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JaVale McGee should be safe as starting center... for now

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JaVale McGee has mostly struggled for the Lakers to start the season, but there are a few reasons the team may not be in a rush to start yanking his role around just yet.

NBA: Preseason-Golden State Warriors at Los Angeles Lakers Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

When the Lakers re-signed JaVale McGee this past summer on a two-year contract worth north of $8 million total, it was easy to be skeptical about both the value of the deal and how it positioned him as the presumed starter next to Anthony Davis.

Sure, McGee was coming off one of his best seasons as a pro. And yes, McGee had shown good chemistry with LeBron James in the pick and roll as a lob threat and finisher. Still, McGee’s defensive issues, combined with a mid-season illness that negatively impacted his effectiveness until very late in the year kept most observers questioning his utility on a team that was trying to contend for a championship this season.

After a preseason that saw him outplay Dwight Howard, some of those questions began to disappear. McGee’s length, athleticism and finishing ability looked to fit well next to Davis. Further, Davis’ defensive range and ability to clean up on the defensive glass looked to compensate well for some of McGee’s more pronounced weaknesses. Heading into the regular season, McGee’s place as a starter was secure based on his play, not just on salary, or due to his status as a holdover with institutional support.

Through seven regular season games, however, the skepticism surrounding McGee’s role and place on this team has resurfaced. McGee remains in the first 5, but in multiple games this year his minutes have not matched those of his fellow starters. Against the Jazz, McGee was benched at halftime in favor of Alex Caruso while Davis and Howard got all the minutes at center. Against the Mavericks, Spurs, and Bulls McGee only saw one shift each half, watching on as Kyle Kuzma returned from injury to take some of those minutes while Howard’s role remain unchanged.

McGee, then, is becoming more and more of a token starter. His minutes are those of a reserve, but his name gets called at the start of each half. And wins keep piling up.

In the short term, then, I do not expect there to be any changes to McGee’s role. As long as the Lakers are winning games, the way McGee’s minutes are handled can be looked at through the prism of how they’re a net positive even if statistics can paint them as the opposite.

NBA: Washington Wizards at Los Angeles Lakers Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

After all, with McGee eating up minutes vs. starting units, Howard is able to come in and do damage against bench groups where his defensive impact can be even greater. And considering Howard’s injury history and his own status as someone trying to fit into a very specific role while on a non-guaranteed contract, there’s also a value to keeping him positioned just as he is now. We’re all in love with the return of Superman, but too much, too soon might not be the best approach in what could just as easily be a honeymoon period as a new reality.

Additionally, beyond how a bench role can optimize Howard or how winning helps make decisions like these easier, keeping McGee as a starter can also help smooth out any tensions that come with any diminishing role Frank Vogel doles out. As a head coach, one must always keep in mind the politics of the locker room and how to manage the egos of the players. If McGee is going to become a player whose minutes in any given game could be in flux, one way to help him accept that is to keep him starting games. Players value that status and it can help prop them up in ways that lead to the engagement needed to foster the togetherness great teams have. And we already know that McGee has previously made it clear that he values his starting role.

Vogel must calculate all of these things and make the best choices he can to optimize everyone. Moving McGee out of the starting group now, or worse, banishing him from the rotation completely runs the risk of losing him outright, and impacting the ability to call on him for meaningful minutes when he may truly be needed, particularly should Dwight’s play fall off or, knock on wood, should injury strike. The season is a marathon, not a sprint, and Vogel seems to be coaching with the long game in mind.

That said, there will come a time where a change may become necessary. Through seven games, the Lakers’ starting group with McGee next to Avery Bradley, Danny Greeen, LeBron and AD has a net rating of -1.9. The team has gotten off to several slow starts and at least part of that is attributable to some of McGee’s issues as a defender, his general engagement on both ends of the floor, and how that translates to his overall fit with the starting group.

Contrast this to Howard’s embracing of his role and the early returns in how productive he is in it, and it’s easy to wonder how long Vogel will stick with his incumbent. I noted McGee’s stats with the starting group earlier, but a better angle to examine this is how each big man fits next to the LeBron and Davis pairing. Through seven games, the Lakers post the same 104.8 rating on offense and defense in the 86 minutes when McGee, Davis, and LeBron share the floor. Compare this to the team’s net rating of +46.4 (offensive rating of 126.7, defensive rating of 80.3) in the 36 minutes when it’s Howard flanking Davis and LeBron, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the difference in the numbers.

When Kuzma is fully re-integrated, we will then get another variable that impacts the construction of lineups and how units are deployed. At that time we could easily find that the team’s least effective front court trio is the one that currently starts games.

For now, however, we should all take a deep breath and relax. Not just because the Lakers are winning games, but because it is so early in the season and more time is needed to do a full assessment of where things really stand. As Vogel gets more information and data on how his team performs, we should expect his decisions to best reflect the effectiveness of all the players available to him. We already see how the early exposure he’s had has impacted his in-game decisions positively, so I think it’s more than fair to trust a larger sample will lead to more of the same when it comes to long-term rotation decisions.

Editor’s Note: Darius Soriano (@forumbluegold) likely needs no introduction, as over at ForumBlueAndGold.com, he’s been providing some of the most thoughtful Lakers coverage anywhere for roughly as long as blogging about the Lakers has been a thing. Still, we are thrilled to welcome him to our team, and to announce that he’ll be providing weekly columns like this one for us moving forward. Please give him a warm welcome to the site, and we hope you’ll enjoy his work as much as we do.