The Lakers have made an identity this season out of being bigger than any other team in the league. They have two true, old-school centers who play the majority of the minutes at the five, and beyond that, above-average size and length at every other position.
But the Lakers have always had a trump card in their back pocket of Anthony Davis at center, and the theory has been that they would have to rely on that configuration more and more often during the postseason, particularly against teams like the Rockets and the Clippers that eat up traditional centers.
We started to see this trend in the first round, even against a Portland team that often played two centers at the same time. Davis played 75.0% of his minutes next to either JaVale McGee or Dwight Howard during the regular season, but only 59.5% during the five-game first-round series, per NBA stats.
When the Lakers play “small,” they still like to keep their physicality and toughness intact even if they’re sacrificing sheer size. They don’t want to just throw in a stretch four next to Davis and let that player get exposed either on defense or with his handle. That’s where someone like Markieff Morris comes into play.
Morris played the majority of his minutes in small lineups during the first round (47 out of 88) and the Lakers were plus-11 in that time. Considering he was minus-1 overall, this seems like the best way to utilize Morris moving forward, so let’s dig in to what Morris has to do to succeed in these situations.
First of all, Davis and LeBron James are most effective when they have a clear lane to operate in. Davis can roll to the basket unimpeded, and James can do a myriad of things, ranging from posting up to barreling to the rim on a drive. That means Morris has to be able to space the floor. For his career, the 31-year-old forward shoots 34.5% from distance. That dropped to 33.3% during Morris’ regular-season and seeding games with the Lakers, and came down further to 25% against Portland.
That sample only accounts for 19 games, but the Blazers defenders were already starting to leave Morris alone as part of their defensive strategy to force the Lakers to beat them from outside.
Ultimately, much of Morris’ value is going to come down to whether he can hit threes, because those are the shots that will always be available to him. Despite shooting 40 percent in Detroit before coming to L.A., the Lakers couldn’t have expected him to stay at that efficiency considering his career numbers. Still, he has to be better there.
Morris did show an ability to do some other things on offense when the three-ball wasn’t falling. He can post up smaller defenders on switches, and he can also attack the closeout off the catch. That’s the beauty of the lane being open: there is also room for drive-and-kicks, or just attacking the basket to score if the defense isn’t prepared.
The other key to succeeding small lineups is being a switchable defender and rebounding well. Morris has been an excellent rebounder thus far with the Lakers, particularly on the offensive end, and that’s a boon to a team that has some difficulty scoring in the half court.
Defensively is where Morris has been more helpful for the Lakers. Due to his inconsistent shooting, his offensive impact has not been very positive, but his defense has been right in line with what the Lakers need. At 6’10, Morris has legitimate center size, which means he can protect the rim. He has a good block rate (he ranks in the 76th percentile, per Cleaning the Glass) since arriving in Los Angeles, and a defensive rating of 103.4 in the regular season and 99.0 in the postseason.
For the series, Morris’ offense and defense essentially balanced out as he had a net rating of plus-1.0 while the Lakers were plus-10.4 overall. He was serviceable, and Frank Vogel didn’t need to think outside of the box with his rotations because Portland didn’t have enough talent to exploit the Lakers, even when L.A. wasn’t playing at its best.
However, it’s hard to watch Morris struggle to score and not think about another small ball center who also sits on the Lakers bench: Jared Dudley. Dudley is a fair bit shorter than Morris, but he provides a similar skill set.
Need a floor spacer? Dudley is a career 39.3% shooter from 3-point range and nailed 42.9% of his attempts this year even as he was used sparingly. Need a physical presence? Let’s just say Dudley has never met a fracas that he didn’t want to take part in. Rim protection? Dudley won’t be blocking any shots, but he can certainly step in to take a charge.
Just one year ago, Dudley was a rotation player on a playoff team doing all of these things.
Maybe Vogel has knowledge of Dudley’s fitness that only the Lakers are privy to, or he really does value that extra height that Morris brings to the table. Maybe Vogel is happy enough with what Morris has been providing and not willing to disrupt the team chemistry. And given Vogel’s tendency to ride with good defenders, it’s easy to see why Morris has earned his minutes.
But Morris isn’t a perfect player, and he seems to have a ready-made replacement waiting in the wings. As the Lakers increasingly turn to smaller lineups, Morris is a good player to have next to Davis. He isn’t the only option the Lakers have on their Lakers bench, though, and that’s something to keep in mind if the team finds itself in need of something different.