Editor’s Note: As the season gets closer, our Silver Screen and Roll staff is going to be taking a closer look back at every player on the Lakers for a refresher on stuff we may have forgotten during quarantine. Think of this as like the 30 second clip reminding you of what happened during the current season of your favorite TV show that rolls right before the latest episode starts. Today, let’s recall what was up with JaVale McGee.
Well, JaVale McGee can breathe a sigh of relief. What originally looked like it could be a story of the Lakers needing McGee to be more reliable than ever before just became a little different. Now that Dwight Howard has announced that he’ll be joining L.A. at Disney World, McGee will no longer be the only proven NBA center on the team’s roster in Orlando.
That might make McGee less important than the “only safety net stopping significant minutes for Kyle Kuzma at center during the playoffs” status he would have held in that alternate reality, but even with Howard in tow, he will still be an important player when the Lakers renew their chase for the franchise’s 17th banner, as he’s been a solid starter and reliable contributor for the team during the 2019-20 season. He also makes incredible Cameo videos, in case you’re wondering.
And while he may not be quite as irreplaceable as he was last season for the team, McGee has still been a key to their success. If he and Howard’s center by committee approach were literally Frankenstein’d into a single player, they genuinely would be — as their coach argued — an All-Star-caliber one, and their ability to save Davis the wear and tear of playing big minutes at the five while protecting the rim and screening like madmen has been a boon for this team.
McGee’s points (6.8), rebounds (5.8) and blocks (1.5) per game are all down from his first season in purple and gold (12, 7.5 and 2, respectively), but so are his minutes, due to the presence of a reliable (and arguably more valuable) backup in Howard.
Still, McGee has embraced his role as something of a token starter with much of the same enthusiasm as Howard has shown for dominating bench units, and his prorated averages per-36 minutes are right in line with his debut season as a Laker, and he’s done it all on greater efficiency.
McGee’s effectiveness has also not come from the place most might expect. McGee ranks 11th in the league in blocks (and is one of three Lakers, along with Davis and Howard, in the top 20), but the numbers don’t paint the picture of him as a significant difference-maker for the team defensively. Some of that is lack of bench drop off due to the presence of Howard — or Davis as a small-ball five — as the alternatives, but the Lakers are ironically 0.1 points per 100 possessions worse defensively with McGee on the court.
That’s not a significant difference, obviously, and not some evidence that they’re hemorrhaging points with McGee. They’re clearly very good on defense when he plays, they’re just also good when he’s not. Given that the team is still 2.5 points per 100 possessions better when McGee plays than when he sits, it’s more of an indicator that — in contrast to his reputation as mostly a valuable defender — defense isn’t where McGee’s biggest impact has been felt.
Instead, it’s offensively where the Lakers have seen the largest benefit from McGee’s presence. McGee has the second-highest offensive rating on the team, as the Lakers are scoring 113.6 points per 100 possessions when he plays, compared to 111 when he sits. That may not sound like a big gap, but it’s the difference between being the second-best offense in the NBA behind only the Dallas Mavericks, and the 14th-ranked Oklahoma City Thunder.
This isn’t because McGee has turned into some Kevin Durant-esque offensive force, sadly, because that would be one of the most incredible storylines in NBA history. But what McGee has done — even after being lauded for his efficiency both last season and while winning two rings with Durant during their time with the Golden State Warriors — is find a way to get even more efficient.
McGee’s true-shooting percentage (65.5%) is the highest of his career. His effective field-goal percentage (64.5%) and standard field-goal percentage (64%) are at the second-highest rates they’ve ever been. He is taking the second-fewest field goal attempts per-36 minutes (10) of his career, and has excelled by taking only the most efficient shots possible, serving as a seven-foot remora fish bigger than the actual shark he’s tethered to (LeBron James), but finding ways to feed as easily as ever in a mutually beneficial basketball symbiosis.
In fact, McGee has been so good with James that head coach Frank Vogel has elected to basically not play him with anyone else. Of the 1,023 minutes McGee has played this season, 881 of them have come with LeBron on the court. That is the Lakers’ eighth-most used pairing, and as you might expect, those lineups are even better offensively than McGee’s standard metrics, scoring 114.5 points per 100 possessions. James deserves credit for creating plays for McGee, but McGee also deserves recognition for finding angles for cuts, lobs and putbacks out of the scrambled defenses that James creates.
And now that Howard is officially joining the Lakers in Orlando, they don’t need McGee to do anything differently than he’s done all season. Whereas previously stepping up and doing even more might have been a necessity had Howard opted out, now McGee can continue to do what he does best this year: Dominating in the margins, and stretching low-usage efficiency to its limits.