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Dwight Howard deserves to play over DeAndre Jordan. The Lakers just shouldn’t start him

Dwight Howard is clearly better than DeAndre Jordan, but that doesn’t mean that the Lakers should start him.

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Los Angeles Lakers v Sacramento Kings

On the heels of his strong performance vs. the Kings, it should be no surprise that Frank Vogel determined Dwight Howard — at least for the time being — provides him his best option to man the center position. Veiled quotes and inferences about defensive know-how aside, Dwight is simply the better all around player than DeAndre Jordan right now, and certainly the more active defender who generally plays with the higher motor between the two.

Howard replacing Jordan’s minutes will help the Lakers. What might come as a result of his deserved promotion, however, may not. Because, in leapfrogging Jordan in the lineup, Howard will start. Vogel announced that himself in Thursday’s media availability. That announcement, however, was made before the surprising report that LeBron James has cleared the NBA’s health and safety protocols and will be available to play on Friday vs. the Clippers.

We’ve not yet gotten an update from Vogel about whether that impacts Dwight’s status as a starter — LeBron had not been cleared yet when Vogel spoke to the media — but, in all honesty, it should.

Again, Dwight should certainly play over Jordan. And, if LeBron were still unavailable to play and tweeting about fish, I’d even endorse starting Dwight — particularly if it were with the reconfigured group that slammed the door shut on the Kings in the second half. However, with LeBron returning to the lineup, Vogel should continue the evolution he’s said his team is going through by returning Anthony Davis to the 5 spot, sliding LeBron up to PF, and then filling in the lineup around those two and Russell Westbrook with the right balance of shooting, playmaking, and defense.

The term spacing can be somewhat overused and misapplied to a team like the Lakers, who has so many rim-hunting players, they’d literally need Steph Curry and Klay Thompson on the floor to avoid teams from packing the paint on them. The Lakers need their shooters to make the defense pay for leaving them open, just as much as — if not more than — they need any spacing resulting from that shooting. But what Vogel cannot do is throw out lineups that allow defenses to pack the paint without even the potential of being hurt by shooters or, worse yet, continue to play lineups with such unreliable shooters that the remote possibility of them hurting the defense it is the exact tradeoff the opposition is willing to accept.

Playing Dwight with the Russ, LeBron, Davis trio pushes the Lakers fully in that direction. He’s simply too paint bound and, additionally, it forces LeBron and AD into the category of being part of the “spacing” solution, rather than the beneficiaries of that spacing. Plus, whatever defensive benefits you might get from those groups is, ultimately, countered by the challenges you are self-inflicting on your own offense. We’ve seen this with some of the better performing lineups that include DeAndre as well. At some point, you have to account for more variables than the ones you value most when constructing a lineup.

Los Angeles Lakers v Sacramento Kings
Dwight Howard has earned this chance to take over for DeAndre Jordan, but that doesn’t mean that the Lakers can continue to hamstring their offense to start big.
Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

Which leads me back to Dwight, why he’s deserving of this “promotion” into the being the other big man who plays behind (and with) AD, and what lineups he can be a part of to better help the Lakers win games. A look at the lineup data tells us a few things about what has worked and what hasn’t when Dwight is on the floor:

  1. Lineups where Dwight has been flanked by Russ and shooters have performed very well.
  2. These lineups often include Malik Monk, but Carmelo Anthony has also been prominently featured.
  3. Lineups where Dwight plays with LeBron have not been very successful this season.
  4. If you play Dwight along with AD and Russ, you absolutely need a combination of speed, shooting, and transition prowess in the other two players.

Consider that, per those same Cleaning the Glass numbers, lineups that have Russ and Dwight together, while LeBron and Bazemore (the latter of whom is out of the rotation now) are not on the floor have a +18.1 net rating overall, with an offensive rating of 118.1 and a defensive rating of 100 in a sample of around 135 minutes. I’m no mathematician or basketball coach, but that sounds good.

Now, if you filter for Russ/AD/Dwight on the floor, while, again LeBron or Bazemore are out, those lineups have a combined net rating of +26.4 with an offensive rating of 121.9 and a defensive rating of 95.5. The overall sample of these groups isn’t big (they’ve played around 30 minutes together), but the data there is very encouraging.

This isn’t to say that Dwight cannot play with LeBron, but it’s fairly clear that it shouldn’t happen when Russ is on the floor. In a small-ish sample of around 25 minutes, when LeBron and Dwight have shared the floor, but Russ has been out, the Lakers have a +6.3 net rating, but the success is almost entirely driven by the team’s offense (142.3 offensive rating in those minutes). This is a far cry from what you’d expect from LeBron-led groups with Dwight in the fold, particularly when taking into account how dominant defensively lineups featuring those two were in the Lakers title-winning team. That said, this is a new season where Bron has not yet been what he was defensively the previous two years. But I digress.

Ultimately, then, I’m landing in place where the conclusions are fairly straightforward and, honestly, encouraging based on the direction Vogel is going in based on the personnel he’s choosing to play. Now, though, it’s just a matter of grouping those players in lineups that offer the most balance on both sides of the ball.

In other words, I’m very happy that Dwight will be playing in place of Jordan. It just shouldn’t be in the starting role that Jordan vacated. Because, after all, if you’re already going to decide you’re only going to play one true center and have determined that lineups with LeBron at the 5 are going to be a nightly part of your plan, you might as well lean all the way into this identity from the outset of the game.

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.