Over the last several weeks, Lakers fans have been consumed by debates over the relative merits of Marc Gasol and Andre Drummond. But it’s not just an argument taking place outside of the team. In case it wasn’t clear to everyone that the Lakers are very much deliberating the same question themselves, Kyle Kuzma left no doubt after the team’s Sunday night loss to the Toronto Raptors.
While he didn’t mention Drummond, Kuzma, like many Lakers fans and people who watch the team, believes Gasol should be playing more than he currently is, and it’s hard not to put two and two together given who Gasol was benched to make room for.
“I don’t know, man. It’s just very tough. It’s an unfortunate situation. Obvious we’ve got guys that are unhealthy. It’s tough, man; it’s just tough. I’m not sure what to do,” Kuzma said. “I wish we could get a little more time out there with Marc. That would be something that would be good for us, for sure, but it’s tough because we’ve got a lot of different situations and a lot of things going on around us.”
There is certainly a case to be made that Kuzma is right. For one thing, the Lakers’ original starting unit featuring Gasol, Anthony Davis, LeBron James, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Dennis Schröder is outscoring opponents by 13.2 points per 100 possessions on the season. If it wasn’t broken, why fix it? They were blowing away the league with that group until injuries hit, and were doing so over a pretty decent sample size of 281 minutes. For context, no other five-man unit has played more than 80 minutes for the Lakers, according to NBA.com.
The problem? Since Drummond was signed, Gasol has only played 152 minutes, less than half of the 327 minutes Drummond has gotten. Gasol didn’t even play in their most recent loss to the Raptors that prompted Kuzma’s comments.
Still, for all the online flame wars the decision to prioritize Drummond over Gasol has inspired — and now, disgruntled comments from an actual Laker coming down as part of #TeamMarc — the team has been 2.7 points per 100 possessions better with Drummond on the floor than they are when he sits, according to NBA.com, compared to 2 points per 100 possessions for Marc. We can argue about these matchups theoretically, but at least with the groupings the Lakers have had, Drummond has not necessarily been the problem.
In fact, so much as the Lakers have had a big man problem, it hasn’t been Drummond or Gasol lately. It’s been Anthony Davis, who over the six games since he returned from injury has led the Lakers to a 1-5 record while shooting 39.4% from the field. During the time since Davis returned, the Lakers have been a whopping 26.8 points per 100 possessions better when Davis sits than they are when he plays. Davis is a star, and he’ll likely be better as he gets his legs back under him — and if he isn’t, the Lakers are done anyway — but for now, it’s been rough.
And despite playing 133 of his 156 minutes with Davis, Drummond has been good enough during his non-Davis minutes that the Lakers are only getting outscored by 0.1 points per 100 possessions when he plays (compared to Davis’ -14.9), vs. 8.9 when he sits, nearly the same as the -8.3 off-court net rating the Lakers have posted when Gasol sits over that time. By contrast, Gasol has played just four minutes with Davis during this recent slump, and as a result has an on-court net rating of 34.7. The Lakers have been good when he plays for sure, but part of the larger context of that stat is that he is not playing with a star who is massively struggling in a high-usage role.
So should Gasol be playing more in the postseason? Probably, depending on matchups. But it’s also not entirely clear yet that the Drummond/Davis pairing can’t work if Davis just starts playing better. But at least if he doesn’t, and the Lakers decide that part of his struggles are due to the presence of Drummond, they have a dominant starting lineup with Gasol in their back pocket, ready to unleash if they decide that Drummond is better served in a bench role. Frank Vogel has repeatedly said that he wants to use all three of his centers in the postseason. Soon we’ll get to see how serious he was.