It’s a good time to be a fan of the Los Angeles Lakers. The team is — one December losing streak aside — playing well, LeBron James and Anthony Davis have both performed like MVP candidates, and there have been no hints of disharmony inside the locker room. That last point would’ve been impossible to say during last season. Even describing the 2018-19 season as tumultuous feels like an understatement. The Lakers’ team chemistry seems to be excellent this season, thanks in part to James and Dwight Howard.
An awkwardly-handled transition at the start of the LeBron James era
An overwhelming feeling of transience lingered around the 2018-19 Lakers team. Fans, the front office, and the players knew the team was not meant to be together for the long haul. As soon as LeBron James officially announced his move to Los Angeles, rumors of an Anthony Davis trade that involved any combination of Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart, and anything else the Pelicans might want to make a deal happen started to swirl. Every NBA player knows that there is a chance they can wake up one day and have to move to another city with little to no notice. But when the noise is as loud as it was for last year’s Lakers, it inevitably affects how the team plays.
It all came to a fever pitch in January 2019 when Davis put in a public trade request via his (and LeBron James’) agent Rich Paul. This tactic inflamed a new round of arguments and hot takes about the state of the modern NBA, the difficulties surrounding team building in small markets, and the amount of power that superstars can wield at any moment. The Lakers and Pelicans couldn’t agree on a deal before the trade deadline, which left all parties unsatisfied as they played out their seasons and missed the playoffs.
New team, new spirit, new nicknames from LeBron and Dwight
The trade did eventually happen, and the Lakers are more than pleased with the results of the deal. It’s not just the results on the floor that have lived up to expectations. The squad seems to have much more team chemistry this time around. They play and act like a real team.
One example of the Lakers’ improved team spirit is that LeBron James and Dwight Howard have taken it upon themselves to give each of their teammates, and their coach Frank Vogel, new nicknames. We don’t know if every player has earned a new moniker yet, but Dwight revealed most of the new names on an episode of “Backstage Lakers” on Spectrum SportsNet. The known nicknames are:
- “Deadshot” in honor of Danny Green’s 3-point proficiency.
- “Kriss Kross” for Kyle Kuzma, because Kuzma used to have short dreads that were similar to the 90s hip-hop duo.
- “Kareem Abdul-McGee” for Javale McGee, because Javale deserves a shout out any time he displays any offensive skill that isn’t dunking.
- “Smoke Dog” for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope “because where there’s fire, there’s smoke … On the offensive end, he’s on fire, and on the defensive end, he’s smokin’!” Sure.
- “Layup” for Troy Daniels. Daniels has a reputation as a shooter, although his performance this year hasn’t quite lived up to the reputation.
- “Dudz” for Jared Dudley. No explanation needed.
- “Frank the Tank” for coach Frank Vogel. LeBron gave him the nickname after he won the Coach of the Month award. As the old adage goes, “If the nickname rhymes, then it’s probably fine!”.
- “The Angry Bird” for Anthony Davis, in recognition of trademark unibrow.
The Lakers’ nicknames are more important than you think
Initially, nicknames sound like a silly thing to care about. Still, it shows a level of comfort and camaraderie within the group that LeBron and Dwight feel willing and able to come up with new aliases for their teammates. Just think about the situations that the two players in that last sentence were in by the end of last season.
LeBron James was recovering from the first significant injury of his career. That came as his debut season, which began with such excitement, wilted under the weight of expectations. The players struggled to find a rhythm and became increasingly disconnected from each other, a sentiment that was echoed by the public infighting among the team’s front office executives.
Dwight Howard had become a consensus joke within the league, bouncing from team to team as his peak years drifted further into the past. It wasn’t clear that he would even be in the league going forward until the Lakers surprised everyone by picking him up off the scrap heap. After dropping 40 pounds, Howard has settled as an excellent rim protector with no qualms about starting on the bench. Even more improbable still: his peers seem to like him.
A year is a long time in the NBA. The Lakers were once a laughing stock, and now they’re back among the best teams in the league. And judging from social media, they seem to be enjoying their place among the elite.