The question of who starts for the Lakers around LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook has developed into a full-blown saga at this point. After the team traded for Westbrook, it was reported that Davis committed to play center when he, Westbrook and LeBron James met up to discuss playing together. This made sense on a number of levels — Davis’s immense skillset is best maximized with him at center, and having a big who can space out to the three-point line is essential when playing with the shooting-deficient Westbrook.
Even after the Lakers signed DeAndre Jordan late in the offseason, Davis opened Lakers media day by declaring himself the team’s primary center, a position he had been reluctant to play heavily in the past. Yet by opening night — thanks in no small part to an injury to projected starting forward Trevor Ariza — Jordan was in the starting lineup, with Davis at power forward and Kent Bazemore at the wing alongside James.
The results have been less than ideal, with the Lakers blowing a second-half lead to the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday in their season opener before suffering a particularly ugly loss to the Phoenix Suns on Friday. The one bright spot in the latter defeat was a nice run in the fourth quarter featuring a lineup of James, Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony and Austin Reaves — with Davis at the 5.
Westbrook, who talked about the potential benefits of Davis playing the 5 during that same media day, took notice of the late rally, and what helped spark it.
“We just play a little faster with AD at the 5,” Westbrook said after the Lakers’ practice on Saturday. “It puts teams in a bind because you’ve got shooters and you’ve got attackers on the floor to kind of do whatever it is that we need to do, and it’s just up to us to make the right play.”
Despite the popular narrative spurred by the big starting lineup, Davis has played a fair amount of center so far, spending 62% of his minutes there to this point, according to Basketball Reference. But until Ariza gets back, which likely won’t be until mid-December at the earliest, the Lakers will be thin on bigger wings, with Anthony, Reaves and the struggling Kent Bazemore as the only real options to fill that need when the Lakers have Davis at center.
Thus, it was not too big of a surprise to see the Lakers try to play with more size during training camp and into the start of the season, especially given how the two-center combination of Howard and JaVale McGee alongside Davis at the 4 worked so well during the team’s title run in 2019-20.
Head coach Frank Vogel is also clearly experimenting with different lineups and rotations at this point in the season, and told reporters on Saturday that he is still evaluating the starting lineup. The Lakers have already used 25 five-man combinations on the court over their first two games, and only the starting five of James, Westbrook, Davis, Bazemore and Jordan have played more than 10 minutes together so far.
“After each game we’ll consider each option,” Vogel said. “I’m not going to release who is starting (Sunday) yet, but there is some good and some bad with that group. And what we have to evaluate — or what I’m trying to evaluate — is of the areas that are bad, a lot of them are correctable in terms of execution with that group that can have that group be more successful.”
The starting lineup is a meager +2 on the court so far this season. While the Anthony-Reaves unit mentioned above is a team-high +10, the Lakers’ other small-ball unit with that amount of playing time, which features Bazemore and the recently re-signed Avery Bradley, is a -9. We’re talking minuscule sample sizes here, so take these numbers with a massive grain of salt. That said, Vogel seems to be willing to stick with his “big” starting lineup for at least a little while longer.
“(It’s) more than just fundamentally that they don’t fit together,” Vogel said. “Right now, it feels like our execution for the details of our defense in particulate can really be a lot better, and then obviously some offensive spacing things as well, so we’re still a work in progress and we’re still evaluating.”
Rajon Rondo, another important voice on the Lakers’ roster, sees the team’s level of depth and versatility as a strength, comparing it to how the Lakers adjusted to different opponents in the 2020 NBA Bubble.
“We can go big, we can go small, I think that’s what’s going to make us great at the end of the day and I think that’s what allowed us to be great in the bubble,” Rondo said on Saturday. “We’re able to kind of with each series, depending on what personnel was needed, we’re able to make adjustments. Pull guys in, pull guys out and I think we’ve got the same thing with this year’s team.”
But this is a completely different roster than the Bubble Lakers, one that features not one, but two future hall-of-famers who are most effective when the floor is spaced around them as much as possible in James and Westbrook. For the Lakers to get back on track, Davis and Vogel may not be able to wait until the rest of the team gets healthier before committing to playing Davis at center full-time, or at least even more often than he has thus far.