All season long, the Lakers and Anthony Davis have said the same things, in lockstep on their message about where their shared priorities lie when it comes to keeping Davis healthy enough to play the team’s best lineups. Davis was willing to play center when necessary, but to a greater degree than even last year, the team didn’t want to overtax him there during the regular season, and also had a desire to see what their other center options could do alongside Davis.
“If I need to play the five, you guys know I will. I have no problem with that come playoff time,” Davis said.
That’s great news for a Lakers team that is facing what head coach Frank Vogel has continuously called “a good problem” at center, but exists as a problem nonetheless. The team has Montrezl Harrell, Marc Gasol and Andre Drummond all exclusively playing the position Davis played 60% of his minutes at last postseason after spending just 40% of his time there during the 2019-20 regular season.
It’s a fair bet that Davis’ percentage of playing time at the five will go up again during the 2021 playoffs, and likely see a significant rise from the 10% of his minutes Basketball-Reference estimates he spent there during the regular season this year.
But during the minutes Davis isn’t playing center, the Lakers will have to determine which of the Harrell/Gasol/Drummond trio fits best next to him. I asked Davis about how each of those players help him, and he spoke for a few minutes about the different merits of each frontcourt partner.
“I think Drum just brings that physicality. He gets us extra possessions. He’s able to duck in, be that lob threat, kind of like that Blake/DeAndre thing a couple years back with the Clippers, that vertical spacing,” Davis said of the current fellow starter he’s played 289 minutes with. During Davis and Drummond’s time together, the Lakers have been outscored by 3.4 points per 100 possessions.
Davis has spent quite a bit more time with Gasol (471 minutes), and the numbers paint a prettier picture for that pairing, albeit with the necessary context that most of Gasol and Davis’ time together came when the Lakers were closer to whole than they have been since Drummond joined the team. Still, lineups featuring the purple and gold’s original starting frontcourt duo have destroyed opponents, outscoring them by 11.1 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com.
Davis sees the merits of that pairing.
“Marc spreads the floor. Now there’s no big that can help when I get to the basket, when I have a post-up or anything like that. Now it’s a small that’s coming to double that I can shoot right over the top (of), or if I do have a 1-on-1 post-up I’m able to have all the space in the paint to make a move for myself or make a play for someone else,” Davis said.
By the end of tonight’s play-in game, it’s likely that Harrell will be the center Davis has spent the least time with, as their 292 minutes as a pairing so far this season is only 3 more total minutes than Davis has spent with Drummond in 19 fewer appearances. But lineups with Davis and Harrell have also been a net positive, outscoring opponents by 2.1 points per 100 possessions.
“Trezz man, he’s just everywhere. Trezz is everywhere,” Davis said, sounding almost in awe of the electricity the reigning Sixth Man of the Year brings every time he steps on the floor. “He brings that energy. That offensive rebounding, we can throw it to him in the post and now I can space, you know?”
“So it’s good having all three guys out there, they all bring a different dynamic to our team,” Davis finished. “They’re all going to be helpful for us down the stretch.”
But will the Lakers have had enough time to evaluate all three of those pairings to see which one works best? Will the three duos have had enough minutes on the court together to gel despite their limited playing time?
Davis is optimistic.
“Obviously we don’t get a lot of game reps because the rotation is always changing depending on the matchup and the game,” Davis said, but added that he, Drummond, Harrell and Gasol are “constantly talking” to each other.
“When I’m on the bench, or during the time I wasn’t playing and they were playing, we constantly were in talks about our spots on the floor and what they feel like, what I like to see when I have the ball, when they have the ball, what I like to do to get open. Passing, the high-low, all those things,” Davis continued. “It makes it a lot easier when you’re constantly talking to each other and trying to figure things out.”
The other thing that will make things easier for the Lakers in the end, however, is that they have the best center in the league masquerading as a power forward, saving his energy at his most effective position for when it really matters. Davis had a banged-up regular season to forget, but he sounds ready for another postseason to remember, and to remind the rest of the league of what the Lakers look like when they play him as the longest and most versatile “small-ball” center in the NBA.
“It’s the coach’s adjustment, and it also depends on how well guys are playing,” Davis said. “But if I need to play the five, then I have no problem with sliding down to the five.”
In the end, that may make which center he fits best with irrelevant. Because really, the best center in a lineup with Davis is Davis himself.
Finally healthy and ready for the playoffs, he’s ready to show it.