Since the NBA Playoffs started for the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday, the cries from their fans for Anthony Davis to spend more time at center have only gotten louder, and understandably so.
Last postseason, the Lakers overwhelmed teams with the versatility they unlocked by playing Davis at center. There’s also a mutual understanding between Davis and Frank Vogel that, once the playoffs start, he has to play the 5 more. In the regular season, he’s not as willing.
However, just because the Lakers are better with Davis at center doesn’t mean they’re bad with him at his preferred position, power forward. In fact, some of their most successful lineups in their win over the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday came with Davis at the 4. Chief among them was the starting lineup.
In the 14 minutes they played together on Tuesday, the starting unit of Dennis Schröder, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, LeBron James, Davis and Drummond posted an offensive rating of 125.9, a defensive rating of 88.9 and a net rating of +37.0. In three of the five games they’ve played together, they’ve posted a net rating greater than +9.0.
The second-most successful lineup with Davis at the 4 on Tuesday was almost the same starting lineup, except Kyle Kuzma replaced Kentavious Caldwell-Pope at shooting guard. That lineup, in their first appearance together, posted a net rating of +33.3 in the three minutes they played together.
Neither of the lineups with Davis at the 4 were as effective as the three-guard lineup with him Schröder, Caruso, Caldwell-Pope and James that ultimately won the Lakers the game, but that’s not the point — the point is that the Lakers, statistically, aren’t losing games when Davis and Drummond are on the floor. They’ve been just good enough. That, in and of itself, is a win.
Assuming Davis and Drummond can keep their momentum going, Gasol and Harrell will be relegated to reserve-type roles at least for the remainder of this series, which might not be the worst thing for both of them, Gasol especially.
In his playoff debut for the Lakers on Tuesday, Gasol was a -4 in the box score because, in the second half, the Suns’ guards made him protect the rim and DeAndre Ayton made him pay almost every time he took his eyes off of him. He also struggled in transition, where the Suns hurt the Lakers the most in Game 1.
Gasol wasn’t completely ineffective, though. In the mid post, he did a good job of making sure that Devin Booker didn’t get any easy pull-up jumpers from inside the 3-point line.
Hey look Marc Gasol doing Marc Gasol things on defense. If you know you know. pic.twitter.com/IkzIO3Cc9G— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) May 26, 2021
Gasol also created more space for the Lakers on offense, which not only led to him draining a pair of 3-pointers, but it also led to James driving the ball more. Gasol and James had a net rating of +3.2 in the 11 minutes they played together on Tuesday. Alone, Gasol was a -16.1..
When James was on the bench, Gasol provided the Lakers with reliable secondary playmaking. Those are all things that could swing the series in the Lakers’ favor, even if it’s only in limited spurts.
Harrell’s fit is a little less clear because of how much the Lakers have valued staying big against the Suns, but he’s shown that he can bring something to this series, particularly when Phoenix goes small with Dario Saric.
In Game 1, Harrell scored 4 points and created 8 team points in the 2 minutes that Saric was his primary defender. Harrell ended the game with 12 points on 80% shooting from the field, 3 rebounds and 2 steals. He was also one of four Lakers to post a positive plus-minus in Game 1. Caruso, James and Talen Horton-Tucker were the others.
Harrell didn’t play in Game 2, but that could change now that Vogel has an idea of where each of his centers fit in this series. It might not be the 18.7 minutes per game he got in the postseason last year, but given how he did with such a big role last season, maybe that’s for the best.
The good news is that there are very few ways Vogel can play this wrong without making an egregious decision like playing three centers at once. All three of Drummond, Gasol and Harrell can be difference-makers in some capacity against the Suns. And if all else fails, Vogel can deploy Davis at center with the knowledge that it’s going to work more often than not.
Having a four-center rotation may not work for every team — it might not even work for the Lakers. But it’s undeniable that the talent is there and that they have the pieces to make it work, whether it’s in this series or, if they play their cards right, next series.
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