As the summer wore on, more and more signs started to point towards the idea that the Los Angeles Lakers were planning to give LeBron James minutes at center this season.
The first indicator of such a plan was that, well, the team barely has any centers on their roster. They signed JaVale McGee in free agency, but due to asthma he’s unlikely to play more than 20 or so minutes per game. Ivica Zubac is still on the roster and hoping to break out, but after an up-and-down first two years of his career, it’s hard to imagine the Lakers are counting on him, even if they’re hopeful.
Beyond those two, the Lakers have rookie Moe Wagner and... that’s about it as far as players one would consider a traditional center option. Things got more interesting when word leaked out that the Lakers were hoping to see LeBron as a small-ball five in their own version of the Golden State Warriors’ death lineup, but it still didn’t seem like a certainty just how much James would be willing to play at the five.
We still don’t know how much he’s committing to, but James was asked if he’s open to playing some center on the official Lakers podcast, he didn’t reject the idea out of hand:
“I can do whatever it takes to win. Obviously I’m not going to start at center. That’s what we got big JaVale for, big Zubac. You know, we got some big guys. But I’m a basketball player. You put me on the floor I can make things happen.”
James making things happen at center wouldn’t be unexpected given his unmatched combination of size, speed and skill, but it would be new if he did it for more than token minutes.
According to the tracking website 82games.com, Cleveland Cavaliers lineups featuring James at center performed at a rate that would have outscored their opponents by 16.9 points per 48 minutes last season, but James only played an estimated one percent of his minutes there.
That’s not a big enough sample size to responsibly scientifically extrapolate from, but with the NBA going smaller and smaller, it would seem reasonable to guess that James could excel as a small-ball center because he’s stout enough to defend post ups, and there aren’t many (any?) seven-footers in the league quick enough to defend him on the other end.
The problem is that such a lineup potentially creates unnecessary wear and tear on James in his 16th season, something the Lakers surely hope to avoid after signing him to a four-year deal this summer.
So as James noted, they have traditional centers for a reason. McGee, Zubac, and whoever else the Lakers want to throw out there can sop up the majority of the minutes at the five and save James the rigor of guarding players in the post, rim protection, screening and rebounding. But we now have confirmation that if the Lakers need James to play center for, say, five minutes to close a game against the Warriors that he’s game for it, which makes their biggest offseason acquisition potentially even bigger.
You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.