The Los Angeles Lakers are 38-38, 8th in the Western Conference standings, after going 4-1 in their last five games.
Many will cry wolf, believing that the league is conspiring to get the Lakers in the playoffs. More specifically, they believe that the league is sending referees to Lakers games with a directive to help L.A.
(Ironically, those same people would have a field day if Dallas Mavericks guard Kyrie Irving had a conspiracy theory.)
Irrational fans, media, and even players aside, the Lakers are real and they're here.
Thanks to a couple of trades, a team that was in deep water and in desperate need of better guard play, better shooting, and a stronger interior presence addressed all of those needs.
They even performed a bit of addition by subtraction simply by trading Russell Westbrook. Westbrook, though a talented player, was an awkward roster fit from the beginning. Just as big of a problem is the fact that his mere presence simply created a negative aura around the Lakers, with media and fans always waiting for him to fail.
Since the Feb. 9 trade deadline, the Lakers are 4-1 in the games that LeBron James has been healthy. Notably, they've defeated playoff contenders such as the Golden State Warriors, New Orleans Pelicans, Dallas Mavericks, and Chicago Bulls.
Perhaps just as important, the Lakers were able to go 8-5 without James following the trade deadline. This stretch includes victories over playoff contenders such as the Warriors, Pelicans, Memphis Grizzlies, Toronto Raptors, Oklahoma City Thunder, and Phoenix Suns.
With that in mind, here are three reasons the Lakers will shock the world by winning the 2023 NBA Finals.
3 reasons the Lakers will win 2023 NBA Finals
1. They're the team with LeBron James
GOAT debates, MVP debates, and best player in the NBA debates aside, LeBron is still playing at an incredibly high level at 38-years-old.
That said, even looking past his age, any player averaging 29.2 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 6.9 assists per game on 50.2 percent shooting from the field is a formidable opponent.
Especially one that's constantly a face of GOAT, MVP, and best player in the NBA debates. A player that had 10 consecutive NBA Finals appearances. One who knows that another ring will help cement his case as the greatest of all-time. One who, after failing to reach the playoffs last season, is on a mission to redeem himself.
Frankly, there may be no player more motivated in the upcoming playoffs than James.
Averaging 26.7 points, 10.0 rebounds, 8.6 assists, and 1.3 steals per game in two playoff runs with L.A. on 54.0 percent shooting and 37.1 percent from 3-point range is a high-level of play. Nonetheless, LeBron has to meet a standard that no other player in the NBA has to in order to achieve the proper respect.
That said, look for LeBron to be as determined to lead his team to a championship as ever.
2. This may be the best roster in the Lakers-LeBron era
Numbers alone may not be enough reason to fear meeting up LeBron and company in the playoffs. But his ability to get almost anything he wants inside of the arc is, as well as the fact that when fully healthy, teams will have better scorers to account for than at any point in his tenure with the Lakers.
This last fact is perhaps underrated, as teams can't just focus all of their defensive attention on he and Anthony Davis.
Speaking of Davis, he's often unfairly criticized for his play given that he's putting up All-NBA numbers this season. Like James, he's held to an almost unreasonable standard in terms of his performance.
He has his own share of flaws, such as his lack of durability and what's been construed as a passive nature at times. Yet, AD is averaging 26.1 points, 12.4 rebounds, and 2.0 blocks per game while shooting 56.7 percent from the field.
Furthermore, D'Angelo Russell, Dennis Schroder, and Austin Reaves taking a lot of playmaking responsibility off of LeBron. As a result, he gets plenty of assisted field goals.
This bodes well for the Lakers. LeBron is a better catch-and-shoot option (34.5 percent from 3-point range) than pull-up shooter (28.9 percent from 3), a shot that LeBron will need to avoid falling in love with.
It's also important because D'Lo, Schroder, and Reaves are a more-than-capable playmaking trio that will bend defenses off-the-dribble and fill up the scoreboards themselves.
In fact, Russell (18.5 points per game), Schroder (12.9 points per game), and Reaves (12.4 points per game) will be the most important backcourt players for the Lakers.
This isn't just because of their ability to take the pressure off of LeBron, AD, and others while they're on or off the court. It's also because where James and Davis don't inspire confidence (i.e beyond the arc), they do.
Shooting and floor spacing…
Russell is shooting 40.0 percent from 3-point range, a number that sparkles even more when juxtaposed with the 34.8 percent that former starting guard Patrick Beverley was shooting as a Laker. Reaves is shooting 37.9 percent from 3 this season.
Should the Lakers rely on Lonnie Walker IV (36.0 percent from 3) and Troy Brown Jr. (37.3 percent from 3) more than Malik Beasley (34.7 percent from 3) this season, they may have even better outside shooting. Furthermore, Walker and Brown are more reliable on-ball defenders than Beasley.
Not that Beasley won't see minutes or doesn't have a use. NBA players are as prone to defending players based on reputation than what they've shown that season as analysts are to having recency bias. Therefore, Beasley will likely help the spacing even if he's shooting streakily.
To that point, the health of Lakers center Mo Bamba could also be a difference maker.
Though currently out with a high ankle sprain, the 7-foot-0 center is shooting 39.0 percent from 3-point range this season. For a team that needs to open up as much real estate around the rim, Bamba's ability to bring bigs out of the paint goes a long way towards that.
3. Only two teams are definitively better on paper
On paper, the Boston Celtics and Phoenix Suns are the toughest teams for the Lakers to defeat.
However, those are games in which their defense will matter as much as their offense. Both teams have players whose flaws can be exploited in the playoffs.
In the case of the Celtics, All-Star guard Jaylen Brown has proven himself to be one of the top wings in the league.
Nonetheless, Brown often has tunnel vision on his way to the rack. Therefore, the Lakers need to play smart defensively.
There's a level of predictability with Brown that will either force him to adjust and makes plays for others or see him take tough shot after tough shot.
Not that Brown is incapable of making the tough shots. In fact, he shoots 54.4 percent on shots with defenders 2-4 feet away from him and 48.9 percent on shots with defenders within 2 feet of him.
The better option could be to try and take Brown out of the game completely, top-locking him and constantly tracking him off-ball.
However, that strategy would be best for Celtics forward Jayson Tatum, given that he's better at getting his teammates involved and averages 31.9 points in victories versus 25.8 points per game in losses. Interestingly, Brown averages 26.4 points per game in the Celtics wins but 27.7 points per game in their losses.
Guarding the Suns won't be easy, given the number of clean looks they can generate thanks to the gravity of Kevin Durant. Yet, their frontcourt took a major hit defensively after the trade.
Consequently, LeBron and AD have a better chance of pouring cold water on the Suns in the playoffs.
Especially if their perimeter defense can shine by making life difficult for talented guard Devin Booker.