When the Lakers signed DeAndre Jordan in the wake of him being waived by the Nets, you could almost feel the audible groan from a subset of Lakers fans who 1) no longer think Jordan is a viable NBA rotation player and, maybe more importantly, 2) believe the move signaled whatever plans existed for Anthony Davis to play more center this season were suddenly in jeopardy. But while the first part certainly makes sense to me, the second part doesn’t sit as well, particularly in the wake of the team trading Marc Gasol.
Don’t get me wrong, I can understand those who choose to see some symmetry between how things played out last year and how they look to be this season. Through a narrow lens AD could be looked at as the team’s “third” Center like he was last season — when Marc Gasol and Montrezl Harrell were key off-season acquisitions — and that fans can get a sense of deja vu as AD publicly thanks Rob Pelinka for signing Jordan, and Dwight Howard returns for his third tour of duty with the team for a reprise of his role on the 2019-20 title-winning one.
I, however, really do see things differently, and it’s specifically because of the types of players Jordan and Howard are in comparison to the the players they’re replacing, and how Davis’ skill set then meshes in with his new frontcourt partners.
You see, Jordan and Dwight are both, from a skill set standpoint, players of the same mold and ilk. As rim-running, lob-catching, paint-protecting, rebound-grabbing big men, both Dwight and DeAndre occupy the exact same sphere on both ends of the floor. (How effective both will be in those roles is a different question, but I digress.) Remember, it was DeAndre who mentioned Dwight as a role model for his game when coming into the league, and in the years since, it’s easy to see how the former patterned his path after the former No. 1 overall pick — an overlap in approach that remains today.
Now, compare that to last season, when whether it was Gasol or Harrell (or later Drummond), the Lakers (rightly or wrongly) believed they had the full gamut of center skill sets accounted for with non-Davis options, pushing AD to a more permanent PF role in the process. Need a stretch big? Gasol was was there. Need a more small-ball option who brings energy and interior scoring? Here comes Trezz. Need a more traditional big in the form of a post up option who could also work in the P&R as a finisher and (compared to the other bigs) be a lob threat? There’s Drummond.
That sort of differentiation simply doesn’t exist this season, and puts much more of an emphasis on Davis being the counter to the more duplicative skill sets of Dwight and DeAndre. In other words, if the Lakers want to go “small” or have a “stretch big” on the floor, the only option currently on the roster is AD. If Vogel wants a defensive option who can switch more or play higher up on the floor in the P&R or in scramble and trap situations, it’s Davis he’ll have to turn to. That Vogel’s only option for these varied looks is Davis almost certainly translates to a clearly defined role at center that, depending on the matchup, could mean a hefty percentage of AD’s minutes come at the 5.
Further, consider not only the difference in skill sets, but the difference in age and what stage of their respective careers all three players are currently in. Both Dwight (nearly 36) and DeAndre (recently turned 33) are in the latter stages of their careers, and simply aren’t the rotation workhorses they were when they were in their mid-20’s. Neither can (nor should) be asked to play over 20 minutes a night, and neither should they be asked to play extended shifts whether they’re starters or reserves. This is much different than last season, when both Drummond and Harrell were still considered to be in their respective primes and could be leaned on to eat big innings. This season, then, it’s AD who has the youngest legs, and who is the player who is best positioned to take on a bigger role in the pivot while the other Center options play smaller roles with tighter minutes allocations.
There’s also the question of where the actual strengths of this roster are, how to get to some of the team’s best lineups, and how Davis sliding up to the 5 help bridge these realities. It’s pretty easy to see that with Russell Westbrook now on board, expected growth from Talen Horton-Tucker heading into his third season, and the group of Kendrick Nunn, Kent Bazemore, Malik Monk, and Wayne Ellington all bringing valuable skill sets to the roster, Frank Vogel will have some difficult lineup decisions when building out a rotation.
One of the easier ways to access more guard talent is to slide those players up a position/play more of them together, which necessitates more versatility at PF and C in order to make those lineups function on both sides of the floor. In the big picture, this makes sense for a variety of reasons, but the two most important are also the easiest to see.
First, AD is one of your best players, has positional versatility to slide up to center, and helps unlock multi-guard lineups through his ability to switch defensively and do everything offensively. Second, and this may sound harsh, but within the context of this roster, I believe the Lakers perimeter players can help this team more than Jordan can. They’re simply more skilled and, at the respective stages of all their careers, they’re higher quality NBA players.
Vogel isn’t the perfect coach, but I do trust he’ll sort through all the talent at his disposal and get to the right groupings and slot players into the best places that help the team the most.
Just like last season, we all know that Anthony Davis is the best center option the team has. However, unlike last season, the roster construction, circumstances of the team heading into training camp, and context of his specific skill set relative to the other options on the team should lead to a much bigger role at the 5 than what last season produced. And AD, for as much as he might bristle privately (and publicly) about his desire to play more PF, he’s said he’s willing to slide up to center when needed — and has shown he’ll even spend most of his time there in the playoffs when the matchups favor it.
Well, based on many factors that are true this season that simply weren’t last year, Davis’ minutes at center will need to be even more frequent now. Which should be music to all Lakers fans ears. Even if there’s some leftover doubts from how last season played out or the additions the team has made, Davis will be playing center more this year. He (and the team) will have no choice.