When Anthony Davis took the stage on media day and confirmed reports that he would start at center this season, Lakers fans breathed a deep sigh of relief. With the team and Davis seemingly committed to playing him at his best position, the sky felt like the limit for fans across the globe.
But much of what has followed — both in terms of quotes from the Lakers themselves, and from various reports and comments from plugged-in reporters around the team — has served to only ground the fans once more and muddy the waters as to what the team’s approach this season will be.
Immediately following Davis on media day was head coach Frank Vogel, whose comments, in a vacuum, seemed like a coach trying to maintain some semblance of lineup secrecy, something Vogel has always prioritized. But given the increased context in the days since, his remarks that day seem a bit more telling.
“He’s played center the last two years,” Vogel said. “It’s just what type of balance we’re going to have and that’s still to be determined. I think the first year, it was a near 50-50 balance of him playing alongside another big at the 4 and then him sliding to the 5. Last year was more him playing the 4 with Marc (Gasol) and (Andre) Drummond and (Montrezl Harrell) getting a lot of those minutes in there.
“I think we’re going to return more to the first year’s balance, but he’ll play some 4 and some 5.”
Since those comments, the overwhelming theme of well-established reporters and media around the team has been that of hesitancy that the Lakers would start Davis at the five this season.
On an episode of “The Laker Film Room Podcast,” Lakers sideline reporter Mike Trudell said that some members of the team still prefer the team’s “big” look, with a center alongside Davis (emphasis mine):
“We’re not ONLY going to see AD start at the 5. There’s going to be plenty of times where Dwight and DeAndre do start... I know that there are plenty of people internally that still like starting a classic big. And again, we’re talking about like 10 minutes of the game, in the first and the third quarters. I just don’t think it matters that much. I think ultimately AD will play more 5 than he did, and all of your points about Russ are a big reason why, but he still played a lot of 5, and in fact the majority (of his minutes) at the 5 in a lot of the key playoff games.”
Longtime Lakers insider Mike Bresnahan of Spectrum SportsNet had similar points to Trudell during a recent television appearance, while reiterating it’s more about where Davis finishes games than where he starts them (again, emphasis mine):
“I have a funny feeling he’s going to start at the 4. I think he’s more comfortable there. I appreciate what he said on media day saying ‘okay, I’m ready to play some 5, no doubt about it, I’ll start there.’ But the truth is, the big deal is ‘where does he finish the game?’ And that’s gonna be at the 5 most nights... All this debate about who starts and (whatever), I just don’t see Dwight and DeAndre being in the game at the end of it if it’s a close game... I think DeAndre starts at the 5, and AD starts at the 4.”
There was a lot of hedging there with “funny feeling” and “I think,” but the sentiment was further backed up by fellow Lakers scoopster Dave McMenamin of ESPN, who is on his seventh season of covering LeBron James between the Cavaliers and Lakers. During a recent appearance on “The Lowe Post” with Zach Lowe of ESPN, McMenamin was asked about the starting lineup for the team, and brought up discussions he’s had that indicates Davis will start at the 4, even if he plays more minutes at the 5 overall this season (once again, emphasis mine):
“We don’t know. What they have seen so far, and what I believe from having conversations in terms of what will be best for this team, is ultimately having more nights than not where you have a starting center alongside Anthony Davis. And that doesn’t mean that Anthony couldn’t end up playing 55% of his total minutes at center this year, but what are you going to do to keep two guys engaged if you’re having them both come off the bench? I think that’s kind of a redundancy they can avoid and they don’t need to have that happen.”
Again, everything in a vacuum looks innocent enough. But that is three of the most well-connected members of the Laker media bringing up the idea that Davis may start at the 4. If they are having these conversations in three separate places, it’s hard not to imagine the Lakers themselves aren’t also going through similar discussions.
And while it’s the media driving some of the discussion about where Davis will play, Vogel did reveal some of his thinking as to why the Lakers could go bigger this season when asked of the drawbacks of starting Davis at center prior to Wednesday's preseason game against the Suns.
“Defensive size, for one,” Vogel said. “Our ability to rebound, in particular with Trevor (Ariza) not being in as part of training camp and Melo being more of a hybrid 4. We’re pretty small on the glass. We’re pretty small on rim protection. Those are a couple of negatives. I think offensive rebounding support.
