Has NBA Cup run gotten Lakers’ season back on track?

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It’s been a strange couple of months for the Los Angeles Lakers. 

Coming off a run to the Western Conference Finals and an offseason that brought wide praise for their moves — re-signing Austin Reaves, D’Angelo Russell, Jarred Vanderbilt and Rui Hachimura, adding Gabe Vincent, Taurean Prince, Cam Reddish and Christian Wood — the Lakers started the year looking like a team destined for the play-in tournament. Every promising stretch was followed by a troubling one, every win streak followed by a string of losses. 

The Lakers were .500 through 12 games, and 11-9 through 20. They had a bunch of injuries to deal with — Vincent, Hachimura and Vanderbilt have all missed chunks of games — but LeBron James and Anthony Davis were playing almost every night, which was supposed to be enough. 

Except it wasn’t. The Lakers got thrashed by the Denver Nuggets and Philadelphia 76ers and Orlando Magic and Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder. Entering Thursday’s game against the New Orleans Pelicans, they owned a negative point differential. 

And yet, in their 133-89 (!) In-Season Tournament blowout victory over the Pelicans on Thursday night, which punched their ticket to Saturday’s NBA Cup final against the Indiana Pacers, you can spot the signs of something better, of the ship being righted. Because suddenly the Lakers have won 11 out of 15 games, and suddenly they’re 14-9.  Reddish, Hachimura and Vanderbilt are all healthy. Their defense, led by Davis, ranks in the top 10. And of course, they still have LeBron James doing, well, everything. Put it all together and there’s a blueprint for success. 

[Tyrese Haliburton and his ultra-fun Pacers make for a must-see NBA Cup final]

You saw it all against the Pelicans. The Lakers, with Davis manning the middle and their wings locking things up on the outside, held New Orleans to 36% shooting and neutralized Zion Williams (13 points, two rebounds, three assists, three turnovers). Meanwhile, on the other end, they got 30 points, eight assists, five rebounds and zero turnovers from LeBron and double-digit scoring performances from five others. 

It’s here where we must pause and acknowledge how ridiculous it is that LeBron, a few weeks away from turning 39, is still able to do this. On Thursday he was, without a doubt, the best player on the floor, like he is almost every night. Entering the game, he was averaging 24.7 points per game on 54.6% shooting, his most efficient output since 2017, to go along with 7.6 rebounds and 6.6 assists per game. He’s also shooting a career-best 38.7% from deep. 

This isn’t an example of an aging star becoming a different type of player, either, the way Jason Kidd evolved into a spot-up marksman late in his career. No, LeBron is dominating opponents by being bigger and faster and stronger and more conditioned and driven than everyone else on the court, just like he’s always been. With him on the floor, the Lakers have performed like a 58-win team, according to Cleaning the Glass. Without him, they’ve played at the level of a 13-win one. 

Leaning on a 39-year-old this much would seem to be a problem. And the Lakers still need to figure out a way to boost their offense, especially in the half court, where they currently rank 22nd in points per possession. Reaves and Prince rediscovering their shooting strokes would help here, but also, the Lakers don’t have to be an explosive offense. For them, the blueprint is simple: Great defense, waves of size and LeBron doing LeBron things. Just like we saw against the Pelicans. And just like it looks like we might see for the rest of the season.

Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He is the author of “Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports.” Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.

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