Toughness over talent: LeBron James discusses the Lakers' formula for success

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Dan Woike
·4 min read
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LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - DECEMBER 28: Anthony Davis #3 of the Los Angeles Lakers celebrates.
Lakers teammates Anthony Davis, left, and LeBron James celebrate against the Portland Trail Blazers on Dec. 28. James says the Lakers' success has a lot to do with how hard they've played in games. (Harry How / Getty Images)

Every time the Lakers walk onto the court, they almost certainly have the best one or two players in LeBron James and Anthony Davis — the types of elite talent that can simply be too much for other teams to overcome.

For those who are undermanned, their best chance comes from effort and aggressiveness. If they move quickest to loose balls, if they fight hardest for rebounds, if they work the hardest on defense, maybe it’ll be enough.

But since the Lakers paired James, Davis and Frank Vogel, they’ve perfected the best possible formula, combining their elite talent with a mandate to be the team that walks off the court every night having been the one who played harder and tougher.

“Talent can only take you so far,” James said after the Lakers’ one-point win in Boston. “At the end of the day, there are a lot of talented teams in this league. But it's how hard you can go as far as how hard you play, how much you challenge yourself on the defensive end to try to get stops, to want to get stops and just have that mentality.

“That's just who we've been over the last year or so.”

If combining talent and relentless will were so easy, more teams would do it more often. And as the road miles pile up, it gets even tougher. The Lakers have been able to do it because, as their leaders are repeatedly pointing out, everyone on the team is there for one reason — to win.

And Saturday in Boston, that pride and effort showed up in the fourth quarter, the team tapping into something in the final period to go to another level defensively. And on the game’s most important possession, its last, it was an all-out scramble by the Lakers defense and Alex Caruso that helped ensure their losing streak would stop at two.

“That’s part of the play-harder-than-your-opponent identity, whose team defends harder, whose team is running the floor offensively, who’s sprinting back harder defensively. The sprint versus jog mind-set,” Vogel said. “…They’re all things that we preach every day, that we’ll continue to hold guys accountable for, and quite frankly, we haven’t done it well enough the first few games of this trip.

“But we had a pretty solid performance in that regard tonight.”

Using the NBA’s tracked “hustle stats,” you can try and measure just how hard the Lakers are playing. They lead the league in charges drawn, something that requires, effort, sacrifice, positioning and instincts. They’re fifth in the NBA by recovering 55.2% of the loose balls created while on defense — a category they were second in the league in a year ago.

They still lead the NBA in fewest points allowed per 100 possessions — an area that will certainly be tested by a high-powered Atlanta offense, the fifth team with a top-15 offense they’ll face on this road trip.

“We just want everybody to do their job. If you do your job, that’s all we can ever ask of anyone on this team, from the coaching staff to the players,” Davis said. “So everyone knows what’s their role and everyone is asked to do their job. If your job is to run to the corners to create space and make shots, then that’s what we expect you to do. If your job is to defend, rebound, block shots, whatever, that’s what we expect you to do. Score, come off pick-and-roll, get in the paint, whatever it is.

“Whatever your role is on this team, we expect you to do it at the highest level.”

And the Lakers have been able to make sure that everyone knows playing hard is in each player’s job description.

UP NEXT

AT ATLANTA

When: 4:30 p.m. PST, Monday

On the air: TV: Spectrum SportsNet; Radio: 710, 1330

Update: The Lakers will try to end their seven-game road trip by going 5-2, with the last obstacle in their way being Trae Young and the Hawks. Atlanta is squarely in the playoff hunt in the East after a very active offseason. The Hawks won’t have second-year forward De'Andre Hunter — a player actually taken with the pick the Lakers’ originally owned in the 2019 NBA draft — on the wing.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.