After signing DeAndre Jordan and trading Marc Gasol, the Lakers are faced with a major potential season-defining decision whether to finally start Anthony Davis at the five or one of a pair of washed career backup centers.
Now that smoke is clearing, Jordan has been signed, and Gasol traded, who will start at center for the Lakers becomes the big question. Do the Lakers start Howard or Jordan like McGee in their 2019–20 championship run? Many observers believe replacing Gasol with Jordan signals the Lakers are going to reprise the center strategy from their championship run in 2020 and have Howard or Jordan start games and second halves like McGee.
Personally, I believe the Lakers’ decision to replace Gasol with Jordan had more to do with their strategy to have elite shot blockers at center all game rather than simply trying to replicate their championship center rotation. For me, the trades to bring in Russell Westbrook and move Marc Gasol confirm the news before free agency that Anthony Davis was willing to start and play major minutes at the five to make room to start two shooters.
This will all be resolved in training camp, which starts on September 28th, and preseason games, which begin October 3rd. So let’s take a look at the Lakers’ three options to start at center when the new season kicks off:
1. THE LAKERS START DEANDRE JORDEN AT CENTER
While there’s been Twitter chatter the Lakers might start Jordan, the idea they would start a player who was just waived by their major rival in the East whose value is now the league minimum seems like a long shot at best.
We’re not talking about the 2015–18 DeAndre Jordan who made 1st team All-NBA once, 2nd team All-NBA twice, and 2nd team All-Defensive once. We’re talking about the 32-year old version who couldn’t start for the Nets. Gone are the ‘Lob City’ days of 2.5 blocks per game, 1.0 steals per game, and 250 dunks per season. Today’s DeAndre Jordan would be lucky to average 1.5 blocks, 0.5 steals per game, and 100 dunks for the season.
The big problem with having DeAndre Jordan play JaVale McGee’s role as the team’s starting center for the first six to eight minutes of each half is it uses one of the critical two starting spots available for elite 3-point shooters. Since James, Davis, or Westbrook, are not high percentage 3-point shooters, the Lakers logical move would be to dedicate the two empty starting slots alongside of their three superstars to proven veteran 3-point shooters.
DeAndre Jordan would have to show the Lakers that he still was the vertical force on offense and defense as he was in his prime to be seriously considered as the Lakers’ starting center when the 2021–22 season starts.
2. THE LAKERS START DWIGHT HOWARD AT CENTER
Frankly, the arguments against starting Dwight Howard at center are the same as those against starting DeAndre Jordan. They limit the number of 3-point shooters the Lakers can play to create spacing for their superstars.
Like with DeAndre Jordan, the version of Dwight Howard the Lakers will get this season is nowhere near the superstar center who was 1st team All-NBA five times from 2008-2012 and the DPOY three times from 2009–2012. While Dwight was ultimately played off the floor in the Lakers’ bubble championship run, he still was an important defensive factor against Nikola Jokic as the Lakers dominated the Denver Nuggets in five games.
There’s no question having JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard eat up minutes at center allowed Anthony Davis to spend 60% of his time at his preferred power forward position to avoid the physicality of playing center. Frankly, it doesn’t make sense for the Lakers to copy that strategy now that they have Westbrook playing at the one and desperately need 3-point shooters on the floor when LeBron, AD, and Russ play together.
The expectation is Dwight Howard, who’s already familiar with the Lakers’ offensive and defensive strategies, is a better fit for the Los Angeles’ center rotation and will be the primary backup at center over DeAndre Jordan.
3. THE LAKERS START ANTHONY DAVIS AT CENTER
The fact that the Lakers are heading into training camp with just DeAndre Jordan and Dwight Howard as the only two centers on the roster is clear cut evidence Anthony Davis is going to be playing major minutes at center.
The Lakers finished last season with three centers — Andre Drummond, Marc Gasol, and Montrezl Harrell — on the roster besides Anthony Davis. That led to Davis playing center 10% in regular season and 20% in playoffs. That was a strategy that backfired badly as none of the Lakers’ three centers were able to protect the rim defensively or provide a lethal vertical threat offensively. As a result, the Lakers did not bring back any of those centers.
Instead, the Lakers prioritized bringing in a ‘difference-making playmaker’ in Russell Westbrook, which exacerbated the team’s desperate need for better 3-point shooting but also gave Los Angeles the third superstar they coveted. The seeds for the Westbrook trade had been planted during a meeting between LeBron, AD, and Russ at James home in Los Angeles where all three superstars agreed to make sacrifices to make the Superstar Big Three work.
Anthony Davis supposedly agreed during that meeting that he would play a lot more at center in order to enable the Lakers to play two volume 3-point shooters to create spacing alongside their trio of rim attacking superstars.
4. DOES IT REALLY MATTER WHO STARTS AT CENTER?
Aside from AD’s claims that playing center makes him prone to injuries, the other criticism from those who want to start Dwight Howard or DeAndre Jordan instead of Davis at center is it simply does not matter in the end.
They point to the fact the Lakers’ starting lineups the last two years did not include Anthony Davis but still posted their best 5-man lineup net ratings. The McGee and Gasol starting lineups had superior 12.6 and 13.2 net ratings. The argument we won a championship with McGee as the starting center is compelling but ignores differences in the composition of the Lakers’ roster as well as changes in the quality of competition to be faced.
While starting DeAndre Jordan or Dwight Howard at center could work during the regular season since the Lakers with LeBron, AD, and Russ are likely to be a juggernaut, it clearly will have to change come the playoffs. Frankly, having to change starting lineups and style of play for postseason is one of the main arguments to start Anthony Davis all of the time. In other words, use the regular season to practice what you will do in the playoffs.
The Nets’ Big Three has raised the bar to win a championship and the Lakers need to start their best five players on the court from the opening tip. They cannot be deceived by thinking who starts doesn’t matter. It does.
While training camp and preseason should provide more information about the Lakers center rotation plans, the moves the Lakers have made and the roster they have built seemingly point to Anthony Davis starting at center.
Since teams already pack the paint to prevent LeBron James and Anthony Davis from getting to the rim, rolling out a starting lineup with only one quality 3-point shooter would be playing right into the defense’s hands. LeBron, AD, and Russ are all subpar 3-point shooters, which means the Lakers’ top priority in creating their starting lineup and rotations is to make sure to always have at least two elite 3-point shooters on the floor.
The only way the Lakers can achieve that goal when they play all three of their superstars is to have Anthony Davis play center so they can dedicate the shooting guard and small forward position to proven 3-point shooters.
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