two triples, the fewest for any winning team since February 2020.

But the reasons for this approach were clear and predictable. Entering Saturday night, the Lakers ranked 30th in the league in 3-point makes, 29th in attempts, and 26th in accuracy. They don’t have the desire or manpower to focus their attack from beyond the arc. Instead, they press closer to the hoop; Davis and LeBron are tied for third in the NBA in makes in the restricted area.

Meanwhile, the Pacers are happy to run opponents off the line and funnel them toward the basket. Pacers opponents have taken just 26 percent of their shots from distance, per CtG, the lowest figure in the league by 4 percentage points. But Pacers opponents have taken 41 percent of their shots at the rim—the highest mark in the league by four ticks.

The matchup when the Lakers had the ball, then, was between an unstoppable force and an object that wasn’t merely movable, but also happy to be moved. The result was carnage around the rim. The Lakers outrebounded Indiana 55 to 32. And Davis, Austin Reaves, and LeBron—the three highest scorers in the game on either team—combined for 93 points despite making just one shot outside the paint all night: a midrange jumper from Reaves.

The finale was LeBron’s worst game of the past week, after he dismantled the Suns and Pelicans in the earlier IST knockout rounds. Against Indiana, he needed 21 shot attempts to reach 24 points and committed more turnovers (six) and fouls (five) than assists (four). Yet he remained unstoppable in transition and provided valuable contributions on the defensive end, picking off two passes from the typically turnover-free Haliburton early in the first quarter.

For LeBron’s performance throughout the tournament, he was rightfully named the inaugural in-season tournament MVP. The league will have to decide which of its growing number of individual honors to name after LeBron once he retires (if he ever retires might be a more accurate phrase, given his unflagging performance at age 38); maybe, if the IST continues to grow in stature, this award will become the LeBron James Netflix/Amazon/Apple In-Season Tournament MVP Trophy.

(Or maybe he’ll be back in Vegas soon enough as an expansion team owner, if King James’s long-rumored plans come to fruition. “I’m sorry, but it doesn’t come with a franchise,” commissioner Adam Silver said while presenting the MVP trophy to LeBron.)

Yet if the NBA had handed out an MVP award just for this championship game, Davis, not LeBron, would have been the runaway winner. The Pacers’ Myles Turner is a good NBA center, yet before he fouled out, he looked like an overmatched JV player going up against Davis on Saturday. Davis became only the second player on record with at least 40 points, 20 rebounds, six assists, and four blocks in a game, per Stathead—and the first (Joe Barry Carroll in 1987) required four overtimes to reach those numbers.

This was the Davis for whom the Lakers traded three good, young players and three first-round picks back in 2019. This was the Davis who coled the Lakers to a title the next year, and who was the second-youngest player selected to the NBA’s 75th Anniversary Team the year after that. This Davis has the potential to help LeBron win another title as long as they’re teammates.

Just last postseason, Davis once again displayed his two-way mastery at full engagement. He absolutely terrorized the Grizzlies and Warriors in the first two playoff rounds, essentially constructing a one-man wall around the basket and forcing opposing coaches to tweak their preferred lineups just to try to counter Davis’s singular presence. For stretches last spring, he looked like one of the most dominant individual defenders of the 21st century.

Yet the question, as always with Davis, is whether he can put forth that effort consistently. Last postseason, he scored 30-plus points four times, but he followed up those games with just 12, 16, 11, and 18 points on combined 40 percent shooting. This season, he’s generally vacillated from night to night as well.

The Lakers will need the peak version of Davis, plus additional help, if they want to make a real run at the 2023-24 title. The Lakers might be IST champions, but they’re only 14-9 in the regular-season standings, with the league’s 15th-best net rating.

A 22nd-ranked offense isn’t dynamic enough to win four playoff rounds. The Lakers won’t waltz their way to 80-plus points in the paint against non-Pacers opponents; at some point, one presumes, they’ll need to vault out of last place in 3-point makes per game. The whole league wonders if the Lakers might make a splash to upgrade their offense before the trade deadline.

But over the course of the inaugural tournament, they proved they deserve, at the very least, to remain in the top tier of contenders in a wide-open championship race. LeBron plus AD plus an elite defense is just that good.

Along the way, the in-season tournament provided a symbiotic relationship for both LeBron’s Lakers and the NBA. From one perspective, the IST gave the Lakers a chance to test themselves in a playoff-caliber atmosphere early in the season—as well as a nice stack of cash.

And from the other side, LeBron’s treatment of the league’s experimental tournament as something to be won, as serious, as important, gave it a tacit stamp of approval. “Players like LeBron, Steph, other leading veterans in this league embracing this from day one, that makes a big difference with the players,” Silver said when asked about the IST’s success on Saturday.

Sports trophies weren’t handed down from the heavens on Mount Sinai or created from scratch by the Big Bang. They aren’t inherently important. Rather, they matter because people decide they matter and are worth trying for. LeBron could have coasted through IST games; he’s certainly accomplished enough in his NBA career already without needing another trophy of yet-undetermined value. But the league’s leading legend cared, so others cared, and thus LeBron helped legitimize the tournament and made his own victory more meaningful.

There might be some tweaks to the tournament in the future, but the NBA isn’t reversing course now, and why would it? The first IST was a smashing success—for both the league and the Lakers, who will now spend the next seven months attempting to earn another historic triumph: becoming the first team to win the IST–Larry O’Brien double.