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The Lakers have a ‘good problem’ at center

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In Montrezl Harrell, Andre Drummond and Marc Gasol, the Lakers have three good center options. Despite all the arguments about who is better, that’s not a bad thing.

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Denver Nuggets v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

In an increasingly small NBA, the Lakers are something of a rarity, boasting four players on their roster who could make a legitimate argument for center minutes in the playoffs. Marc Gasol, Andre Drummond and Anthony Davis are all traditionally sized centers, while the 6’7 Montrezl Harrell was a good enough small-ball option to win Sixth Man of the Year for the Clippers last season and has served as one of the most efficient finishers in the NBA this year.

On Monday night, their plethora of big man options was illustrated as Davis played his best game since returning from his Achilles injury while the Lakers used all three of their other center options, with Drummond (21), Harrell (9) and Gasol (17) all getting basically all of the team’s available burn at the five.

But while having four players with a legitimate case for postseason minutes at one position is a blessing...

“Those are what you call good problems for a coach,” Lakers head coach Frank Vogel said with a laugh on Monday night.

... they’re still problems, because there is a precisely zero percent chance that all four of those guys can play a role in every single playoff game. Frank Vogel has said repeatedly this season that he sees all three of Gasol, Harrell and Drummond playing a role in certain matchups — with Davis obviously playing no matter what — but thus far has mostly benched Gasol in favor of Drummond, with Monday night’s win over the Nuggets the first exception as Gasol got the majority of run down the stretch as Harrell and Drummond cheered from the bench.

All of that leads us to a bigger question: How large of a role will each center even have available in the postseason? Last year, Anthony Davis played 60% of his minutes at the five in the playoffs, according to Basketball-Reference, and in his other two postseason appearances for the Pelicans he played 100% and 54% of his minutes there, respectively. Let’s assume he’ll play 55% of his minutes there this postseason to meet between the lower two numbers and save himself some wear and tear. That leaves 21.6 minutes per game at center available. That’s not enough for even two other centers, let alone three.

This is the dilemma the Lakers will have to figure out in the postseason: How much will health and roster construction force them to limit Davis’ time at his best position? But for now, let’s take a look at the cases for and against postseason minutes for the Lakers’ other three centers.

Marc Gasol

Denver Nuggets v Los Angeles Lakers
Gasol was incredible in his matchup with presumptive MVP Nikola Jokic on Monday.
Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

The case for him to play: Gasol’s argument for more playing time is simple, and no, it’s not just “because Kyle Kuzma wants him to,” although a teammate taking the extremely rare step of coming out and demanding one player play over another member of the locker room certainly shouldn’t be ignored as part of Gasol’s case.

But the case for Gasol goes beyond his teammates recognizing his impact, it’s measurable with numbers, too. He has shot 40.5% from three this season, the second-highest percentage of any Laker to take more than 50 triples. Vogel has repeatedly said that Gasol’s primary utility for this team is in providing a spacing option and pulling centers like Utah Jazz All-Star Rudy Gobert away from the basket, but his impact also goes beyond shooting.

Gasol has been part of one of the best five-man lineups in the NBA this season, the Lakers’ original starting unit of himself, Anthony Davis, LeBron James, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Dennis Schröder that was blowing out opponents by 13.2 points per 100 possessions on the season, and is the only five-man grouping on the team to play more than 80 minutes together. The team is 2.7 points per 100 possessions better defensively when Gasol plays this season, and only 0.1 worse on offense. Over the last 10 games, they’ve been a whopping 38 points per 100 possessions better when Gasol has been on the floor than they have been when he sat, according to NBA.com.

In short, while he can look slow at times, more often than not Gasol’s brain moves quicker than his opponents’ limbs can, and he has generally made the Lakers better when he’s on the floor.

The case against him: During the regular season, Gasol not playing has mostly boiled down to the team trying to find more minutes to get Drummond integrated and adjusted to what they’re doing. Vogel admitted as much after the Nuggets game.

