Analyzing the Lakers Center Rotation

The Dwight Howard and DeAndre Jordan signings, as many have noted, are clear intent towards the Lakers' front office leaning heavily into an update of the 2019-20 model, where they had the best record in the West in the regular season and ran roughshod over every playoff opponent.

Bigger, Faster, Stronger does not work quite as well when you are committing 40+ minutes a game to Marc Gasol's floor spacing, Andre Drummond's heft and Montrezl Harrell's undersized but furious one-way energy.

Despite being far from the first person to make this argument, I think what is being underappreciated about the upside of returning to the Bigger, Faster, Stronger model is how much Anthony Davis plays the 5. More specifically, the massive disparity between AD's time at the 5 in 2019-20 and his limited usage at the 5 (even prior to injury) in the 2020-21 season.

According to B-Ball Reference, AD played just 10% of his 32.3 minutes per game at center in this last season. That's 3.23 minutes per game, less than one shift a game.

In contrast, during 2019-20, he played 40% of his 34.4 minutes per game at center. That is 13.76 minutes per game, which is over a quarter per game. That isn't including the playoffs where that percentage shot up to almost 22 minutes per game at the 5 (60% of almost 37 minutes).

From my recollection of the Lakers' 17th championship team, almost every closing shift of the 1st and 2nd half of a game that was up in the air saw AD at the 5. Those moments were few and far between in 2020-21, even prior to him being hurt.

So, even the bare minimum of reverting back to that 40% mark in 2021-22 is going to be a massive boon for the Lakers.

With the recent reports lending credence towards Davis starting at the 5, the possibility of him playing closer to 60% (which still allows 20 minutes a game for Dwight/DeAndre), is going to seem like a return to the Bubble version of the Lakers.

I wanted to compare the center rotations from 2019-20 and 2020-21 to try and piece together how the 2021-22 rotation at center might look.

In 2019-20, I feel like the biggest reasons for success were:

1. Health and Continuity

Javale McGee (68 starts) and Dwight Howard (2 starts) respectively played 68 and 69 games out of 71 in the regular season. Anthony Davis played 62, even started one random Bubble Game at center (it is legal for him to start there as a Laker apparently). The center rotation staying the same throughout the year was huge for the Lakers establishing their smash-mouth identity throughout the year.

Contrast that continuity to the mish-mash chaos of the 72-game 2020-21 season. Gasol plays in 52 games, starting 42 of them. Andre Drummond arrives and plays in and starts 21 games, Montrezl Harrell plays in 69 games, starting one. Damion Jones, the Laker legend, starts 6 games, playing in 8. Hell, even Markieff Morris (blowout loss to the Suns) and Devontae Cacok (blowout loss to the Pelicans) each started one game at the 5.

Most importantly, Anthony Davis only plays 36 regular season games, all of them next to a center that was not a lob threat in the dunker's spot.

That is too many bodies for one spot on the court.


We all saw how that minutes crunch, along with having those players arrive with expectations of significant playing time (Trezz getting the full MLE and having won Sixth Man of the Year, Drummond getting his buyout promises, giving up assets to get Gasol multiple years of guaranteed money) was poor roster management partially necessitated by a historically short offseason and in-season injuries.

Many a podcast, article, comment has centered around how valuable Marc Gasol's spacing was, and it is undeniable that the Gasol/AD/LBJ/KCP/Dennis lineup during the pre-AD-Injury stretch of the season was effective (+11.8 points per 100 possessions across 282 minutes).

In my heart of hearts, I believe that if Anthony Davis and LeBron James had avoided their devastating injuries, then the Lakers would have likely made it through a healthy Western Conference. But I also think that team loses to either the healthy Nets or Bucks far more often than they would beat those teams.

Running it back this year would have done nothing to assuage those feelings about the 2021-22 title chances, and the chemistry concerns were always going to be a problem.

In addition to lacking a championship level ceiling (in my eyes), the 2020-21 Lakers were flat-out not fun. Even when they were healthy, that start to the year didn't create the same emotional investment as the 2019-20 Lakers finding their way did.

At the end of the day, aren't those the entire reason we watch?

2. Vertical Spacing and Playing with Force

Try to remember some of the moments most entertaining moments through the 2019-20 season. Caruso dunking in transition with the entire team leaping behind him, LeBron pretending to block a Rondo lay-up, all of the alley-oops, dump-offs, and dimes for dunks to Dwight and AD and Javale.

The 2019-20 Lakers were exciting, they had next-level chemistry, they flew around the court on defense, forcing turnovers and missed shots in order to get out and run. They were just straight mean to opposing offenses.

The 2020-21 Lakers, even at their best were mostly ground bound, methodical and plodding.

Anthony Davis' health is the biggest reason for that, and that cannot be overstated. The Brow dunked 157 times in the 2019-20 regular season (with a jarring 54 more in the playoffs), over 2.5 per game, nearing 3 with the playoff included.

However, in an injury plagued 2020-21, Davis had just 54 dunks (just 1.5 a game). A huge part of that can obviously be linked to the wear and tear from the title run and the calf/Achilles issues. But, another part of it was AD's general mentality when he was healthy, settling for way more jump shots despite Gasol "spacing" the floor to hypothetically open up driving lanes for him.

The other centers shared that dip in production when attacking the rim.

In 2019-20:

  • Javale: 112 dunks in 68 games.
  • Dwight: 116 dunks in 69 games.

137 games, 228 dunks from the non-AD centers. 1.66 per game.

Adding in AD's 157 dunks to the equation, that 385 dunks from the "bigs" in 199 games. 1.93 per game.

In 2020-21:

  • Gasol, who is 7 feet tall: 3 dunks in 52 games.
  • Drummond: 26 dunks in 21 games.
  • Harrell: 118 dunks in 69 games.
  • Jones: 10 dunks in 8 games.

150 games, 157 dunks. 1.05 per game.

Adding AD's meager 54 dunks, gets that total to 211 in 186 games is just 1.13 per game.

This 2021-22 roster is going to be much closer to 400 from this position than 200, and that is huge for the team building and believing in that Bigger/Faster/Stronger identity.

AD yamming home a lob while actually playing center to close out a first half while Russell Westbrook screams and LeBron flexes in front of a full Staples Center crowd is so visceral I think I can actually already retweet the highlight from the Lakers Twitter account.

If Anthony Davis is going to start at the 5 and be spending the majority of his minutes there (somewhere between 60-70%), the Lakers are going to be running a devastating lineup out there to start every game.

Anthony Davis, LeBron James, Russell Westbrook and whoever rises to the top out of Kent Bazemore, Trevor Ariza and the Lakers' overload of shooting guards. That is going to get the Lakers off to a lot of hot starts.

AD playing 20-25 minutes at center with Dwight Howard and DeAndre Jordan splitting 20-24 minutes as backups instead of 45+ minutes from Gasol/Drummond/Harrell/Kieff and 3 minutes of our best option is going to wonders for the Lakers' offensive versatility and overall effectiveness.

Suffice to say, I'm more excited by the day about the Lakers' chances in 2021-22 and look forward to seeing lots of dunks, lots of transition baskets, and lots of Anthony Davis doing what he does best on both ends of the court.