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LeBron James is showing how the Lakers can better optimize Anthony Davis at center

LeBron James’ success playing center can give both Anthony Davis and the Lakers a blueprint for how to better optimize AD at that spot when he returns from injury.

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Los Angeles Lakers v Detroit Pistons

A winding road of a search for a 3rd star, deliberate roster building via limited resources, too many injuries to count, COVID protocols, and the basketball gods offering unkind verdicts have brought the Lakers to where they currently are — a team under .500 and fighting to survive in the middle ground of a weakened Western Conference.

On every path traveled, however, lessons are learned. And for all the hype about the Lakers leaning into their new, no-big identity that literally and figuratively finds LeBron James at the center of it all, the stylistic shift the team is now embracing, as inevitable as it feels, comes while missing a pretty important piece to the puzzle.

Because while the Lakers have moved to an almost micro-ball team that deploys forwards as centers for nearly all the team’s minutes, there’s an actual center-sized superstar recovering from an MCL sprain just waiting to rejoin the roster. Sure, Anthony Davis has had his own historical hangups on shifting up to the 5 throughout his career, but by all accounts he was ready to plant his flag in the proverbial pivot for more minutes this season, and even seemed to accept the fact that he’d very likely be the starting center as training camp opened.

We can debate how good Davis has been this season — especially as the lone big man on the court — but as he watches from sidelines, my hope is that he, the Lakers’ coaching staff and his teammates see what’s working now with LeBron’s success in the middle, and try to find ways to replicate some of those ideas with AD when he’s back and available to play.

If there’s been one chief complaint about AD this season, it’s the number of possessions he uses to post up, and how often those possessions turn into jumpshots. But there’s a lot of factors and context to these possessions that we shouldn’t ignore, and the team can do better in trying to make these types of possessions easier for him (more on that later).

Still, Davis himself also needs to make his own life easier on these possessions. And a key way to do that is by taking a cue from LeBron’s playbook by doing his work earlier, before he catches the ball in order to create a better scoring chance:

Like the Nets do here with LeBron, teams will try to push AD further out on the floor and make his catch more difficult via three-quarter and fully fronting him to deny passing angles. As Bron does in the clip above, however, AD would be wise to leverage those attempts to deny the pass by attempting to root his man out of position and work in tandem with teammates reversing the ball in order to create a much easier entry pass and finish.

Now, I get that LeBron is a different sort of physical specimen with a lower center of gravity and more natural strength. That said, AD does have his own natural advantages vs. the types of players who defend him — namely quickness and speed. The reverse pivot that Bron employs to shed his man and gain an angle is very much the same type of movement that AD uses when spinning out of the post to catch lobs in his connections with Rajon Rondo (connections we may not see again this year).

So, while I don’t expect AD to always be able to get low and fend off his man the way LeBron does in the clip above, he can use his quickness to spin out of ball denials and then look to use his upper body strength and length to create passing angles where he can get easier finishes at the basket.

Utilizing these types of actions more could keep AD engaged via post touches, but diversify the types of actions the team is using to try to get him the ball. The hope would be to make these plays more quick-hitting, and avoid using too much clock as AD is battling for position, while also delivering the ball to him in better spots on the floor to promote easier finishes.

Another area where I think Bron’s play can serve as an example for AD is in the screen game, and specifically in the combination of how wide LeBron gets when setting his picks, and then how quickly he has been getting out of his screens and into his dives to the basket.

This is a simple, but great example of how Bron gets wide, holds his position, and then gets downhill quickly to make himself available for a quick pass from Russ to finish. AD can too often try to get totally underneath the defender he’s trying to screen, and either not get a good enough screen or — when he does make good enough contact — linger for too long and not get into his roll fast enough to be a threat on the dive.

Here, too, is another example of how to get in and out of the screen quickly, ultimately slipping the action to get downhill and to the front of the rim for a quick score. Of course, slipping isn’t an every-play option, but it becomes much more viable when you’re mostly setting the types of solid screens referenced in the previous clip.

Of course, it’s not just on Anthony Davis to make a bunch of changes while the coaches and his teammates simply try to do the same things they were doing with him before he was injured. Don’t get me wrong, AD was super productive and was having more success than his most vocal critics would admit, but even in acknowledging that, by looking at some of the ways they’ve tried to optimize LeBron at the 5 lineups, they can apply those same strategies to Davis in order help him be even better too.

For example, I’d love for AD to spend more of his time as the center in lineups that offer better spacing and shooting around him. Per Cleaning the Glass, AD, Bron, and Russ have shared the floor (without Dwight and DeAndre in the game) for 345 possessions. Of those possessions, the top-two lineups used have THT and Bradley (74 possessions) and THT and Bazemore (73 possessions) as the other two players on the court with them. Sharpshooters, they are not.

Compare this to lineups where LeBron and Russ share the court without any of the team’s bigs on the floor, and it’s not until the fourth-most used lineup where you’ll find two “non-shooters” in Bradley and Stanley Johnson in the same lineup, the most-used group that comes close to mirroring the congested floor AD has had to deal with regularly this season.

Too often, then, it feels like Davis is looked at as the spacing solution for his teammates, rather than benefitting from some of the lineups that could include real shooting threats. I get that AD at the 5 is going to be ideal for the groups with Bron and Russ sharing the floor with him, but can more of those lineups be filled out with the Melo’s, Monk’s, Ellington’s, and Reaves’ of the team rather than the Bradley’s and THT’s?

Further, I think the players who share the floor with AD need to make a more concerted effort to support him in the paint and on defense in the same ways that they’ve been trying to support LeBron. There’s no metric or stat I can point to, but from watching this team regularly, it feels like when AD is in the game there is a sense that he’ll clean up any mess around the rim for anyone. That if someone is beat off the dribble, he’ll contest the shot. That if there’s a missed shot, he’ll secure the rebound. That if there’s a loose ball, he’ll win the scramble for it. That because he’s the size of a traditional big, that he’s going to handle all the big man stuff.

Fact is, though, that playing a smaller group or taking on the stylistic approach the team is going to thrive at means that all the players on the team need to take on the responsibility of supporting the paint and playing a bit “bigger” than they are in order to be able to succeed. And that’s true whether your center is LeBron or AD. It also doesn’t absolve that lone “big” from doing those things. They just need a bit of help from their teammates.

Which brings me back to Davis himself. While he has had his moments of being excellent, he’s not been as dominant as we know he can be on a night-to-night basis. And, if he’s going to be the team’s primary big man when he returns — and all signs point to that being the case — he needs to channel the parts of his game that make him one of the best bigs in the world.

We know he has it in him. We’ve seen him do it at the highest level in the NBA Finals, when the stakes were the difference between being a champion or not. So, when he returns, he needs to come back with the mindset that he’s going to be that guy again. And when he does, both he and the team can take a couple of cues from what is working for the lineups when LeBron is manning the 5 in order to help him get there.

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.