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The Lakers Have Recaptured Their Championship Formula

Los Angeles is back in the Western Conference finals for the first time since its 2020 title run. And just like that team, this version is winning with dominant defense and reliable depth.

Getty Images/AP Photo/Ringer illustration

From one vantage point, the Los Angeles Lakers’ run to the Western Conference finals is an inspiring underdog story. The Lakers barely posted a positive scoring margin in the regular season. They needed to survive overtime in the play-in round just to hold on to their no. 7 spot in the standings. And now, after closing out the Warriors in Game 6 on Friday night in Los Angeles, they’ve become the first no. 7 seed to advance to the conference finals since the 1986-87 Seattle SuperSonics; if they go on to win the title, they’d be the lowest-seeded team in NBA history to do so.

And yet, the Lakers don’t look like underdogs at all. This is a team with 17 NBA championships and LeBron James on the roster; it’s hard to call that group an underdog with a straight face. LeBron and costar Anthony Davis won a title just three years ago, after all—and though they’re the only two players who remain from that title-winning roster, the 2022-23 version was built in its image.

Two key factors propelled the Lakers to the bubble title in 2020. And both apply to the 2022-23 Lakers, too.

Dominant Defense

With Davis in his first season in Los Angeles and Frank Vogel on the bench in 2019-20, the Lakers assumed a defensive identity from the start of the season, and they took pride in their ability to string together stops. As LeBron told reporters after an early November game that season, “We are a defensive team. We want to be that—we want to be the best defensive team in the league.”

He didn’t quite get his wish, as the Lakers finished third in defensive rating that season—but they were first among Western Conference teams. They also finished first in the West standings, and although their offense perked up in the postseason—thanks largely to hot 3-point shooting in the bubble—they were still driven by their defense in the playoffs.

Los Angeles’s defense wasn’t as dominant in the 2022-23 regular season, tying for 12th overall. But it tied for second after the trade deadline, just a tick away from the top spot, and has stifled all of its postseason opponents thus far:

  • Minnesota scored 113.3 points per 100 possessions in the regular season, versus 106.7 against the Lakers in the play-in game.
  • Memphis scored 114.7 points per 100 possessions in the regular season, versus 102.8 against the Lakers in the first round. (No other Western team scored fewer than 109 per 100 in the first round.)
  • Golden State scored 115.1 points per 100 possessions in the regular season, versus 110.2 against the Lakers in the second round.

The Lakers have the stingiest defense in the postseason overall (versus ranking in only a tie for eighth on offense), and they also have the stingiest defense among the final eight playoff teams when adjusting for opponent quality. (This chart doesn’t include the Lakers’ throttling of Minnesota’s offense, because the play-in isn’t officially part of the playoffs.)

Final Eight Playoff Teams’ Opponent-Adjusted Defensive Performance

Team Opponents' Relative ORtg
Team Opponents' Relative ORtg
Lakers -8.4
Knicks -6.7
76ers -6.2
Warriors -5.0
Heat -4.5
Celtics -4.2
Nuggets -3.8
Suns +2.8

That placement is mainly attributable to Davis, the team’s most valuable two-way player through the first half of the postseason. The 2023 version of Davis isn’t as consistent on offense as the 2020 version. (Three years ago, Davis made 38 percent of his 3s in the playoffs. This postseason, he’s at 27 percent on a third of the attempts.) But he’s as destructive a defender as ever, serving as a one-man wall in the paint.

Through two series, Davis is averaging 3.3 blocks per game. Dwight Howard is the only other player in the past 20 years to reach that figure in a postseason (minimum 10 games); Howard did so in both 2008 and 2010.

Yet even that stupendous statistic doesn’t capture the full effect of Davis’s deterrence. Opponents are so scared of the Brow’s blocks that he alters and influences dozens of other shot opportunities each game. In the Lakers’ series-clinching win against the Warriors on Friday, for instance, Golden State declined numerous layup attempts because Davis was lurking nearby. With various pick-and-roll configurations, the Warriors pulled Davis out of the paint for portions of games in their second-round series—but they never fully figured out how to score against him.

