Thus far, the preseason has demonstrated a lot of what we already suspected about the 2018-19 Los Angeles Lakers.
Rajon Rondo is a far superior option to anything the Lakers had masquerading as a backup point guard last season, even if Rondo isn’t technically the backup for the time being. With three of the best passers in the league, Los Angeles has had improved ball movement, almost to the point of overpassing. But the Lakers still spent most of their time on defensive principles in training camp, so their offensive execution currently leaves a little something to be desired.
And, oh yeah, it is quite the treat to see LeBron James in purple and gold.
Another entirely predictable takeaway from the preseason has been the Lakers’ need for another center. This was a problem that seemed fairly obvious during the offseason as Los Angeles filled out its roster, and one by one, watched Julius Randle, Brook Lopez, and Channing Frye sign elsewhere. Much noise was made about James playing the five, or even Kyle Kuzma moonlighting as a smallball center. Although those options are tantalizing as crunch-time lineups, they don’t represent a suitable regular season option for 82 games.
JaVale McGee has done a commendable job as a starter. He is averaging 11 points per game on 70 percent shooting, as well as 2 blocks and 6 rebounds. But he is only playing about 20 minutes per game, and even if that number increases during the regular season, that still leaves at least half of the game when the Lakers need a competent center other than the two-time defending NBA champion.
In the first three preseason games, the Lakers are plus-28 in the 59 minutes McGee has played and minus-41 in the minutes he is on the bench. Small sample size caveats abound, and McGee has shared many of his minutes with James, but the trend is unsettling.
The small lineups with some combination of Kuzma, Beasley, and James at the four and five have had difficulty rebounding the ball, though Denver does play one of the bigger lineups in the league. In particular, Mason Plumlee had far too much success scoring against Los Angeles in both games, notching 34 points total off of the bench.
It isn’t just individual big man defense that has been a problem without a traditional center in the middle — the entire defense suffers if the five doesn’t know his schematic responsibilities. Head coach Luke Walton noted that were “a few fundamental breakdowns” with Kuzma at center in the preseason opener, and the defensive leaks have continued through the three games. It’s not a stretch to blame that, at least partially, on the lack of an anchor in the middle.
Manning the paint on defense also puts excess stress on the L.A.’s makeshift centers, which could make them less effective on offense. Both Kuzma and Beasley are shooting below 40 percent from the field in preseason.
Ivica Zubac is the only backup big on the roster with NBA experience, but he has not acquitted himself well. After some promising flashes during his rookie season, Zubac is on a year-long streak of underwhelming in his minutes. He perpetually looks a step too slow on defense and even his improved physique hasn’t made him a bully on offense, which he has to be to counteract his decidedly non-modern style of play.
Moe Wagner was supposed to be the center of the future, but it was unlikely he could contribute positively as a rookie even before he got injured. Now, the bone bruise he suffered in summer league means he won’t be reevaluated for another month, and probably won’t play for longer than that, particularly considering how the Los Angeles medical staff has handled injuries.
Thus, the Lakers will need to look beyond their current roster for a suitable center option, but even that will prove difficult. It’s too early for Los Angeles to make a trade for a big, given that players signed this offseason can’t be traded until December 15, and the team would prefer to retain its assets for a more impactful trade down the line.
The free agent market for centers is slim pickings; many fringe NBA players have already signed to play overseas. Of the crop remaining, Georgios Papagiannis, Brandan Wright, and Willie Reed don’t exactly inspire much optimism.
Deyonta Davis is an interesting name to consider. He played in Memphis for two seasons and wasn’t particularly impressive, though he did become a positive on offense last year. Davis was dumped mostly because of a roster crunch and the drafting of Jaren Jackson, Jr., but still possesses the physical tools to be an effective center. He has a high offensive rebounding rate (1.7 percent per Cleaning the Glass) and is incredibly efficient in transition offense. He would have to improve as a defender, but everyone available at this point has their flaws.
Here is your obligatory reminder that Andrew Bynum is presently attempting an NBA comeback.
The Lakers have the right idea to move towards positionless basketball and eschew traditional roster construction. But they don’t have the right players to make that work yet, and to get through the slog of the regular season, it looks like they will need some bigger reinforcements.