En route to the 2020 championship last year, the Lakers became popularly known amongst their massive fanbase as the “Bigger, Faster, Stronger Lakers.” Coined by video analyst Pete “The Film Room” Zayas, the moniker was a nod to how the Lakers were not only an incredibly dangerous team when they got out and ran, but they were also bulkier and more physical than their opponents at every position. That was especially true at center, where the team boasted two traditional big men in Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee, but also had the Death Star laser option of going to Anthony Davis at the five, where he was either bigger, faster or stronger than whoever teams were praying and begging to guard him, a walking mismatch and perpetual positional advantage.
This season, the Lakers are one of 14 NBA teams — less than half the league — to not have a single player listed at seven feet tall or larger on their roster. Marc Gasol is closest at 6’11, while Davis and two-way player Kostas Antetokounmpo are the only other Lakers listed at 6’10 or above. The Lakers are still big at just about every position — they started 6’9 Kyle Kuzma at shooting guard during a preseason game, for God’s sake — but while the rest of the league loaded up on big men to counter the popular perception of how the Lakers won, the Lakers zagged again, as their backup center (so far) has mostly been reigning Sixth Man of the Year Montrezl Harrell, who is certainly faster and stronger than many of the opponents in front of him, but is rarely bigger, being listed at just 6’7.
The change has been so confusing that it’s even stumped Basketball-Reference’s positional tracking data, as through two games the website is crediting Davis with playing 48% of his minutes at center, which would be an 8% increase on how much Davis played their last year. Watching the games, it seems pretty clear that Davis isn’t actually playing center anywhere close to that much, as when Gasol is off the floor, it is often Harrell guarding the tallest opposing player and overall doing more of the “center things” for the Lakers on offense and defense. However, Davis is often the tallest Laker on the floor by a significant margin, which is likely leading to the confusion.
But make no mistake: Davis at the five is not a matchup Lakers head coach Frank Vogel is planning to utilize this season any more than he has to.
“AD at the five is sort of something I feel like I can go to when needed, but we added two new centers to our team, to our culture and to our system,” Vogel said. “I’d like to get as many minutes as I can for those guys to get them familiar and get us familiar with utilizing their skillsets because they’re both excellent basketball players that can help us.”
Those are logical reasons to want to play Gasol and Harrell more minutes at center during the regular season, but there is one more that Vogel didn’t mention: The Lakers are coming off of the shortest turnaround any NBA champion has ever faced, with just a little over two months separating their NBA Finals victory and their season opener. That would be enough of an argument to not overtax Davis guarding bigger, more physical players very often, and that’s without mentioning that this will also be an expedited season, with 72 games getting crammed into five months rather than the normal 82 over six, with matchups coming more rapidly in succession as the NBA tries to shoehorn its way back into a normal schedule after the coronavirus pandemic and the stoppage it necessitated forced the playoffs to end in October rather than wrapping up in June.
Combining the reality of that physical grind coming on the heels of a short turnaround with the Lakers wanting to see what they have in their new Harrell/Gasol combo, and one is left with more than enough reasons to understand Vogel not wanting to play Davis at center more than he has to, even if he only mentioned the latter reason despite being asked about the former one.
Still, when I asked Davis about the same concern — did the short turnaround leave him more hesitant about playing center during the regular season? — he said it didn’t. His full answer was also a window into how the Lakers make those decisions, as well as why Vogel has developed such a reputation as a great communicator while with the Lakers.
“I’m ready to do whatever the team wants. We got Trezz and Marc who can play the five, but there’s going to be games where I have to play the five. Me and coach talked about it, so I’m prepared to do that,” Davis said. “He’s going to be smart about when to do it, but it’s always a conversation.
“He has a great thing with talking to his players,” Davis continued. “He might come to me and say ‘Anthony, can you play the five this game?’ and I might think it’s not a good game, or I might come to him and say ‘coach, let me play the five tonight, I think this is a great matchup for me to play the five,’ and we have a conversation about it and see where it goes.”
While getting through the grind of the regular season, most title contenders save at least a few things in reserve for the playoffs. Very few, if any, have done so as much as the Lakers did last season, when Davis’ minutes at center literally flipped like a proverbial switch in the postseason, when he went from playing 60% of his minutes at power forward to 60% of them at center, per the positional data from Basketball-Reference (a change that the eye test very much reflected in this case). The team’s plus-minus with Davis on the floor flipped just as much, as the team went from being a three points worse per 100 possessions when Davis was on the floor in the regular season, to 17.4 points per 100 possessions better (!!!) when he played during the postseason.
There was some statistical wonkiness leading to Davis’ mediocre metrics in the regular season — most notably the effectiveness of the LeBron James-plus-bench units going against opposing benches, and Davis playing a ton with Regular Season Rondo or no other creators — but it was clear during the postseason where he is most dangerous: As a near-seven-foot force of nature who could either blow by traditional big men with a full spaced floor, or shoot over small-ball centers like they were traffic cones.
But doing all that while guarding bigger players takes a physical toll, and when saving Davis from it in the regular season last year allowed him to dominate the postseason and look like the best player in the NBA at times, why would the Lakers change things up this season? There is no need to mess with what resulted in the rings that Davis wants so badly to get more of, right? Even if it’s again (so far) resulting in a negative on-off split for Davis through two games, the Lakers know that regular season stats don’t count anymore in the playoffs, when they have a superweapon ready and waiting to activate.
Right now, Frank Vogel is like Emperor Palpatine, taunting Luke Skywalker in the pivotal clash of “Return of the Jedi.” But the rest of the league doesn’t have a Darth Vader to throw Vogel over a railing to his doom, and no Admiral Ackbar to yell “It’s a trap!” The Lakers’ death star is fully operational, they’re just waiting for the right time to use it.
“We’ll probably see more lineups with AD at the four early in the season and know that we can always go to that lineup at the five when needed,” Vogel said. He didn’t end the statement with a menacing cackle, but he might as well have. The Lakers’ planet-destroying superlaser is spending another regular season powering up, and the rest of the league is helpless to stop it.