In two of the Lakers’ six preseason games, Anthony Davis started at center. In the other four, it was veteran seven-footer DeAndre Jordan, with Dwight Howard coming off the bench in all five contests he appeared in.
According to head coach Frank Vogel, however, we should not take that as an indication that Howard doesn’t have a chance to start at center, or that the Lakers are close to deciding on their starting unit for opening night next week.
“We have had conversations about it potentially being Dwight (starting at center),” Vogel said prior to the team’s final preseason game on Thursday night. “But we feel like at the end of the day, one of the strengths of our team two years ago when Dwight was here was how much he punished backup centers and backup lineups.
“There’s a lot of small-ball with second units now, and we really just moved the needle with how effective he was with second units,” Vogel continued. “That’s something we like with this year’s team, and DeAndre filling that JaVale role of coming in and setting the tone with his lob-catching and shot-blocking with the first unit.”
Even if he won’t explicitly say it, though, Vogel’s words when discussing Howard’s impact — and where they feel it can be greatest — do seem to heavily imply that they’re mostly decided on him coming off the bench when the regular season begins. And we know that once he decides, he wants the group to remain “consistent,” and not to have to shift his starters around a bunch, even if the team is quite obviously at least a little split on what they want to do.
Before the game, Vogel also said that the Lakers starting Jordan at center alongside Davis at power forward in their final dress rehearsal of a preseason game — a 116-112 loss in which they only played nine players prior to throwing in the towel — is not an indication that they’ve made their final decision on starters for the opener on Tuesday.
“This is where we are tonight. We’re not married to it, obviously, in the preseason with a new team,” Vogel said.
Take preseason advanced stats with a heavy, heavy dose of salt, but if the eye test tells you the Lakers have been worse with two bigs than they have been with one, the numbers provide further confirmation. And to be as fair as possible, the Lakers were outscored by 13.2 points per 100 possessions with Davis on the floor at all during the preseason. They weren’t good regardless. But that number went up to 20.2 points when Jordan shared the floor with him, according to NBA.com, and the opposite was not true, as Jordan’s net rating was basically the same whether Davis was on the floor with him (-13.2) as it was when he was not (-13.3).
Again, preseason net ratings are not something to panic about, but the early returns on the double big lineup have not been great, especially when considering that the Lakers defended at a near top-10 rate in the preseason when Davis was on the floor alone, allowing just 101.4 points per 100 possessions, and hemorrhaged 109.7 points per 100 possessions (which would rank 28th) when he and Jordan played together.
With injuries to two of their main wing-sized players in Trevor Ariza and Talen Horton-Tucker, the team may not have a ton of choice other than to go big for now, but if they do, Howard may be the better option alongside Davis. The Lakers have been outscored by just 0.5 points per 100 possessions with that frontcourt, and held opponents to a smothering 87.5 points per 100 possessions on defense, per NBA.com, a mark that would lead the league in the preseason.
But when it matters — as expected — it still appears the Lakers will be better served going small with Davis at center, even if Vogel feels (or is at least publicly saying) that Jordan still has utility for this team.
“He’s got a great knack for lob catching and finding his way to the basket and finishing, and giving us that vertical spacing,” Vogel said. “He’s a vet that understands pick-and-roll coverages and just excels in that role of being a shot-blocking, rolling, offensive-rebounding big.”
Whether Jordan can provide more utility than that, or even if he’ll start, remains to be seen, but it will be something worth keeping an eye on heading into opening night, and monitoring the early returns of as the season begins next week.