What a difference a year makes.
A year ago, the Los Angeles Lakers got off to a 4-6 start in their first season with LeBron James. Then President of Basketball Operations, Magic Johnson, had privately scolded his head coach Luke Walton. Looking back, perhaps the writing was on the wall for that team even early on.
A year later, the Lakers are an NBA best 9-2. Johnson and Walton are long gone, and so is the pernicious losing culture that festered around the NBA's premier franchise for six consecutive seasons.
They say if you cut off the head of the snake, the body will die. Maybe it was Magic's resignation, or Walton's inevitable firing that has the Lakers looking like a completely different team this season.
Maybe it's the departure of injury-plagued point guard Lonzo Ball, and his blabbermouth father that has made all the difference.
Or perhaps (and most likely), it's the addition of one of the game's finest big men in Anthony Davis, and a revamped roster full of lethal three-point shooters that is the reason behind the team's early success this season.
Regardless of which explanation you chose, we can now say definitively that this team is definitely not last year's Lakers.
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The 2019 Lakers are off the to best start since the 2010 season that began 13-2 coming off an NBA championship a few months prior. That team featured Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Metta World Peace, and Andrew Bynum. This iteration might be better.
The biggest difference between that team, last year's team, and the current team is defense.
The 2010-11 team had plenty of offense, but defensively they ranked sixth in the NBA with a defensive rating of 103.3 By comparison, last year's Lakers finished 13th in the league with a defensive rating of 108.9.
The current Lakers are ranked first in the NBA in defense through the first month of the season, and are one of just two teams (Utah Jazz) with a defensive rating under 100. If their defense keeps up, the Lakers could be the first team since the 2015-16 San Antonio Spurs to finish the season with a defensive rating under 100.
There are two reasons for the Lakers improved defense this season: One is their new head coach Frank Vogel. Unlike his predecessor Luke Walton, Vogel's specialty has always been on the defensive end of the floor. During Vogel's two best seasons with the Indiana Pacers in 2012 and 2013, the Pacers were ranked number one in the league in defensive rating.
The second reason for the Lakers improved defense, is their rebuilt roster featuring a who's who of former first team NBA All-Defense winners. In addition to James, the new Lakers' supporting cast of Anthony Davis, Danny Green, Avery Bradley, Rajon Rondo, and Dwight Howard have all previously been named to the NBA All-Defensive team in their careers, and Howard is a three-time recipient of the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year Award.
Last season's Lakers showed flashes of being able to play suffocating defense for small stretches, but never at the level or consistency that this current team has shown through the first 11 games of the season.
This was evident on the Lakers most recent three-game road trip to Texas and Chicago. The Lakers trailed by double-digits in their first game against the Dallas Mavericks. They trailed the entirety of the first half, and by as many as 15 points in the second half before clamping down on defense in the fourth quarter for the come-from behind victory.
A few nights later, they trailed by 19 points to the Chicago Bulls late in the third quarter. Once again, the team tightened up defensively, and rallied for the victory, completing a three-game sweep on the road. Something the Lakers never did last season. The Lakers only had 11 come-from-behind victories in 82 games last year. This year they already have three double-digit comeback wins in just 11 games.
Another example of the difference between last year's version of the Lakers and the current team is the last two games, both victories.
The Lakers travelled to Phoenix on Tuesday where they defeated a scrappy Suns team, 123-115. The Suns were the worst team in the Western Conference last season, finishing a paltry 19-63. On March 2, the Lakers, fighting for their playoff lives lost to the Suns, 118-109, all but ending any chance they had of making the postseason.
This year's version of the Suns might be the depleted Golden State Warriors. The three-time NBA Champions are decimated by injuries this season. Kevin Durant—now with the Brooklyn Nets—won't play this season. Neither will Klay Thompson or Steph Curry. At 2-10, the Warriors have the worst record in the NBA and are likely already looking ahead to next season.
On Wednesday, without their leading scorer and rebounder in Anthony Davis, the Lakers led the Warriors from wire-to-wire, leading by as many as 27 points in a 120-94 blowout victory over the former Champs.
To put it plain and simply: the Lakers did not win games like this last year.
The 2018-19 Los Angeles Lakers struggled against the teams they were "supposed" to beat. Last year, the Lakers lost to the New York Knicks—the team with the worst record in the NBA—twice! They also lost to the Memphis Grizzlies twice, and the other minnows of the NBA the Washington Wizards, Cleveland Cavaliers, Atlanta Hawks, New Orleans Pelicans, and Phoenix Suns. That's 10 losses to teams with a combined winning percentage of .300.
Thus far, the Lakers are undefeated in that category this season. They are a perfect 5-0 against teams with a losing record this season. That's one of the marks of a championship caliber team—defeating inferior teams when you're the heavy favorite.
The Lakers are less than a quarter of the way through the season, but it's already undoubtedly clear that this team is not the same Lakers team from a year ago. Admittedly, it's a small sample size, and unforseen injuries could still turn the tide dramatically, but this team has brought the Lakers back from the brink, and that's something fans should be excited about.