Of the available options to improve their roster this offseason, it’s clear that Russell Westbrook was the Lakers’ top choice. There are legitimate concerns that his poor shooting could shrink the floor for his new superstar teammates, LeBron James and Anthony Davis, but it’s also obvious that the Lakers are more excited about what he can do well than concerned about what he can’t.
Even so, the team is still going to have to make three stars who aren’t known for their 3-point shooting fit together without cramping the floor too much. Adding shooters in free agency could help, but it sounds like James, Davis and Westbrook are already planning out ways to open up the court for themselves.
According to Brad Turner of the L.A. Times, the Lakers’ three new superstars first plotted out their union during a dinner at James’ house in Los Angeles, a meal over which all three All-Stars committed to doing whatever was necessary to fit together:
They talked about putting their egos aside and playing as one in their quest to bring the Lakers another NBA championship. Westbrook talked about how his only intention was winning and coming back home to Los Angeles to become a champion.
James and Davis talked about the two of them changing positions if that was best for the team — James moving from small forward to power forward and Davis from power forward to center.
Westbrook let James and Davis know he doesn’t mind playing off the ball when James initiates the offense, something he did while playing alongside James Harden with the Houston Rockets.
Obviously James being willing to play up a position and Westbrook being all right with James initiating the offense quite a bit can help make this all work a whole lot more smoothly than it would otherwise, but by far the biggest news here is Davis’ willingness to fully unlock the potential of this lineup by moving to center, a position he’s a walking mismatch at. That is the skeleton key that unlocks this whole thing.
This is not the first time Davis’ willingness to do so has been hinted at. Weeks ago, NBA insider Marc Stein reported that the Lakers were looking for another playmaker — hello, Westbrook — both to alleviate the creative burdens of James and Davis, and to “allow James and Davis to spend more time at power forward and center.” He expanded upon that scoop during an appearance on Chad Ford’s “NBA Big Board” show:
“The Lakers are really on the hunt to add that secondary creator. They really want a proven, dependable ballhandler, and the reason is that they know, that even though Anthony Davis doesn’t love playing the 5, and even though LeBron James does not like relinquishing the ball, the Lakers have been fantastic, they’ve been at their best the last couple seasons when Davis moves to the 5, and LeBron plays some 4. So they would like to get someone who can play the 1 and lessen LeBron’s playmaking load.”
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 last season, and 20 points per 100 possessions better when LeBron was at the 4 than they were when he plays the 3. So for both of these guys, shifting them up a slot in the lineup would not only make the team more effective overall, it just might allow them to get two more shooters on the floor to un-cramp things for themselves and Westbrook.
That is also the foundation for a strong but quick lineup that should be able to dust teams on the break off of James and Westbrook’s rebounds. The Splash Bros. they are not, but there is more than one way to win in the NBA, and Westbrook, James and Davis in a small-ball unit is (on paper) a dangerous combination, one that can defend more traditional lineups without issue while being much speedier and more skilled on the other end.
It remains to be seen if this is Davis signaling a willingness to actually play center full-time, something he has previously tried to avoid, but this is certainly the most explicit sign yet that he’s at the very least ready to embrace playing center much more than he did last season, when he played a career-low 10% of his minutes at the 5, according to Basketball-Reference. That was likely to avoid wear and tear, but it seems after an offseason of hearing doubters, Davis is much more open to playing his most effective position. That’s great news for Lakers fans and the team itself, and horrible news for the rest of the league.