From the players to the coaches and observers, there is a general consensus about this Lakers team.
They really like each other.
It shows in their willingness to spend time together away from the court. When JaVale McGee hosted an ugly sweater party to promote a charity that matters to him, most of the team showed up dressed in the proper attire. They did the same for LeBron James’ Halloween and birthday parties. They gathered to watch a private screening of “Bad Boys for Life,” they eat together during road trips. James and Anthony Davis often wait for each other after games so they can leave the court together like best friends on a playground.
It’s part of what has helped the Lakers get off to a good start this season. At 33-8 they have the best record in the Western Conference and can make an argument that they are the best team in the NBA. At the halfway mark of the season, they’ve reaped the benefits of harmony.
“Best chemistry I’ve had with a team,” forward Jared Dudley said. “… We’re having fun. We actually genuinely like each other.”
There were organic and planned elements to how the Lakers became such a close-knit group. It started in Las Vegas during the summer when James hosted his teammates for a players-only minicamp.
“We had some nice dinners, nice lunches,” James said. “Did some things together throughout those days, and I think it just kind of springboarded what we wanted our season to be about. Obviously, the wins and losses will take care of itself. You don’t never know what’s gonna happen with that. But as far as how we can come together and how we can be just very blunt and very organic to one another is something that you can control.”
Their chemistry experienced its first test in August, when the Lakers traveled to China for two preseason games after Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted his support of anti-government protesters in Hong Kong. The Lakers were thrust into a tense situation they didn’t fully understand. Players were losing money as sponsors cut ties with them, the team was losing practice time. It was not an ideal situation for the start of a season with lofty expectations.
Lakers coach Frank Vogel remembered how they reacted to that strain.
“It was an early, good sign that we were going to have great chemistry this year,” Vogel said. “When you deal with adversity before you really even hit the ground and you’re able to kind of grow and be together like that, it was just an early sign that our chemistry was going to be strong.”
The experience might have hampered the Lakers’ start, but not enough to stop them from terrifying the rest of the NBA. They won 24 of their first 27 games and started 22-0 against teams with losing records.
“We really just had a mindset, like we’ve had all year: keep our focus on the task at hand,” Vogel said. “Stay in the moment and whatever our environment is — whether it’s winning a bunch, losing a bunch, traveling, home — when we come together we got to focus on getting better and focus on the task at hand. That’s been a mindset from Day 1.”
When asked to give the Lakers a letter grade for how they started the season, Vogel answered, “B-plus.”
As a coach, he sees the imperfections in their game and how much they need to improve. They have mostly done a good job of winning games they should win — their loss to the Orlando Magic on Thursday was the first to a team with a losing record. They have been able to overcome their occasional over-dependence on James in the offense.
Vogel also sees and enjoys the fun they’re all having along the way.
It’s why James smiled knowingly when asked about his favorite moments from the first half of the season.
“Probably the highlights so far is things that y’all don’t see,” James said. “When we do the things we do as a team, camaraderie we continue to build on the plane, on the bus, on bus rides to cities and games and shootarounds, things of that nature. You know, we’re a very close group. That’s been the highlight so far for me.”
When: 5:30 p.m., Saturday
On the air: TV: ABC; Radio: 710, 1330
Update: The Rockets (26-14) are struggling as they head into their first matchup of the season with the Lakers. Houston lost its last two games to Memphis and Portland, both sub-.500 teams, and has split its last 10. The Lakers have not won a season series against the Rockets since winning two of three games during 2010-11.