Though the Los Angeles Lakers have gone through many changes since Frank Vogel took over as head coach in 2019, one thing has remained mostly unchanged: Vogel’s insistence on playing a traditional center next to Anthony Davis.
Through three seasons with the Lakers, Davis has spent 63% of his minutes at the 4, which is 18% more than what he spent in seven seasons with the New Orleans Pelicans. Davis certainly did his part in making sure that was going to be the case when he expressed his desire to play the 4 at his introductory press conference with the Lakers in 2019, but he reiterated on Monday that the position he plays is ultimately up to Vogel.
“When I’m at the 5 and LB is at the 4, then we can switch all over the floor: all pick and rolls pin-downs, whatever, we just switch it,” Davis said. “(The big lineup) worked good for us tonight. DJ with his vertical spacing and his rim protection.”
Davis says his role only changes “a little bit” if he’s at the 4 or the 5.
“I think my two threes came when DJ was at the 5 because I play on the perimeter, and let him be down there. We don’t want two bigs in the paint when these guys are attacking,” Davis said. “When I’m at the 5 ... then Melo is usually the other guy out there who is spacing the floor. So it just all depends on what we’re looking for. I think both have helped us win games this year, and it’s up to coach to decide what he wants to continue to go with.”
In Vogel’s defense, he led the Lakers to the best record in the Western Conference — and eventually an NBA championship — with a two-center rotation in 2019-20, but the luxury of being able to move Davis to center also played a huge role in the team’s success in his first season. Now, with Russell Westbrook in the fold, playing at Davis at center is more of a necessity than a luxury for the Lakers.
In 186 minutes, the two-man pairing of Davis and DeAndre Jordan has posted a net rating of -4.7. The most-used lineup — a five-man group of Westbrook, Kent Bazemore, LeBron James, Davis and Jordan — has posted a net rating of -7.0, while the second-most used two-big lineup — Westbrook, Avery Bradley, Bazemore, Davis and DeAndre Jordan — has posted a net rating of -19.1.
Bazemore has been almost completely phased out of the rotation, and the two-big lineups have looked better since James returned from injury, but even when it “works,” the Lakers still play like the worst offensive team in the NBA with Davis and Jordan on the floor, and that’s not hyperbole. Their offensive rating, even with James, would be the worst in the league at 98.3.
Comparatively, lineups with Westbrook, James, Davis and Carmelo Anthony have shown promise. In the 51 minutes they’ve played together, they’ve posted a net rating of +5.6 and it’s worth noting that they, as a group, haven’t played a single minute with Jordan or any center for that matter.
Now, a +5.6 net rating isn’t anything worth writing home about, especially when compared to some of the other four-man lineups in the NBA, but center-less lineups have generally worked well for the Lakers. Plus, that net rating is pretty consistent with Jordan’s individual on/off numbers — that’s probably not a coincidence.
It’s possible that there will be matchups where a two-big lineup would put the Lakers at an advantage, but it’s hard to imagine that the starting center they have in place currently, or with the spacing they have around their big three. In other words, if it truly is Vogel’s call alone to make, then Davis should be the Lakers’ full-time starting center, or at least close to it.