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Russell Westbrook needs Anthony Davis to start at center

Frank Vogel has played Anthony Davis at center for most of his minutes this season, just not at the start of games. For Russell Westbrook’s sake, that needs to change.

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Cleveland Cavaliers v Los Angeles Lakers

After only 3 minutes and 47 seconds of elapsed game time, Frank Vogel had seen enough. The Charlotte Hornets, after trailing by a single point at halftime, had outscored the Lakers 10-3 to start the second half, and something needed to be done before this game — like too many others this season — slipped away entirely in the third quarter. Vogel, as he’s done more times than he’s given credit for in his Lakers tenure, went to his bench and made the types of substitutions that directly impacted the identity and style of play from the group on the floor.

Out of the game went DeAndre Jordan, Avery Bradley, and Kent Bazemore. Into the game came Carmelo Anthony, Austin Reaves, and Wayne Ellington. Suddenly, surrounding Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis was way more shooting and well-rounded offensive ability. Over the next several minutes, things stabilized. The Lakers didn’t instantly turn things around in their favor, but the bleeding stopped and calm was restored.

Vogel understood what was needed in that moment, and his lineups for the rest of game pretty much reflected that he knew what had to be done. Over the final 25-plus minutes of regulation and overtime, the Lakers played a traditional center alongside Anthony Davis for a grand total of 1 minute and 21 seconds. And, maybe most importantly, Russell Westbrook wasn’t on the floor during that short, two big stint.

Unfortunately, this hasn’t been the case as often as many would like this season.

First thing’s first: I believe in Frank Vogel. I think he’s a really good head coach who, due to a combination of injuries. roster construction, and stubbornness, has not always shown how good a coach he can be this season. Those injuries, specifically to Trevor Ariza and Talen Horton-Tucker, have left his frontcourt shorthanded — especially in the ways that unlock more of this roster’s versatility. LeBron James missing time in addition to those two have basically left Vogel with limited options when fielding lineups that feature more than one player over 6’5” at a time.

So, we’ve seen too many minutes with AD playing next to DeAndre Jordan. Too many minutes where Vogel, in his pursuit of a leveraging the team’s remaining size advantages up front, has hamstrung his offense via a crowded paint with fewer driving lanes, resulting in an over-reliance on jumpshooting from players whose biggest weakness on offense is — you guessed it — jumpshooting. And there’s no player this negatively impacts more than Russell Westbrook.

We don’t need a dive deep into why this matters, or how Russ benefits from playing in lineups that offer more floor spacing. His history as a player is well documented and the drivers of his success — from OKC to Houston to Washington — are all on tape. He needs the driving and slashing lanes provided by playing one big (and sometimes no bigs!) on the floor in order to get to and finish in the paint. Again, this is all known by everyone — including Vogel.

So, it’s time for Vogel to change up and tweak things even more than he already has. Again, more than he already has (because, he has). Per Cleaning the Glass, Anthony Davis has played 63% of his minutes at Center this season. Compare this to only 9% last season, this is a massive shift in how AD is being deployed from one season to the next and would be his highest percentage of minutes played in the pivot since 2016 and the 2nd highest of his career.

However, of those remaining minutes — that 37% where Davis is playing power forward next to either Dwight Howard or DJ — the majority of them come as part of the starting lineup, where Russell Westbrook is also on the floor.

So, what I’m really asking of Vogel isn’t to necessarily up AD’s minutes at the 5 to more than they already are (though, honestly, this would be good too). It’s more me looking for him to shift his lineup deployment in ways where Russ doesn’t have to play in those two big lineups — particularly the one at the start of each half that features DeAndre and Avery Bradley. It’s not so much that you can’t ever play lineups with two big men, or that Russ can’t (occasionally) see a short stint in those lineups. But it definitely should not happen as frequently as it does, and that means not starting the game that way.

Miami Heat v Los Angeles Lakers
Russell Westbrook needs space.
Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

For more context, going into Wednesday’s game vs. the Heat, Westbrook had played 392 total minutes this season, and a 103 of those had come with both Jordan and Davis sharing the floor with him. That’s entirely too many, especially when the Lakers have a net rating of -10.3 with those groups.

From an individual standpoint, when Russ shares the floor with DeAndre and AD, his stats are all impacted in the exact ways you’d expect them to: his points in the paint, points coming off fast breaks, percentage of points scored in the paint, shooting percentage, and FT rate are all down; his 3-point FGA rate and percentage of points scored from the mid-range are all up. Russ will never be the most efficient player, but he’s much less so when playing both Davis and Jordan on the floor with him.

Again, this all aligns with what we’ve known helps Russ be successful, and there was really no point in trading for him if the long term strategy was to play him in these types of lineups as often as he has been. So, at this point, the samples are big enough, and Vogel — even with all the injury context and potential locker room challenges that could arise from making this type of shift now — has to figure out a way to make this transition. Both for Westbrook’s sake, and the team’s.

But, this isn’t just to optimize Russ now. It’s to get the rest of the team into the mindset of what will be required of them when they’re playing more to their strengths and with the approach most optimized to the construction of the roster when healthy. Because, make no mistake, when this team is fully healthy, the odds greatly favor the team playing smaller in their starting lineup. Getting some of those reps in now, even in groupings that may not be ones you’re likely to see when the roster is healthier, build habits towards what you plan on being when at your best.

There are hints that Vogel has figured this out. Before the Hornets game, he said that he had the “temptation to start AD at the 5 for offensive spacing purposes”, but went on to explain how depleted they are in the frontcourt and how well Melo is playing in his bench role (and, thus, not wanting to disrupt that). But it’s time, however inconvenient, to begin to make that shift. The data, though muddied with some of the injuries (particularly to LeBron), still speaks pretty clearly.

But, even beyond the data, the tape tells us what is working and what isn’t too. And one only need to go back to the second half of the Hornets game if they need a reminder. It’s just a matter of when Vogel, like he does when he makes a quick, drastic lineup and identity shift in games, decides he’s now seen enough to make those changes more permanent.

For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Darius on Twitter at @forumbluegold.

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