Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images
A win over the Chicago Bulls is not something the Los Angeles Lakers can spin as a turning point, let alone a benchmark. They are supposed to beat the doormats that don’t measure up to contenders without much drama or resulting fanfare.
Neither of those expectations survived Tuesday night. The Lakers needed to earn their 118-112 triumph against the Bulls. They spent a good chunk of the game flirting with a major letdown. It would not be a stretch to say they verged on listless and hopeless. They entered halftime down 17 points to a team that has yet to establish itself on either end of the court.
That the Lakers needed a second-half surge to nab the victory should be cause for concern. The manner in which it came instead begs for a reassessment of their roster: Maybe they’re better than we thought.
Because, maybe, they’re deeper than we thought.
Feel free to call this remarkable, because it absolutely is.
James’ teams are so rarely known for their depth. Since leaving the Miami Heat, only one of his bench mobs has finished the season 10th or better in point differential per 100 possessions: the 2015-16 NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers.
In that way, these Lakers are giving him something he’s hasn’t enjoyed for a long time.
Once more: Los Angeles beat Chicago. That remains unspectacular in a vacuum. The Bulls are now 2-6, the second-worst team in the Eastern Conference, despite playing the NBA’s second-easiest schedule entering Tuesday night. Their half-court offense is a mess, desperate for seasoned inventiveness, and the defense ranks 30th and 29th in the frequency of attempts allowed at the rim and from the corners, respectively.
That doesn’t change the circumstances under which the Lakers evaded disappointment. The Bulls had them on the ropes, so much so that head coach Jim Boylen felt compelled to apologize for a fourth quarter in which they were outscored two-to-one:
K.C. Johnson @KCJHoop
Jim Boylen: “I’m the head coach of the team. I’ll take responsibility for the 4th quarter.”
Gobsmacking Chicago is a whatever feat when Anthony Davis and LeBron James are spearheading the charge. They weren’t. Los Angeles worked its way back into the game on the back of its supporting cast:
Darius Soriano @forumbluegold
In a little over three 4th quarter minutes, the Lakers lineup of Cook, Caruso, Daniels, Kuzma, and Dwight went on a 14-0 run to take the lead back in the game. What a push from that group.
James eventually left his mark, because duh. He played most of the fourth quarter and dished out five assists to secure his third straight triple-double.
As a reminder, this is his age-35 season and 17th overall. Neither his game nor his social media captions have any chill. What we’re seeing isn’t normal:
Bleacher Report @BleacherReport
Bron was on a tear during the Lakers’ road trip 👑
At Mavs: 39 PTS | 16 AST | 12 REB
At Spurs: 21 PTS | 13 AST | 11 REB
At Bulls: 30 PTS | 11 AST | 10 REB
All wins. Year 17. https://t.co/yf0qtiAXxe
Davis didn’t salvage his night in the same way. He hit a big-time corner three late in the fourth quarter, but he was a minus-11 at one point, finished 6-of-15 for the game and, uncharacteristically, attempted fewer than a trillion free throws.
This comeback wasn’t about him. Nor was it about the timelessness of LeBron. It was an example of what the Lakers can do, what they have, beyond them.
Dwight Howard is having himself a season. His line didn’t jump out Tuesday night (six points, six rebounds, one block), but that’s kind of the point. He attempted just four shots and, as has become the norm, looked locked in on defense:
Bleacher Report @BleacherReport
DWIGHT. DOING IT ALL 💪
Bron loving it. https://t.co/KztMISrkfQ
Quinn Cook gave the Lakers a massive spark off the bench. He totaled 17 points and two assists on 6-of-9 shooting and played the entire fourth quarter. This is not a detonation he can sustain, but it is one that, when afforded opportunity, he’s occasionally capable of delivering.
Alex Caruso was just 1-of-4 from downtown, but he continues to be good for two hype plays per game:
NBA TV @NBATV
Steal & finish by Alex Caruso and he is AMPED ❗️
Danny Green is Danny Green. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s meme-ness is overstated. He’s been (mostly) solid since turning in lame-duck outings over the Lakers’ first two games. Neither he nor Green played in the fourth quarter Tuesday, but at least one of them (Green) will be part of the solution most nights.
Kyle Kuzma shot just 1-of-8 from deep against the Bulls, but he was 5-of-8 from the floor in the second half. Small victories are everything so early into his return from an ankle injury that caused him to miss the Lakers’ first four games, and he’s starting to pile them up.
More importantly, Los Angeles is hell-bent on helping him find his rhythm:
Laker Film Room @LakerFilmRoom
LOVE that Vogel’s using Kuzma as the first option coming off of staggers and wide pindowns. He’s the one guy on the roster who can shoot that shot AND be dangerous while curling to the basket. Nice adjustment by Vogel and great to see Kuz looking like himself for the first time.
“Our bench is going to be key for us,” LeBron told NBA TV’s Dennis Scott after Monday’s win. “Our depth has been a good ingredient for us.”
He isn’t kidding.
The Lakers’ supporting cast is more than just Tuesday’s comeback. It is a strength in the aggregate.
Howard isn’t deviating outside his wheelhouse on offense or hampered on defense. He owns the Lakers’ highest net rating among everyday rotation players. Cook, meanwhile, is second. KCP is fourth.
Avery Bradley didn’t play against the Bulls and is forever touch-and-go, but he’s had galvanizing defensive stretches while holding his own on offense. He’s shooting an unsustainable yet encouraging 60 percent on two-pointers and a good-enough 35.3 percent from beyond the arc.
The Lakers have serious depth.Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
It isn’t yet clear what this means in the grand scheme. Obligatory caveats are in heavy supply. Chief among them: The season is seven games old. A lot can change in the coming weeks and months, and the Lakers are not without holes.
Their half-court offense ranks 19th in efficiency, a borderline blasphemous placement for a team with both Davis and James. They’re also 26th in three-point-attempt rate and 25th in long-range accuracy.
Kuzma (12.5 percent), Davis (25.0 percent), Caruso (27.3 percent), James (28.9 percent) and Caldwell-Pope (29.4 percent) are all shooting under 30 percent from beyond the arc. That can’t stand, no matter how ridiculously Los Angeles fares on defense:
Laker Film Room @LakerFilmRoom
When the Lakers are locked in on defense it looks like they have 6 guys on the court
There also exists this nagging sense that the Lakers are one high-end player short of a genuine championship push. Their depth won’t mean as much in a potential Western Conference Finals showdown with the Los Angeles Clippers, who are steamrolling the league without Paul George. And a theoretical Finals matchup with the Milwaukee Bucks or Philadelphia 76ers hardly favors the Lakers.
Maybe Kuzma develops into the tipping point. Maybe a midseason Andre Iguodala acquisition spares Los Angeles from gut-wrenching skepticism. Maybe Rajon Rondo’s return from a calf injury is just what they—actually, never mind.
Or maybe this is overcomplicating the simple.
Because maybe, just maybe, the Lakers are exactly what they were Tuesday night and what they have been for a majority of this season: so much more than LeBron and AD.