Last night, when my buddy Robert Flom of 213 Hoops was the latest person to wonder aloud if Anthony Davis was really so opposed to playing center for the Lakers that he wouldn’t do so against the Rockets, I made a prediction publicly that I’d been making privately for a while: That at some point during this series, we would get a leak that Davis was now totally happy to play the 5.
Lo and behold, that’s exactly what happened less than 12 hours later, as Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports — who is as plugged in to the thought process of Klutch Sports clients as any reporter — has written that Davis was willing to play the five more against Houston, if asked:
Lakers star Anthony Davis is not fond of playing center, but he wouldn’t be going up against a traditional big in this matchup.
Davis is willing to slide up from power forward in this series, league sources told Yahoo Sports.
To be clear, despite his oft-stated reticence against it, Davis has played center for 40% of his minutes at center during the regular season, according to Basketball-Reference, and has done so for 44% of his playing time in the playoffs, so it’s not like he hasn’t done it at all. Still, those numbers are Davis’ lowest percentage of time at the position in the last five years (in the regular season) and ever (in the playoffs), so it is definitely possible for him to play more.
The real question is whether or not that’s actually what the Lakers need in this specific series. While fans’ JaVale McGee fatigue led to a fairly predictable explosion of outrage when Frank Vogel opted not to change the starting lineup to start Game 1, there are actually reasons to question whether or not going small more against the Rockets is the right call.
Cranjis McBasketball — no, that’s not his real name — of The Bball Index is one of the smartest NBA analysts I know, and he was as on top of this storyline potentially not being backed up by evidence against this specific opponent as anyone going into the series. After Game 1, I asked him if he could briefly explain why more AD at center isn’t the answer in this matchup despite how popular of a suggestion it’s become, and he broke it down more thoroughly than I ever could.
While AD playing the 5 can change a series in LA’s favor against other teams, playing Houston’s personnel and schemes it would be a step in the wrong direction. Playing big (AD alongside Dwight/McGee) helps LA in 3 key ways:
1. Rim protection and deterrence. Houston is purposeful about forcing your rim protection to stand sequestered in the corner, at the top of the key, or on-ball, all positions where you’re negated as a rim protector. But vs. 2 rim protectors HOU gets those favorable looks far less often (23% vs. 73%), and thus far we’ve seen (on a large film analysis) Harden drive far less against 2-big lineups than against single big lineups. Fewer drives means less open 3s, less free throws, and less foul trouble. This was the case against OKC and was so again last night, when L.A. defended Harden well and limited his playmaking while playing big, but gave up 1.5 points per possession to him when playing small, as well as 2 assists and kick-outs to two open missed threes.
2. Spacing. It may be counter intuitive, but Houston packs the paint MORE against small Laker lineups and less when LA goes big. This is because LA’s lob threats can only be defended by the defenders pressing into their bodies, removing the extra help Houston sends on drives, post ups, and isolations from the baseline. We saw a packed paint 89% of the time vs. LA’s isolations/post ups in small lineups last night (88% in the Feb matchup) and 33% in big lineups (44% in the Feb matchup).
3. Offensive rebounding. LA rebounds better when playing big, and HOU has been a poor defensive rebounding team. One way to make up the math advantage Houston has shooting high volumes of 3s is to get more possessions. Last night we see a 25% offensive rebounding rate for LA playing big, vs. 19% when playing small.
So while it’s not surprising that Davis and his camp wanted to do some damage control to deflect blame for the decision to play power forward so much given that people are upset about it, there are at the very least clear reasons to question whether or not him playing center more is the best course of action at this point. It’s good that he’s willing to do something different if the Lakers need him to, but in this series, it just may not be the answer, no matter how fashionable it’s become on NBA Twitter to demand it.