When Lakers head coach Frank Vogel called his first center off the bench on Saturday against the Mavericks in Dallas, his choice was a bit of a shock, as instead of reigning Sixth Man of the Year Montrezl Harrell trotting over the scorer’s table to replace Andre Drummond, it was Marc Gasol, who had sat out the last three games, ostensibly with a finger injury, but for all intents and purposes as a DNP-CD.
The result? Basically the same as the team’s prior game against the Mavericks that Harrell played in (also a loss), but for Vogel, it was a chance to see how both of his prospective backup centers looked against this type of team as he prepares to make on-the-fly adjustments to the rotation in the playoffs.
“(I’m) keeping all three centers sharp,” Vogel said of the reasoning behind his decision. “You’ve got a back-to-back situation with Dallas, and I’m giving each guy a look and seeing how those guys look in this matchup. But like I’ve said, we believe in all three centers and we need to keep all three centers sharp.”
Vogel had hinted at this change prior to the game — even if we didn’t know it at the time — when he said that a priority over the Lakers’ final games of the season would be to get everyone on the team some playing time so that every player on the roster could be “sharp and available” heading into the postseason. That’s borne out in his rotation decisions over the last several matchups, most notably — prior to the Gasol/Harrell swap — with Wesley Matthews in and out of the rotation despite being healthy.
“We’re playing to win,” Vogel said. “We believe in all of our guys, and there is a theme to make sure all of our guys are staying sharp and in rhythm as we get into the playoffs.”
Harrell did not speak to the media after the game because players who don’t play aren’t made available, but Vogel said he handled the change professionally.
“Yeah he was great. He sees the big picture and what we’re trying to get accomplished,” Vogel said. “He was great with it. He understood.”
Still, it’s not an easy situation to be in, something the always-unfiltered Gasol acknowledged after his return to the lineup.
“It’s not an ideal situation for anybody,” Gasol said. “I’ve just been in that situation and not played for a few games, and nobody likes that. But it’s whatever the coach wants us to do, and we’re going to try and execute and do it the best possible, and stay ready and work the days that you don’t have a game, where you’re not planning to play.
“But it’s not ideal. As players, you always like to know the consistency of when you’re going to play, how you’re going to play,” Gasol continued. “But we have a very deep team, and if coach wants to play three guys, or two guys for one spot, it’s going to take a lot of buying in.”
Gasol isn’t the only player to feel the squeeze of such a deep team. Earlier this season, Matthews acknowledged that talks with Vogel about being in or out of the rotation are “never going to be easy,” but praised Vogel for the way he communicated the decision. Others, like veteran Markieff Morris, have been even more candid, admitting on multiple occasions that it was “tough” to hear he was out of the rotation and that both he and Matthews were “emotional” while it was all going on, even if they tried to see the bigger picture.
All of those feelings are human nature for a locker room full of competitive pros. For example, even though Gasol has said he’s “committed” to the team no matter how many minutes he plays, that is clearly easier in theory than in practice, and some of the frustration he’s been forthright about feeling was on full display when he was asked how much notice Vogel gives him about being in or out of the rotation.
“You guys are asking the wrong guy. It’s coach’s decision, it’s coach’s call,” Gasol said. “You never know. As a player you try to stay ready all the time, kind of do the same things that you do to prepare yourself if you’re going to play a lot, but sometimes it doesn’t go that way.”
Gasol paused briefly to smile and chuckle, before cracking a joke in his characteristic deadpan.
“Don’t ask me, I just work here,” Gasol said.
If there is anyone who can relate to what Gasol is going through right now, it might be Kyle Kuzma. The fourth-year forward may not have had Gasol’s championship pedigree when he joined the Lakers, but he got a similar taste of how one’s role can yo-yo on a winning team last season, his first where he wasn’t a focal point on the Lakers and instead had to morph into a complementary player. He said this year’s minutes crunch can’t be any easier for the guys who are feeling it.
“I mean it sucks, at the end of the day. We’re all competitors and we all want to be out on the court for 48 minutes. That’s just how you are if you’re a competitor. If you don’t want to then I would never want a player on my team like that,” Kuzma said.
Still, the Lakers have bigger goals than everyone getting the minutes they feel they deserve.
“I think it’s all about sacrifice. That’s something I really learned about last year,” Kuzma admitted. “Something that I struggled with last year. I was hard on myself and down a little bit, but I had great teammates that stuck with me and I figured it out, so now is not the time to be harping on yourself.
“If you don’t play, you don’t play, just cheer on your teammate. We’re trying to win championships right now. That’s the window that we’re in and it’s at all costs. If you don’t play, then you don’t play.”
That’s easier for the guy getting the fourth-most minutes on the team to say than it is for guys going back in forth from DNP-CD’s to meaningful playing time, but Kuzma is also right. And whether or not he, the team’s leadership and Vogel can make sure everyone else on the roster is on the same page with that mindset will be a major factor in their championship chase. Vogel got both of his centers on the same page last year as they went in and out of the lineup during the run to the NBA Finals. He’ll need to do the same thing with three guys if the Lakers are going to be able to repeat.