“Drum is the guy that is newest here,” Vogel said. “I think it’s important for him to get as many minutes as he can during this stretch to get comfortable with everything that we’re trying to do, to look at matchups and for us to figure out the best ways to utilize his skill set, because we’re going to need all three of those guys.”

In short: The Lakers have seen what Davis can do alongside Gasol over a pretty decent sample size. Now that want to see what he can do with Drummond. There is also the reality, one that Gasol acknowledged, that there are certain skills that he couldn’t have even brought the Lakers in his prime, much less now that he’s 36 years old.

“I’m not going to sit here and tell you the things that I can do that other guys can’t. There’s some things that they do that it’s impossible for me to do, it’s just physically impossible,” Gasol said. “I can try every day to catch lobs and be above the rim all night long, that’s just never been that way (for me). And there’s things I do that are a little bit different. But it’s about the team, and how we all put the priority and goal on winning. That’s it.”

He seems to have accepted that role, and shown he can help. It seems clear he’ll get minutes in the postseason, and that they will just come in the right matchup.

Andre Drummond

Denver Nuggets v Los Angeles Lakers
Andre Drummond hasn’t made a huge impact for the Lakers in either direction, despite what his fans and detractors will tell you.
Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

The case for him to play: Drummond is the most polarizing player to consume the Lakers community since Regular Season Rondo, with some insistent upon his value, with others positive he’ll never be able to make a difference. The truth, of course, lies somewhere in the middle.

I asked Frank Vogel specifically what types of advantages he sees Drummond giving them on the floor, and he said it’s mostly as a larger center who can roll to the basket, while Marc provides similar size with spacing.

“Those guys (Harrell and Drummond) are dynamic rollers and they open up a lot of things for our perimeter guys in that space,” Vogel said, adding that “obviously Drum’s ability to matchup with bigger centers — like Marc— are good matchups (for him).”

Drummond is also one of the best rebounders in NBA history, and could provide a great matchup advantage against undersized teams, bullying them on the glass to get extra possessions for an often-stagnant Lakers offense.

The case against him: For now, though, arguments like the one above are mostly theoretical, because the Drummond experiment has not exactly taken off in practice so far, although there has been larger context. It’s also important to note that the the Lakers have been in flux, with both their stars — and other key contributors — in and out of the lineup since Drummond joined the team, but he’s been at best a neutral factor so far.

Since Drummond signed, the Lakers have been outscored by 0.5 points per 100 possessions when he plays, and 0.4 when he sits, according to NBA.com. So for all the online flame wars his play has inspired, he’s mostly just existed rather than being the massive positive or negative his fans and detractors want him to be.

There is also the reality that Drummond — until Monday night — suffered from the struggles of Anthony Davis to reintegrate into the lineup and find his rhythm. Over the seven games since Davis has returned, Drummond and Davis have played 155 minutes together, the second-most of any two-man unit over that time. Drummond has only played 177 minutes total during that period, but while the Lakers have never been better when Davis sits and never worse than when he’s on the floor over that stretch, the team is still slightly better (+0.3 points per 100 possessions) when Drummond plays during those games than they have been when he sits.

So while Drummond’s mistakes can be loud and he has a tendency to make some weird decisions around the rim, he also does a lot of little things right. And that his net rating has survived despite Davis’ cratering is a testament that he’s been far from the Lakers’ biggest problem during this stretch.

Montrezl Harrell

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Los Angeles Lakers
Montrezl Harrell hanging on the rim has been a common sight in Lakers wins this season.
Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

The case for him to play: Harrell has been an invaluable burst of energy off the bench whose scoring at the bucket has helped the Lakers win a few games they had no business being in. The reigning Sixth Man of the Year is the team’s fourth-leading scoring at 13.7 points per game, their leading scorer off the bench, and ranks fifth in the entire league in field-goal percentage (62.7%), and making an astounding 74.6% of his buckets at the rim.

In short: Harrell is an almost astonishingly efficient scorer and voracious rebounder whose enthusiasm has been a bellwether for this team. Vogel also seems to have figured out where Harrell is most effective.

“Trezz’s ability to punish small-ball second units is probably the best way to use him,” Vogel said.

