Lakers Taking New Approach To Manning Center Position
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

LeBron James is a member of the Los Angeles Lakers. That sentence alone, unbelievable as it still is, made the Lakers the biggest winners of the summer and nothing they did after truly changes that.

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Still, the moves the Lakers made post-LeBron raised eyebrows around the league. Instead of searching for shooters, which is the standard way to build around James, the Lakers opted to bring in a motley crew with checkered pasts, including the likes of Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, and Michael Beasley.

Yet, despite the queasiness over the Lakers’ additions, what they have done at the center position may be even more shocking.

Consider Los Angeles’ history and the dominant big men that have graced their roster over the years. George Mikan. Wilt Chamberlain. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Shaquille O’Neal.

Each dominated their day while proudly wearing the Lakers name across their chest. Even Pau Gasol, who filled in masterfully as Kobe Bryant’s second fiddle, can make an argument as one of the best bigs of the late aughts.

Today, the current Lakers center offering of JaVale McGee, Ivica Zubac and rookie Moe Wagner just isn’t up to par as the ghosts of behemoths past haunt the Staples Center.

Particularly concerning is the fact that Brook Lopez and Julius Randle, who together accounted for nearly all of the center minutes for the team last season, were allowed to walk away in free agency.

Meanwhile, rim-running, three-point shooting heir apparent Thomas Bryant was released despite being named to the G League’s All-League First Team.

If it wasn’t clear already, the Lakers strategy of allocating resources almost exclusively to wings and guards is driven home by this fact: this season, the Lakers will be spending just 4.8 percent of the salary cap on centers, the lowest in the league.

In an NBA that is seeing a big man renaissance thanks to versatile players such as Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis, the Lakers have decided to walk a different path.

For Los Angeles, it wasn’t David’s stones that slew the mighty Goliath, instead it was the pace-and-space revolution, emboldening the Lakers to make the jump to light speed and thus leave traditional bigs in the dust.

Whether it will work, at this stage, is anyone’s guess. But there is some reason for optimism.

If we have learned anything over the last year and a half, it’s that president of basketball operations Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka aren’t inept.

Their moves can and will be criticized, but so far each of them, even the ones that drew the ire of the masses initially, have ultimately worked out in their favor as their plan comes into focus.

There was a minor uproar when former second overall pick D’Angelo Russell was used to dump Timofey Mozgov’s bloated contract, but that helped create the space to bring in James as well as the draft pick that became Kyle Kuzma.

Lou Williams was and is a tremendous scorer, but the pick acquired from trading him to the Houston Rockets ultimately became Josh Hart, this year’s Las Vegas Summer League MVP who looks ready for major minutes and is still only 23 years old.

Just about everything, so far, has turned to gold for the dynamic duo leading the Lakers’ front office.

That’s why, as alarming as the team’s center rotation appears, and as unsettling as the departures of Lopez, Randle and Bryant were, it’s probably best to find method to the madness.

McGee can be utilized as a rim protector and lob target capable of rolling hard to the rim and pulling defenders with him a la Clint Capela and DeAndre Jordan. According to Synergy, he was in the 95th percentile as a roll man with the Golden State Warriors last season, which is ridiculously good.

While some of that has to be attributed to defenders staying home on Warriors shooters and thus opening up the path to the basket for McGee, he has scored well in pick-and-roll situations throughout his career.

His ability to screen, turn, and finish with fluidity is no fluke, even if the Shaqtin’ A Fool clips paint him as a clumsy buffoon. McGee runs the floor with purpose and surprising agility, which should make him a target for Lonzo Ball and Rondo.

McGee has also had success as a rim protector, which will prove valuable.

However, McGee has averaged just 10.3 minutes per game over his last four seasons, leading to reasonable questions regarding his ability to handle more minutes while still keeping a high activity level.

Zubac largely disappointed last season after a promising debut campaign, but his soft touch around the rim and size still has value.

The Lakers clearly believe in Zubac after essentially choosing him over Bryant, who on paper appeared to be a better fit, so it will be worth watching to see if that faith is rewarded with a bounce-back campaign.

Finally, as a rookie, Wagner wouldn’t ideally be counted on for much, but his ability to stretch the floor and bang for rebounds may push him into action anyway. Wagner also plays with a mania that could prove useful when the team needs an emotional boost, which is a near-certainty in the dog days of the long season.

Most notably, however, the Lakers’ decision to pass on adding any other true centers suggests they plan to play small more often, which could include James sliding down a spot or two.

Rim protection would suffer with James at the four, but the Lakers have the luxury of guards like Ball, Rondo, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Hart who excel at hitting the boards.

In theory, a lineup of Ball, Hart, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and James would offer the kind of versatility to drive defenses crazy as well as the speed to run the break and take advantage of Ball’s touchdown outlet passes.

On the other end, a small lineup would afford them the ability to switch 1-5, which was a key strategy employed by head coach Luke Walton last season when he closed games with lineups that featured Randle at center.

Now, replacing Randle with James, the Lakers will hope that their run-and-fun lineup will improve from dangerous to downright deadly.

If it doesn’t, there isn’t much of a safety net. Last season, Lopez was more than competent when he was occasionally asked to play as a traditional, back-to-the-basket big man, but no such dependable option remains on the team.

Undoubtedly, the construction of the Lakers’ roster is a risk. The franchise known for dominant bigs has decided to allocate their resources elsewhere in the hope that it will help usher in a new era of position-less, warp-speed basketball.

If it works the way Los Angeles hopes, the small, fast-paced lineups will allow them to become greater than the sum of their parts, and in doing so, they would announce to the league that the Lakers are back.

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