NBA’S BEST RECORD IS NICE, BUT BEST SELF IS EVEN BETTER
They’re pleased. They’re not thrilled; they’re not triumphant. Definitely not boastful or preening.
Basically, it’s going well so far.
The irrefutable fact of the matter is that the Lakers have the best record in the league. It could be a time to be absolutely drunk with joy at the sun shining in Lakerland again—especially after most of the past half-decade was spent working the NBA’s graveyard shift. Instead, as good as this 12-2 start feels now, the vibe around the Lakers is tempered.
The team seemed more jazzed about comedian Dave Chappelle coming to visit Monday than the rave results they’ve gotten on the court. As part of Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka’s “Genius Talks” meant to inspire and educate, Chappelle came to the team’s facility and advised the Lakers on “life and how to be happy,” per Kyle Kuzma.
Danny Green summarized his takeaway from Chappelle this way: “You can’t be afraid or scared to make mistakes or be yourself, basically. That’s the point where he’s at in his life. He’s not really trying to filter anything, and he’s carefree. And he’s more honest with himself than anyone else—and that’s where it starts.”
That self-aware theme has been a longtime undercurrent for Chappelle, who said in an interview with Oprah Winfrey back in 2006: “The hardest thing to do is be true to yourself, especially when everybody is watching.”
An obvious parallel exists between that idea and where these spotlight-centered Lakers stand. The standards they are holding themselves to are not merely a pretty won-lost record or the back-slapping from outside supporters in November. They know themselves what they can do better in mining three-point shots in rhythm with extra passes—and thus improve that underwhelming 34.2 team three-point percentage—and they know that they’re near the top of the league in defensive rating but still so new to being together that they go over their basic shell defense in practice.
If they are honest with themselves, as Chappelle says, they know they can be pleased with where they are—but they must stay committed to pursuing their best team self. It’s more a reminder than a revelation, as the Lakers made it a mantra from the start of training camp to “get better every day.”
“We’re still trying to get our rhythm, feel each other out,” Green said. “That’s the scary thing, and that’s what’s the exciting thing at the same time. We know we’re doing well, but we still have so much more we can improve on. We have so much potential.”
If anyone should be overexcited about the Lakers’ start, it’s Kuzma. His personal brand is taking off these days. At 24, he’s the youngest guy on the team aside from Talan Horton-Tucker, who has yet to make his NBA debut, and two-way-contract players Kostas Antetokounmpo and Zach Norvell Jr. Kuzma also had to endure the failures of recent Lakers teams, making team success now all the more precious.
But even before the latest victory over Oklahoma City, Kuzma said: “We have the best record, but I don’t feel like we’re the best team just because I know how much room we have to grow.”
Kuzma acknowledged that it’s “weird” not to be caught up in the winning, saying, “We don’t even talk about our record or anything, which is rare.” It’s more that the expectations are just clearly high for this group.
Kuzma said the team dwells on all mistakes because there are so many “things we want to be excellent on.” Part of that perfectionism is the influence of the veterans around him now, but part of it is Kuzma having proved himself since joining the Lakers that he’s a young man who sets his own bar high.
One reason the Lakers can become even better this season is that Kuzma is just beginning to sharpen his tools after missing the entire preseason and the start of the regular season with a foot injury. Before he played just nine minutes Tuesday because of an eye abrasion, Kuzma was the Lakers’ top scorer off the bench in five of the previous six games—and the other game featured him scoring 22 points as a fill-in starter for Anthony Davis.
However, Kuzma has a healthy sense that he needs to bring much more than individual shot-making to the team. He is mindful of becoming more of a playmaker—finding open teammates instead of taking mediocre shots—in keeping with the teamwide approach of extra passes. “Sometimes it’s like we’re just playing off of our raw talent individually,” Kuzma said as an example of room for team improvement.
There is maturity in Kuzma’s view—and a definite undercurrent of that Chappelle self-awareness. But Kuzma has always been the guy looking to glean info from those around him, whether Kobe Bryant or Magic Johnson … or Dwyane “The Rock” Johnson—who was one of Pelinka’s speakers during Kuzma’s rookie season. Kuzma publicly thanked “The Rock” for helping him make massive weight-room gains that summer. In fact, Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Alex Caruso are the only players left from the very first “Genius” talk two years ago, a local road trip to see SpaceX founder and Tesla co-founder Elon Musk.
One of the messages Musk conveyed was not unlike what Chappelle just shared about trusting one’s self.
Musk was asked how much he worries about the competition in his businesses. The answer was that it’s not as much about what the competition is doing, it’s really about the Lakers being completely committed to achieving their own excellence.
Davis has actually never been on a team to start like this. His best 14-game start to a season in New Orleans was 8-6 (before dropping to 8-8). That was in 2017-18, the season Davis finished third for NBA MVP. Davis otherwise endured a couple 4-10 clunkers and even a 3-11. But Davis has said on numerous occasions that he came to the Lakers in the fundamental pursuit of winning.
The latest victory over Oklahoma City was earned in large part because Lakers coach Frank Vogel—after suggesting the need to get Davis the ball more on the move—unveiled his own “Genius Series” late in the game with repeated uses of Davis rolling to the basket after setting picks for James. Instead of gloating over what went well—and he became the first Lakers player to have 30 points, four steals and two blocks in a game since Bryant more than 10 years ago—Davis was harping afterward on the need for the Lakers to re-establish their defensive dominance without injured Avery Bradley’s on-ball tenacity for the time being.
The start of this season has clarified the Lakers’ identity as a dedicated-to-defense team—with LeBron James suggesting Davis has earned NBA Defensive Player of the Year to this point—and a ball-sharing offense following the lead of James, who has by far the most assists in the league thus far.
“We’ve got a good foundation laid,” Vogel said. “That’s probably the most important thing in the beginning part of a season with a new group.”
James, Green, Rajon Rondo, JaVale McGee and Quinn Cook all have been part of NBA championship teams before. They truly know it’s about building up over the course of the season. That experience is infusing everyone with even-keel, learn-winning-habits feelings at this early point in the season.
Also, this group has come together within an organization as accustomed to winning habits as any. Everyone from Lakers ownership to Lakers fans knows the goal is to win championships.
This start is obviously refreshing for an organization whose best 14-game start over the past seven years was—same as for Davis—just 8-6 last season after James came to town. Nevertheless, James and Davis came together to re-raise Lakers expectations about how the season might end, not how it hopefully begins.
So, as interesting as it is that the Lakers are 12-0 when they score more points in the paint than their opponent, you know rival coaches will be scheming to turn that tide with smart adjustments. The team now plays 12 of its next 15 games on the road, meaning a lot could change in the Lakers’ quick start as a result. Or perhaps the victories keep piling up because most of those games actually aren’t against teams with current winning records.
Either way, it will be a period of learning, because this early part of the season should be for understanding which of your jokes aren’t funny and when your shoes do stink.
But over the course of the entire season, it will always be more about the Lakers solidifying that identity and establishing those winning habits.
Kevin Ding is an independent sports writer and the statements and views expressed by him do not necessarily represent the views of the Los Angeles Lakers.
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