Lakers newsletter: Five biggest surprises this season

Hi, this is Tania Ganguli, Lakers beat writer for the Los Angeles Times, here with your Lakers newsletter.

We wondered if there was any point to having a Lakers newsletter this week, but having gone through one full week of social distancing, we all probably need a distraction right now.

For next week’s newsletter, I’d like your help. Send me a personal story about your favorite Lakers moment. Maybe it was special because of where you were or who you were with. Maybe you did something ridiculous to celebrate. Maybe it caused you to name your kid or your dog after a Laker. If you or someone you know has a great story, pass it along. I’ll share some of the responses next week.


If not for the coronavirus pandemic, today the Lakers would be preparing to go east for the final true road trip of the season, having played the Nuggets once and the Jazz twice in the previous week.

Instead, most of the Lakers arrived at the practice facility on Wednesday for one last check-in with the team medical staff — and received a swab way up the nose to be sent in to be tested for coronavirus. It was not mandatory and not every player was there.

That came in response to the Brooklyn Nets announcing that they had four players test positive for coronavirus. Three of them had no symptoms.

There are countless stories about people who are ill being refused testing by hospitals and health officials, and the Nets’ positive tests fueled complaints that NBA players were seemingly jumping to the front of the line. I tried to untangle that complicated issue.

Last night we also caught wind of this: Kyle Kuzma will be partnering with the YMCA in Flint, Mich., to provide daily dinner and a snack to local senior citizens affected by the coronavirus. They’ll start on March 23 and plan to do it for at least six weeks, expecting to pass out 550 meals or more each week. Kuzma has worked with that YMCA before — it was one of his safe spaces when he was growing up in Flint.

What now? Let’s look back.

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Five biggest surprises this season

5. The no-drama staff


When the Lakers hired Frank Vogel as coach, everyone from sports pundits to his very closest friends wondered how long he would last. Not necessarily because of his ability as a coach, certainly his close friends believed that wouldn’t be an issue. Rather, it was because of the staff the Lakers had formed around him. Two former head coaches in Jason Kidd and Lionel Hollins would be his top assistants, with Kidd also having interviewed for the head position. The LeBron James Factor was also at play — would James support the coach the Lakers picked after they nearly hired his old coach, Tyronn Lue? Vogel managed it well. He created a coalition with his coaching staff, wanting to both get to know them personally and utilize their areas of expertise. He adopted a policy of full transparency with his players, keeping most of them happy even if their roles weren’t exactly what they wanted. And he has not tried to strong-arm James.

4. The Carushow

Alex Caruso hasn’t just been a fan favorite this season, he has also shown his value as an important part of the Lakers’ rotation. Caruso always knew his defense would be his best selling point, and it has been important for the Lakers. Among two-man combinations that have played at least 300 minutes together this season, the Lakers’ best defensive pair is Caruso and James. When those two are on the court, the Lakers have a defensive rating of 94.2 (that’s point allowed per 100 possessions). Among their top 10 two-man lineups with respect to defensive rating, Caruso is part of five. Lineups that have James and Caruso together are also pretty good offensively, with a rating of 115. There are times when Vogel likes to bring in Rajon Rondo before Caruso, much to the chagrin of Caruso’s legion of fans, but Caruso’s value is clear.

3. The Clippers conundrum


Why has it been so difficult for the Lakers to get past the Clippers? And did their win on March 8 signal that they had solved their pesky crosstown rivals? JaVale McGee seemed to think so, declaring the Lakers the best team in the world after that game, which followed a win over the league-leading Milwaukee Bucks. The Clippers have some stinkers on their resume so far this season. They were swept by the Bucks. They’ve lost to the Memphis Grizzlies, Atlanta Hawks, Phoenix Suns and the pre-Zion New Orleans Pelicans. In some games they have lacked the adequate intensity. But those games are never against the Lakers, and presumably wouldn’t happen in the playoffs. The playoffs are, after all, when Kawhi Leonard shines. And even with their unexpected losses, the Clippers have risen to second place in the West, having won seven of their last eight games before the stoppage of play.

2. LeBron’s dominance

There was a great deal of reporting this summer about how LeBron James was prepared to defer to Anthony Davis and wanted the offense to go through Davis. While James has created a welcoming space for Davis and shared the spotlight with him, this is still clearly James’ team in every sense. Part of that is because of the dominance James has shown in his 17th season. He is averaging 25.7 points per game, just one fewer than Davis, and is averaging a career-high and NBA-best 10.6 assists and 7.9 rebounds per game. The Lakers change dramatically when he is off the floor, and at 35 years old, James will probably finish second in MVP voting, with some, like our Bill Plaschke, arguing he should win it.

1. Dwight Howard


His declaration last summer that he had no ego was met with understandable skepticism. Yet Howard did exactly what he promised he would do this season. He came off the bench, gave the Lakers a valuable rim protector and developed the kind of chemistry with JaVale McGee that turned the two of them into true partners. Howard has played with the joy he seemed to have lost for a few years. His desire to rewrite the end to his Lakers story, to end it by being a good teammate and helping the Lakers win a championship, seemed very much on track all season.

Until next time...

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