In the song “NASA” from her 2019 album “thank u, next,” when pop superstar Ariana Grande repeatedly trills “I’ma need space, I’ma need space” during the chorus, she was singing about a relationship, but she may as well have been philosophizing about the best ways to make LeBron James an effective basketball player as he approaches age 37. And, as the Lakers have discovered this season, playing him at center is one of the best ways to get him the space he needs to be effective in his 19th season.
Blog boys and podcasters like myself call them “LeBron-at-the-5” lineups. Head coach Frank Vogel calls them “center-less.” But whatever one’s chosen moniker is for groups where the Lakers open up the path to the rim by playing LeBron as their only big man alongside four shooters while asking him to captain the defense, it’s clear that such units are part of the team’s plans moving forward.
Vogel said as much earlier in the week after the Lakers used such groupings to great effect to close out the Detroit Pistons, even committing to use just one traditional center moving forward, benching DeAndre Jordan as a result. Those “center-less” groups didn’t fare quite as well in James’ most Friday loss to the LA Clippers, but in his first extended comments on such units, James was critical of himself in his return from health and safety protocols, but complimentary of the lineup concept as a whole.
“I’m able to bark out the commands,” James said of the defensive positives of lineups with him as the nominal center. “Besides tonight, where I was pretty shitty on the defensive end.
“But besides that, I get an opportunity to kind of tell the guys in front of me — because I’m the back line of the defense — I’m able to let them know exactly what’s coming, so we can kind of stay above everything that’s happening,” James continued. “I can see everything that’s developing.”
As a result of that ability to call out coverages, and because of the offensive benefits those units provide — both positives of the lineup concept that our own Alex Regla outlined well earlier on Friday — James sounds like he is on board with playing center more moving forward.
“It’s been pretty good for us this year when we’ve had myself and Melo at the 4 and the 5, besides those first five minutes of the fourth quarter (tonight), where I was pretty bad, that’s been a pretty good lineup for us, especially defensively,” James said. “But also, obviously, offensively because I have so much space and so many shot-makers on the floor.”
And for as critical as he was of his own defense in the fourth quarter, lineups with James and no other big man were still only outscored by 1 point total in a 4-point loss. Their defense in the final frame obviously didn’t work, but it’s not like they got blown off the floor, largely in part due to how much easier it was for those units to score as a result of how much space they had to operate.
So with James seemingly on board, the Lakers should continue to lean into the formula they’ve found; a group that gets James to both lock in defensively and gives him plenty of room to get to the basket on the other end. Even if it didn’t work as well against the Clippers as it has in the past, on balance, that’s likely to end up one of the team’s best lineup permutations this season. They’ve just gotta keep getting reps at it. Like Grande, James just needs space.