The Lakers demonstrated their flexibility at the center position in the Houston series. A team that prided itself on being big all season adjusted to a unique opponent and removed JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard from the rotation altogether by playing Markieff Morris for extended stretches at the five, in addition to Anthony Davis.
Both McGee and Howard have since returned the floor against Denver, but the Lakers have made the strange decision to now have four centers in their rotation. All four have had their utility at various points in the season, but after losing Game 3 — and nearly losing Game 2 — it’s clear that Morris is not a viable center in this series.
This isn’t to say that Morris doesn’t deserve playing time. He still presents a viable spacing threat and has hit 16-of-35 3-pointers during the postseason. But he shouldn’t be playing center, not against this Denver team.
The Lakers have played 19 minutes with Morris at the five in three games against the Nuggets and have been outscored by 17 points during that span. That’s the equivalent of losing a game by 43 points. It’s a small sample, but so is a seven-game series, so it’s probably worth considering what has gone wrong in those stretches.
Morris usually matches up against Mason Plumlee at the start of the second and fourth quarters. Plumlee is a much bouncier athlete than Morris, and that has made rebounding a challenge for the Lakers in those situations. The height advantage Morris had against the Rockets no longer exists, and he hasn’t been good enough boxing out on either end.
Then, there’s the matter of defending at the basket. Morris was more often in rotation against Houston; the scheme didn’t require him to be a rim protector as much. That isn’t the case with Denver — he is the last line of defense at the hoop, and that simply isn’t his best skill.
The particular lineup of Alex Caruso, Rajon Rondo, LeBron James, Kyle Kuzma, and Morris — the one has struggled mightily over the past two games — is allowing an effective field-goal percentage of 64.5% in its 77 possessions together. That’s well above the league average of 53.2%. Opponents are taking 42.6% of their shots at the rim, which is a recipe for easy baskets and fouls.
In Morris’ defense, he isn’t the only big to struggle against the Nuggets thus far. But his role is the easiest to fix — just play Howard at the start of the second and fourth quarters. The Lakers have not been able to stop Denver consistently in this series, but Howard has far and away the best defensive rating at 91.1 over three games. For context, Danny Green is second at 100.7 points allowed per 100 possessions.
The Lakers were the third-ranked defensive team in second quarters during the regular season, and a big part of that success was Howard setting the tone. He is a mountain of a man to move at the rim, and he still retains the ability to defend in space. The Lakers are committed to matching his minutes with Nikola Jokic, but the Nuggets have been content to let Jokic sit for longer stretches to start the second to delay Howard’s entrance. That lets Denver get into a groove while the Lakers use a less-than-optimal grouping.
Howard’s also taken too strong of a heel turn in defending Jokic. It might do the Lakers center some good to just get back to basketball instead of focusing on antagonizing Jokic at all costs, and that’s more likely to happen against Plumlee. Furthermore, Howard helps the Lakers on offense because he provides some vertical spacing. That five-man grouping has maybe one respected shooter if you combine the reputations of Kuzma and Morris — if the Lakers don’t have perimeter spacing, at least they can have a lob threat.
There were a myriad of problems with the Lakers during Game 3, and for long stretches of Game 2. Their effort, attention to detail, and rebounding were all subpar, and it can’t be blamed on any one individual. Instead of sticking to a new alignment that hasn’t borne fruit, it would make sense for the Lakers to get back to what worked for them in the regular season, and what has worked in this series: Get Morris back to power forward and play Howard more at center.