Other Lakers have contributed to their stout defense, in support of Davis. Dennis Schröder did an excellent job hounding Steph Curry, who tallied a modest—by his standards—27 points per game on 44 percent shooting (34 percent from 3). Jarred Vanderbilt was especially helpful against Memphis in the first round, as the Lakers aggressively helped off of the Grizzlies’ weaker shooters to crowd the paint against Ja Morant. And every other member of the Lakers rotation is big, long, and physical, so there are no obvious weak points for opposing offenses to target.

The Lakers’ next opponent presents an entirely new challenge. The Nuggets have scored a league-best 118.7 points per 100 possessions this postseason, and Nikola Jokic might be the only player in the NBA who warps defensive strategies as much as Curry does. A Davis-Jokic matchup will be catnip for viewers—the 2023 postseason’s best example of an immovable object meeting an unstoppable force.

Deep Cast of Role Players

On the other end of the court, the Lakers romped to the 2019-20 title because of Davis and LeBron, who averaged 28 points apiece throughout their playoff run. But beyond that star duo, the Lakers were an egalitarian outfit, with a collection of role players who could each provide supplementary scoring on any given night.

No member of the Lakers rotation other than James and Davis averaged north of 11 points per game in those playoffs—but seven of them tallied between six and 11 points on average.

Lakers Scoring in the 2020 Playoffs

Player Points Per Game
Player Points Per Game
Anthony Davis 27.7
LeBron James 27.6
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope 10.7
Kyle Kuzma 10.0
Rajon Rondo 8.9
Danny Green 8.0
Alex Caruso 6.5
Markieff Morris 5.9
Dwight Howard 5.8

It seemed as if a different role player was able to step up to support Davis and James every night. Rajon Rondo scored 21 in one playoff game during that championship run. Kyle Kuzma and Markieff Morris both scored 19 in the same game. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope scored 18, 17, and 16 twice. And Alex Caruso and Danny Green both got hot from distance at various points throughout the playoffs.

Following that championship and a first-round loss in 2021—here, I’m practically obligated to write that Davis suffered an injury in that series, though opponent Chris Paul did too—the Lakers inexplicably split up that supporting cast and pursued a different philosophical direction. All of those defensively oriented perimeter contributors fit next to James and Davis, but they were replaced by one-way players.

General manager Rob Pelinka shipped Kuzma and Caldwell-Pope to the Wizards in the disastrous trade for Russell Westbrook. He traded Green to the Thunder for Schröder (who subsequently left the Lakers, before returning this season). He let Caruso leave for the Bulls in free agency.

The result was a gap year and a missed opportunity for Davis and LeBron; the Lakers finished 11th in the West last season and didn’t even reach the play-in round. But Pelinka evidently learned his lesson and reconstructed a more logical roster this season, particularly by trading Westbrook and picks in a pair of deals for Vanderbilt, D’Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley, and Rui Hachimura before the February deadline.

The new-look 2023 Lakers’ scoring distribution is a bit more even at the top than the 2020 edition. LeBron’s and Davis’s scoring averages have both dropped to the low 20s, while Russell and Austin Reaves are both scoring more than any of the 2020 supporting cast did.

(At first blush, Reaves might seem like an updated version of another undrafted player in Caruso. But he has a much more aggressive approach on offense, and he’s been the Lakers’ third-best player for months now.)

Lakers Scoring in the 2023 Playoffs

Player Points Per Game
Player Points Per Game
LeBron James 23.4
Anthony Davis 21.2
D'Angelo Russell 15.7
Austin Reaves 15.4
Rui Hachimura 11.2
Dennis Schröder 7.5
Lonnie Walker IV 6.8
Jarred Vanderbilt 5.3

Just like the 2020 Lakers, though, the 2023 team has also benefited from impressive role-player production. They needed Lonnie Walker IV’s fourth-quarter outburst in Game 4 against Golden State to swing that series, and they relished Hachimura’s surge in Game 1 against Memphis. Schröder and Vanderbilt enjoyed various big games as well.

It’s a credit not only to those players, and to Pelinka, who brought them together, but also to Darvin Ham, in his first season as an NBA head coach, who’s kept them engaged and displayed a knack for knowing when to toggle their minutes. Although Davis and LeBron are once again the driving forces behind a potential Lakers title team, theirs is—like for any NBA champion—a group effort.

This group’s effort might have started from a different position in the standings, but it’s replicating a proven championship formula: develop a dominant offense and surround the two stars with complementary two-way role players. And that’s how both a no. 1 seed can win the title and a no. 7 seed can earn a chance to make history.