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Most Interesting Lakers No. 8: JaVale McGee is shouldering an unexpectedly large load at center

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JaVale McGee is suddenly supremely important to the Lakers’ this season. How he rises to the occasion could make or break the team’s year.

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2019 NBA Finals - Golden State Warriors v Toronto Raptors Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Editor’s Note: For the second year in a row, the Silver Screen and Roll staff is counting down the most interesting Lakers heading into next season. We will be going through all 20 training camp spots before the season begins, and today we continue with No. 8, JaVale McGee.

JaVale McGee entered the 2018-19 season with the Lakers as the only center the team trusted to handle regular minutes at the position. He even had a surprisingly successful stretch to begin the year, likely invigorated by being a starting center for the first time in years.

But the Lakers learned soon enough that McGee alone could not fulfill the responsibilities necessary from the center spot, eventually bringing in Johnathan Williams and Tyson Chandler, while also later unearthing Ivica Zubac.

At the start of this offseason, the front office appeared to recognize the error in their ways. By signing DeMarcus Cousins and bringing in Anthony Davis and Jared Dudley, the Lakers were acknowledging — perhaps implicitly — that McGee is best suited for a reserve role on a contending team. It’s a role that McGee filled admirably in Golden State for two title-winning seasons. With Cousins, Davis, and Dudley, there were enough players on the Lakers to soak up regular-season minutes at center, and also two different kinds of small-ball five options for postseason play.

Unfortunately, that plan went out the window once Cousins tore his ACL. The Lakers signed Dwight Howard to be a stopgap center, but Howard was injured for nearly all of last season and is on a non-guaranteed deal. As strange as it is to say, McGee is the only (relatively) proven option at the five.

Defensively, that presents an interesting challenge for McGee. His size is a deterrent for opposing players, and McGee loves nothing more than getting blocks. When McGee’s perimeter defenders provide enough resistance at the point of attack, he has the physical tools to protect the basket. The problem is when McGee is tasked with defending in space. He doesn’t exactly have the instincts to contain perimeter players or defend laterally. He often finds himself trailing the play to get back to cover the rim.

McGee should have an easier time defensively next to Anthony Davis, who can literally defend anywhere on the court. Davis can take the more challenging big man assignment, and even if he doesn’t, McGee can feel comfortable defending outside the paint knowing that there is rim protection behind him. He never really had that luxury last year.

Offensively, however, McGee was put in a place to succeed last season. As a starter alongside a bevy of playmakers, all McGee had to was finish around the rim, which he is more than capable of doing thanks to his 7-foot-6 wingspan. It’s like McGee has go-go gadget arms that make his extension at the basket near unguardable. There were a good deal of problems with the construction of last year’s Lakers roster, but there were always sufficient ball-handlers on the floor to make McGee look good on offense.

McGee still appears to have the same physical burst to be a vertical threat for the Lakers in 2019-20. Unfortunately, he will have fewer creators on the floor to get him the ball in advantageous situations. As someone who was assisted on 78 percent of his field goals last season, McGee is supremely dependent on the playmaking of his teammates, and that could be lacking.

That shouldn’t be a significant problem if McGee shares most of his minutes with LeBron James. James has a tendency to make players look better, especially rim-rollers like McGee. According to PBP stats, McGee had a true shooting percentage of 67.8% in the 908 minutes he played with James. That true shooting percentage dropped to 58.6% when James was off the court.

When McGee played with James, he was assisted on 82.8% of his shots. That number dropped to 71.9% when James was off the floor. That is no small difference. Try to remember what it looked like last season when McGee was trying to create his own shot: the post-ups that failed to back down his opponents, the flailing hook shots, the oh-so-frequent “my bad” chest taps. The more often McGee can be the finisher instead of the creator, the better.

But if McGee is sitting in the paint on most possessions waiting for someone to get him the ball, what does that mean for James and Davis? Both of those stars are supremely efficient by the basket, and their damage is limited if that space is already occupied by McGee. That’s another point of intrigue this season: McGee theoretically has to play next to the Lakers’ stars, but there needs to be a way to do that that doesn’t diminish any of their individual talents. Unfortunately, McGee hasn’t really expanded his game in recent years, and it’s unreasonable to think that he’ll suddenly bust out new perimeter skills at age 32.

Even though McGee is a fairly decent fit next to James, he is almost an equally poor fit offensively next to Davis. Davis has historically thrived next to bigs who can space the floor, like Nikola Mirotic and Ryan Anderson, but he’s been stifled by centers who have limited skill sets. McGee has more bounce than any of those centers, like Omer Asik or Alexis Ajinca, but he doesn’t have the offensive creativity to be a natural counterpart to AD. How the partnership between these two bigs unfolds throughout the season will be another subplot to watch.

To be fair, McGee isn’t the only player on this team who is reliant on others to generate offense. The Lakers built an entire roster of players who have this specific flaw. But McGee might be one player of this mold who the team needs the most. It wasn’t the case when the offseason started, but it is now.

It isn’t McGee’s fault that the team has rid itself of most of its best passers from a year ago. But his play will be an inflection point for how the team performs this season, something very few could have predicted a few weeks ago. He rose to the occasion for a little while last year, but when he struggled, his attitude created problems in the locker room.

The Lakers have brought in Howard, at least for the time being, and Shams Charania of The Athletic reported that he will compete with McGee to be the team’s starter. McGee balked at playing behind Zubac last season, and Howard doesn’t exactly endear himself to his teammates, either. However, given Davis’ preference to play alongside a true center, the Lakers will need McGee to deliver whether he starts or comes off the bench.

The Lakers need McGee to be consistent, but he has always been high variance, both on and off the court. Can he replicate the effectiveness he showed last season, or will this year be a valley to follow last season’s brief peak? Getting the answers to those and all of these other questions makes McGee’s season one of the more compelling on this Lakers team.

The countdown so far...

20. Aric Holman

19. Jordan Caroline

18. Devontae Cacok

17. Kostas Antetokounmpo

16. Zach Norvell Jr.

15. Troy Daniels

14. Rajon Rondo

11. (tie) The 15th roster spot

11. (tie) Talen Horton-Tucker

11. (tie) Jared Dudley

10. Quinn Cook

9. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope

8. JaVale McGee

For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.