The case against him: Vogel’s philosophy when it comes to Harrell was on full display against the Nuggets, an opponent it might not be a stretch to say may have cost Harrell millions of dollars and his spot on the Clippers during last year’s playoffs. Harrell played all seven-games of that second-round matchup, and was roasted alive by Jokic to the point that the Clippers were 20.5 points per 100 possessions better when he sat in that series than when he played.

But it’s not Harrell’s fault that at 6’7 he can’t guard one of the biggest and most skilled players the NBA has to offer. He was, to some degree, left on an island and set up to fail by Doc Rivers. Vogel saved him from that treatment on Monday, giving us a glimpse at how Harrell might be more selectively used in matchups where he can succeed and mothballed in ones where he can’t. And if you don’t want to take my word for it, ask a Nuggets blogger:

But we also may be seeing glimpses that for all the Gasol vs. Drummond talk, it may be Harrell who is the odd man out in the rotation more often than not. Because for all he brings offensively, we’ve seen over Vogel’s time with the Lakers that defense is the far more important end of the floor to him, and since Drummond signed, not only have Harrell’s minutes started trending down, but he has also tailed off a bit, with the team 9 points per 100 possessions worse when he plays than they are when he’s on the bench over those 19 games, according to NBA.com. How much the Lakers need an undersized center whose primary value is scoring when LeBron James and Anthony Davis’ minutes go up during the postseason is also a matter of debate.

If the Lakers are trying to ratchet up their defense in the playoffs for as many minutes as possible, it’s not hard to see Vogel going with the two more proven options he has on that end when Davis is not the one playing the five. Harrell’s scoring can have value against the right teams, but his leash may be shorter if teams start picking on him at the other end.

So what is going to happen?

Utah Jazz v Los Angeles Lakers
Frank Vogel has some big decisions to make in the playoffs.
Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

The plan for the Lakers’ center position may not be such a mystery. Vogel has pretty continuously said the same thing about his three big men.

“They all have slightly different skill sets, but like I said, we’re gonna need all three,” Vogel said again on Monday.

And reading between the lines of what he’s said and his actions, we can take a pretty good guess at when the Lakers will use them. Vogel treats the regular season as one long science experiment, compiling as much data and testing as many hypotheses as possible. Right now, Drummond is getting more minutes because he’s who the Lakers have seen the least of in their system.

But when the playoffs roll around, we just saw last year how quickly Vogel is willing to pull his various available levers. Markieff Morris went from bit player to second-round starter when the team needed to go small. JaVale McGee went back and forth from starter to DNP-CD and back again. Dwight Howard went from not playing to primary Nikola Jokic defender. Alex Caruso got his first playoff start for an NBA Finals closeout game. Time and time again, Vogel watched the tape of the most recent game, went back through his mental rolodex of the sample sizes he used the regular season to compile, and went with what ended up being the best option.

Why is this relevant? Because again, we just went through all these same arguments last year. If the Lakers are healthy going into the postseason and have all their centers available, no matter who is starting right now, Vogel is going to go with the option he feels gives them the best chance to win. For Harrell, that may mean only playing against teams that aren’t primarily driven by bigs who can punish him off the floor. For Drummond, that could mean playing the majority of his minutes against undersized teams — hello, Brooklyn Nets — who his offensive rebounding is enough of an asset against to make up for his finishing issues. For Gasol, that may mean pulling bigger, rim-protecting centers away from the basket to create space for Davis and LeBron James to go to work.

But all the ink spilled, online arguments ignited and podcast airtime spent debating who should be getting the minutes at center now misses the point. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the approach, winning games now is not the Lakers’ primary goal. They’re charging up, trying not to overuse anyone and get a look at all their various options, and when Davis downsizes as the Lakers go death star mode, they won’t have that many center minutes available anyway. All of these three guys will become bit players, to a degree.

So with that in mind, having three good center options to fill the time that Davis doesn’t play there isn’t a bad thing. Because when the games really matter, it certainly appears like they’ll start playing the ones they feel like give them the best shot to win, no matter who it is.

This sponsored post was published according to our guiding principles. For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.