It feels like all of us spent almost all of the previous NBA season in an ongoing online blood feud over the best options for the Lakers at center. Was it Marc Gasol? Montrezl Harrell? Andre Drummond? And where in Temecula should we meet to fight if you disagree?
The real answer, of course, is that when it mattered, Anthony Davis was always going to play the five, with James alongside him at the four in small-ball units that have always wrecked teams. That look dominated again in the playoffs — outscoring the Suns by nearly 30 points per 100 possessions — before Davis strained his groin and essentially ended the Lakers’ season. But with a full offseason to recover, it sounds like both he and James might be more open to playing their most effective positions in the future, and that the Lakers are constructing their roster with that context in mind.
How do we know this? Well, during his latest dispatch on the current trade rumors surrounding Ben Simmons, legendary NBA insider Marc Stein reported on his Substack (subscribe here!) that the Lakers want to add more playmaking because they’re looking to play both James and Davis up a position more often next season:
Yet it’s worth noting that inevitable rumbles of Lakers interest would not merely emanate from Simmons’ status as a Paul client like LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Word is that the Lakers, on top of their well-chronicled need for more shooting, covet one more difference-making playmaker who would allow James and Davis to spend more time at power forward and center.
Expect to eventually hear of them searching for potential pathways, however obstacle-strewn they would be, to reacquiring restricted free agent-to-be Lonzo Ball for that reason.
Obviously eventual Lonzo Ball rumors are one thing, but let’s react to the most iron-clad and significant part of this: No matter which point guard or playmaker the Lakers eventually pursue and/or add, this represents a significant shift in thinking for the organization. Over the last several seasons, we’ve seen Rob Pelinka and the front office stock the roster with centers and power forwards so that James and Davis don’t have to play those positions more than they want to. If they are now proceeding like both will do so more, that might be more consequential than any outside addition they could make.
Why? Well, to put it simply, because the Lakers are hilariously good when James and Davis play the 4 and 5, respectively. Per Cleaning the Glass, the Lakers were 11.8 points per 100 possessions better when Davis played the 5 than they were when he was at the 4. And for as much talk and debate as there has been over Davis’ true position, it’s actually LeBron who sees the most ridiculous uptick in production when playing up a slot in the lineup, as the Lakers’ net rating is a hysterical 20 points per 100 possessions better (!!!) when he’s at the 4 than it is when he plays the 3, per CTG.
It turns out the real Lineup of Death is just LeBron, roasting hapless power forwards he is likely both quicker and stronger than.
If the Lakers are planning on playing both players more often at their most effective positions more next season, that will certainly make them — and the team — a whole lot better. The only real counter-concern and thing that might stop them from doing it full-time is the potential wear-and-tear associated with that change. I’m not a doctor, so I don’t know how to weigh the pluses and minuses of these choices, or how big of a factor health may become in their thinking, but it is worth thinking about when considering why they might not do this as often as those of us who don’t have to guard large, nearly 300-pound men multiple times a week might like.
The other amusing note here is how the player Stein describes is almost literally just “Dennis Schröder,” who the Lakers traded for last summer with much of the same idea in mind. In a shortened season, that acquisition translated more to Schröder bearing a ton of the playmaking burden while James and Davis were out, while they continued to play down at their preferred positions when healthy to save themselves wear-and-tear in a shortened, expedited season. Still, perhaps with a long, long offseason between now and the 2021-22 campaign, James and Davis are getting ready to gear up to guard bigger players and inflict pain with mismatches on the other end, ideally while getting two more shooters on the floor with them and the potentially re-signed Schröder.
Or maybe Lonzo Ball. Who knows.
Now, it’s worth noting that for now, much of this is a hypothetical exercise. Stein is as plugged in as NBA reporters come, but we won’t truly know how the Lakers will approach adding to their roster — and what positions those choices will push James and Davis to play — until they actually make their moves on the trade market and in free agency. Still, in the dead of the offseason, this certainly looms as the biggest news that could potentially impact the Lakers’ bid for a title next year, and if James and Davis’ thinking on their true positional designations has really changed and they can stay healthy, the rest of the league could be in trouble.