For a majority of the season, the Los Angeles Lakers have played big — like, really big. Of the 11 players that averaged at least 15 minutes per game for the Lakers in the regular season, two of them were centers: JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard, the latter of whom averaged 18.9 minutes per game.
While the rest of the league zigged, the Lakers zagged, and it worked. However, they went away from that strategy when they played the Houston Rockets, a team on the opposite side of the spectrum.
In the Western Conference semifinals, Lakers head coach Frank Vogel played McGee and Howard a combined 43 minutes to open up more playing time for players like Kyle Kuzma and Markieff Morris, who are are smaller and more mobile on the defensive end. In the previous round, they played a combined 161 minutes.
After practice on Wednesday, Howard talked about his limited role in the second round, and how he dealt with it.
“Of course me and JaVale would like to play,” Howard said. “We wanted to play, but it’s the lineup that our coaches felt was going to be best for us to win and we did what was best for the team. But me and JaVale, we always stay ready, we train as hard as anybody and we know that the moment we step on the floor, we have one job to do and it’s to dominate. And that’s what we’re most looking forward to.”
Even when McGee and Howard weren’t playing they made a concerted effort to enthusiastically support their teammates from the sidelines.
“I think a lot of people on the outside take it as fun, but we take it as a way of staying engaged in the game: by talking to the other opponent, by watching the different coverages,” Howard said. “So just in case our names were called, we would have the opportunity to go out there and know what we have to do. We just try to keep our energy up. At the same time, it is fun, but we’re told to be locked in, and I don’t want people to get us having fun and jumping around as us not being locked in or helping this team win a championship.
“We also understand that energy is very important and if our sprits our down ... like they say: ‘one bad apple can spoil the whole basket,’ or whatever you want to call it. It’s the same thing. If we’re done in our energy, it can be contagious. It could go to a player and another player. We just have to look at all of the positives despite what we may be going through. There’s a lot of people going through things that are a lot worse that are not here in the bubble, so we can always find a way to stay positive.”
Fortunately for McGee and Howard, their team influence won’t be limited to the sidelines for much longer. During Frank Vogel’s media availability on Wednesday, he alluded to the Lakers returning to their normal two-center rotation in an effort to slow down Nikola Jokic, who was named to the All-NBA Second Team on Wednesday.
“Joker is one of the most unique players in the world and one of the most unique players to ever play the center position in this league.” Vogel said. “What he’s able to do, he can basically hurt you in all ways ... it makes him very difficult to guard.
“It does make this series a little different — a lot different, actually — than last series in terms of how much we’ll use our centers. I don’t want to get too much into detail, but obviously we’re going be the L.A Lakers: who we’ve been all year. We adjust to a small-ball team last series but I would expect us to return to form.”
Kyle Kuzma doesn’t see the way the Lakers play as big vs. small, though. To him, it’s just two different types of big lineups that offer the team different things.
“We don’t really play small,” Kuzma said. “I don’t understand the logic of people saying we play small because our small is still A.D., 6’11-7’0. Me in there, 6’9. Keef, 6’9. LeBron, 6’9. That’s kind of still big; we’re just athletic and mobile and we’ve got high IQs out there.”
However you choose to look at it, it’s clear that Vogel thinks McGee and Howard will be able to help against the Nuggets. We’ll see if he’s right on Friday. If he’s not, at least he’s shown he’s capable of making the necessary adjustments. That’s a good spot for the Lakers be in.