“Obviously, if Anthony is getting a lot of the field goal attempts, we have to get perimeter crashers if we’re going to play second-shot offense. We don’t want to just five guys back every time, one-shot offense every time down,” Vogel continued. “Those are the two biggest negatives.”
None of this is to say the Lakers have made up their mind one way or another. The team has had just over a week of practice and only two preseason games, neither of which featured LeBron James or Russell Westbrook. In fact, Vogel stated the team has opened up the court more during practices and scrimmages as they rework their offense with the idea of more spacing and movement, even leaving open the possibility we will see some lineups without a center, something he reiterated to Chris Mannix in a piece for Sports Illustrated.
“We do anticipate most of the time having AD, Dwight or DeAndre in there,” Vogel said earlier this week after practice. “We have talked about playing some center-less lineups this year, but for the most part one of those guys will be in there. And again, striking the right balance with AD playing with one of those guys or as the center will be something we’ll evaluate throughout the year, but we will find that balance.”
When speaking about Carmelo Anthony’s debut against the Suns on Wednesday, Vogel also indirectly revealed some details of the Lakers’ offense through the first week of practice, and another potential peek at what the team could have in store for a starting lineup.
“He moved well,” Vogel said. “He didn’t have space to work in the post because we didn’t space properly. We haven’t done a lot of post offense in our training camp. We’ve kind of opened things up and played for movement more this year. So, when he did get the ball down low, he didn’t have the proper space. We’ll clean that up. But I thought he moved well.”
Still, there are a number of reasons the Lakers could still prefer starting a center alongside Davis. For one, Davis’ long-term health will remain one of the top priorities this season, as the team saw firsthand last season how irreplaceable he is should he go down with an injury. While LeBron James is the straw that stirs the drink for the Lakers, it was Davis that anchored so much of the team’s defense and made them as versatile as they were when they won the title in 2019-20.
There is also a human element at play with the center rotation. While it’s simple to say “just play Davis at center,” that would almost certainly force one of Dwight Howard or DeAndre Jordan out of the rotation. While the team has spoken of a willingness to sacrifice all season long, it can be easier said than done.
On Wednesday, Vogel said he hadn’t given thought to if the team could play two centers should Davis start at the five.
“I don’t know yet,” Vogel said. “We’ll see. I think starting another center makes it easier to play two centers, obviously, which is why you’re asking the question. But I haven’t thought whether that could work or not, playing two centers if AD starts at the five.”
From a minutes and rotation standpoint, it would be hard to imagine two centers and Davis all getting regular minutes. To what degree that matters when the Lakers are trying to win another title remains to be seen, but it will be a factor.
Trevor Ariza’s injury could also be a factor in the matter. The Lakers were already thin in the frontcourt outside of the center position, and Ariza’s injury only further exposes the depth concerns. Using Davis to soak up more of those power forward minutes, where Ariza likely would have played, would be a simple and practical solution, though it would come at the price of Davis’ minutes at center.
That’s what Dan Woike of the Los Angeles Times recently wrote as well, in yet another instance of an insider suggesting this team is heading towards big lineups again:
Ariza’s absence probably makes coach Frank Vogel’s decisions about a starting lineup a little easier, with the team probably heading back to a traditional look at center with Anthony Davis at power forward.
Jovan Buha of The Athletic echoed that sentiment in his own recent story:
First, Ariza was a projected starting forward alongside Anthony Davis and LeBron James. This throws a wrench in those plans. By the time Ariza suits up for the Lakers, it’ll be early December — at the earliest. The Lakers are going to have to go in a different direction with the starting group — and potentially bigger, sliding Davis to power forward, as the Lakers don’t have another rangy wing to replace Ariza.
Basically, either a host of the most well-sourced Lakers media will end up being publicly wrong about their reports and/or informed speculation on the starting lineup, or, more likely, Davis will be playing at the 4 more than we expected just one week ago, in part as a result of Ariza’s injury.
The Lakers will have two more weeks of sample size throughout preseason games and practices to determine which way they want to go. But what’s clear is any notions that this decision would be over after Davis’ media day comments has long since flown out the door, and that the never-ending debate over how much he should play at center will likely rage on for another year.