If one can find a flaw in an offseason in which the Los Angeles Lakers signed LeBron James, the biggest one would appear on its face to be the fact that the team only features two or three players one would traditionally call centers.
As things appear right now, JaVale McGee very well could be the Lakers’ starter at the five on opening night, with third-year big man Ivica Zubac backing him up and rookie Moe Wagner playing a bit at center as well.
That might not seem ideal, but the Lakers coaching staff also doesn’t see it as the whole picture. According to Eric Pincus of Bleacher Report, the team feels like James should be playing a little bit of center as well:
“We may not see this on day one, but the coaching staff is eager to see our version of the [Warriors’] Death Lineup with Lonzo [Ball], Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram, [Kyle] Kuzma and LeBron,” a second Lakers executive said.
LeBron at center would have sounded outlandish or insane a decade ago, and maybe even five years ago, but the Lakers’ roster construction has made it a real possibility, if not a necessity.
If James were to begin playing significant minutes at the five in Los Angeles, it would be the first time in his career. Per numbers provided by Cleaning the Glass, the Cavaliers were incredible with James at center last season, scoring at a rate that would equal out to 146.3 points per 100 possessions — a rate that would blow the best offenses out of the league out of the water. The Cavaliers also outscored their opponents at a rate that would equal 42.5 points per 100 possessions.
The problem? James only played 54 possessions at center for Cleveland last season, making those numbers skewed by an insanely small sample size. James also only played 16 possessions, five possessions and two possessions at center over the three years before that, respectively.
LeBron's time at center in Cleveland (via @cleantheglass):— Dan Favale (@danfavale) July 19, 2018
2017-18: 54 possessions (146.3 ORTG, +42.5 Net RTG)
2016-17: 16 poss
2015-16: 5 poss
2014-15: 2 poss
generally think this is a good idea. interested to see how often Bron-at-5 is used/if he likes it. https://t.co/bNSgL1nES2
So as expectedly gangbusters as the Cavaliers’ numbers with LeBron at the five were, and while the amount of time he’s spending there has been trending upwards, it’s still hard to imagine James going from around half a game at center over the course of a full season to playing significant minutes there regularly because of his noted reticence to play up a position due to the toll that could take on his body.
However, there is context to make James playing more at center seem a little more possible than it has in past years. For one, James is getting older, and has to know that even if it involves banging with bigs in the post a bit more, he’s going to eventually have to move up a position to maintain his physical advantages.
James moving up to center would give him a quickness advantage against every player he faced, and allow him to move off the ball more and conserve energy that was getting sapped by him having to essentially play point guard for much of the season with the Cavaliers last year.
James’ heavy ballhandling burden was another reason he couldn’t afford that type of pounding over the last few seasons, because the Cavaliers needed him to do everything for them to have any success offensively.
The Lakers may very well still need a lot from James on offense, but they’ve also made a concerted effort to acquire other playmakers so that James doesn’t face as heavy of a ballhandling burden this year. And if James doesn’t have to create as much, it’s at least possible he could have more energy to play against centers.
James (probably) isn’t going to be asked to play starting center, and likely won’t see most of his minutes at the position. The Warriors don’t even do that with Draymond Green despite their effectiveness with those lineups because of the physical toll it would take.
However, the Lakers’ roster construction would seem to make it necessary for James to play center more than he has in past years, and if he’s amenable to it, the numbers make it look like it could be really effective, so it’s no wonder the Lakers coaches want to see it, especially given what their other options are.
You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.