At this stage of an illustrious career that’s seen him win enough accolades to fill up not just shelves, but entire rooms, there’s not much left LeBron James can do that is surprising.
For over 19 seasons, James has been the constant in a fluctuating league that has seen changes in everything from the most popular playing styles, to the rules, and even the actual basketball itself. In contrast to the ever-evolving game, fans have become preconditioned and programmed to recognize what James does on the floor, how he does it and what it looks like on a nightly basis.
His 27-7-7 stat-line could be confidently written in sharpie before tip-off, his slew of pet moves are nearly muscle memory now for viewers’ eyes at home, and his lead playmaker role on the floor is all but vacuumed sealed.
This stability is exactly why whenever there is even the slightest alteration to his play or utilization, there is immediately a sense of discovery to be had. Seeing something new from James at this stage, when we’ve watched him for nearly two decades, is the basketball equivalent of finding a $20 at the bottom of the couch, or learning that the VCR in the attic had a secret function to play Blu-ray Discs all along.
Fortunately, one such kernel of newness has already appeared this season, but not necessarily in the form of how James has played. Rather it’s been where he’s played — specifically at center.
After previously spending most of his career at both forward spots, James’ recent utilization as the Lakers’ back-up big is something he’s seldom been tasked with. His previous career-high in center minutes came back in 2018, where just a mere 3% of his possessions came at the position.
So this is a big change. But it’s one the Lakers have needed.
“I think everything is on the table with this year’s team and the newness of our group,” Frank Vogel said after James played as the sole big in the final 10:23 of the team’s overtime win against the Indiana Pacers. “Obviously the first look at it in a bigger (sample) — more than a minute or two — was really good.”
Although there have only been 32 minutes of James at center thus far, the early results have continued to be eye-opening, as the team has not only posted a net rating of +17.6 during these lineups, but have also shown glimpses of being able to fix multiple, ongoing, on-court issues. Chief among them being the hinderances that have come on both ends via the near-constant shuffling of their big-man rotation this year.
Defensively, DeAndre Jordan has looked not just one, but two steps slow, and when not in foul trouble, Dwight Howard’s minutes have waxed and waned all season.
On offense, with the acquisition of Russell Westbrook, the Lakers’ spacing limitations were almost always going to be an issue at times, one which has only been compounded further by Vogel’s previous insistence on continuing to start Jordan (the Lakers are a -8.4 points per 100 possessions when Jordan is on the floor) next to Anthony Davis.
The deployment of multiple non-shooters has, as expected, created even more congestion in the paint. It’s been one of the key reasons for the club’s woeful 23rd ranked offensive rating (106.7).
With James at center however, the team has posted an offensive rating of 123.6 (Utah leads the league at 117.3) as the floor immediately opened in thanks to opposing players having to plant themselves outside of the restricted area and keep tabs on James at all times. And one of the biggest beneficiaries of this thus far hasn’t been James. It’s been Westbrook.
Clearly mimicking the five-out lineup formation the Houston Rockets tinkered and found success with during Westbrook’s tenure, James has served as a sort of Super Shredder proxy of PJ Tucker within these lineups. This has allowed the point-guard the extra space to roam and attack he needs to thrive, and thrive he has as he is shooting 63.6% (7/11) from the field during these minutes.
James himself has also seen the dividends that come with the absence of a seven-footer occupying the dunker spot or multiple defenders camping in the paint, shooting 57% from the field as a center with more streamlined drives and rim-runs he would normally have to share with one of his bigs.
Through his ability to operate out of the elbow, or by simply creating numbers advantages by virtue of who he is, the team’s half-court offense has also noticeably flowed better with players being able to cut freely and defensive slip-ups resulting in quality 3-Point looks which they've converted (68.3% true shooting).
When he’s not on the ball, James has served as a screen setter in the half court where he can be utilized as a play finisher instead of feeder. It’s a rare opportunity for a player who has had to have the ball in his hands to create plays for nearly his entire career, but James can now fill in as a dynamic target the team’s guards could pitch to for easier buckets.
One of the other inherent benefits of these lineups is the uptick in pace it creates. With multiple ball-handlers and grab-and-go options, the team has already poured in 14 fast break points and has a blistering 45.5% transition frequency (Toronto leads the league at 35.6%) off live misses during LeBron at center minutes, according to Cleaning the Glass.
“There is a lot more space for Russ. Bron has a lot more space as a roller going to the basket, which was effective and we just have more switchability on the defensive side of the ball,” Frank Vogel said of the center-less minutes following the team’s win over the Pistons. “I do think that’s something we’re going to grow and will be a part of our team going forward.”
On the defensive end, as Vogel alluded to, the team’s improved foot-speed without a traditional big on the floor has added the ability to cover far more ground and switch at a higher and more effective rate as well.
One could also argue that James having to play center instinctually forces him to be more active on that end as well, serving as the team’s primary back-line where his level of communication and engagement is essential for success. The former something he’s already referenced, citing his ability to “call all the coverages before teams even get into it,” and how that can help more when he plays center.
But for all the positives that LeBron playing the 5 offers, there are limitations that naturally will — and have — arisen. While the aforementioned defense has proved capable of holding up so far during their stints (106.1 defRTG), aspects like relying on the team’s mostly small/inconsistent backcourt players to hold their own in switches and at the point of the attack will likely lead to some slippage eventually.
This potential collapse will also magnify what will likely be an ongoing issue of keeping the opposition off the glass, as much of the onus will be on individuals to not only make their rotations and nail their low-man responsibilities, but also to box-out against bigger competition.
One of the other potential downsides of playing James at center is the potential wear and tear that comes with having to check opposing bigs, and also exert more energy as the team’s linebacker on defense. Those are factors Vogel has already said the team will “measure” when it comes to dose/workload.
And while those are definitely valid concerns, especially for the soon-to-be 37-year-old who has already missed 12 games this season, a case could easily be made that the pros outweigh the cons. Especially when considering aspects like the alternative of playing more suboptimal units, and also the knowledge that the minutes will mostly come against opposing back-up bigs or units, whom often do not have the skillsets or explosiveness to exploit James or the group’s weaknesses. Or, potentially more importantly, to make him work a ton as a defender on post-ups, or attack him with those sets to tire him out.
On offense, the potential energy trade off that James may exert on defense/rebounding could be made up by simply having less of the burden that typically comes in other lineups where he has to force his will inside against a crowd of defenders, and will instead be put in positions to either catch and finish or attack in open space.
As the season continues to progress, the concept of optimization feels like it will be critical for the Lakers in particular to reach their potential. There are several lineup configurations and player combinations the coaching staff will have at their disposal, but finding and playing the right ones has already proven to often be the difference in winning or losing.
History suggests that James playing a hefty amount of minutes at center the rest of the way should likely not be expected, but there is also enough to suggest it won’t be just a novelty, either. It’s instead inching closer to being an effective staple of the team’s gameplan.
James at center is undoubtedly something out of the ordinary, and will take some time to getting used to. Yet, as is often displayed in the twilight of players’ careers, things change. And James is proving that even the sport’s constant can change too, perhaps for the better.
So the scene may look the same, the ball up top, the floor spread. But this time, it may be James who is rolling hard after setting a screen for a teammate. Then the eventual pass will come — and with a now-open lane in front of him — we know what happens next, because he has taught us so many times before.