To a large extent, the Lakers shift to playing almost exclusively small ball with LeBron James at center was the result of Anthony Davis’ injury and the team’s lack of playable centers. But even if it may have been an means to an end originally, the team’s adoption of small ball is not going to be a short-lived one.
With Davis inching closer to a return, the questions about whether the Lakers would maintain their small ball mentality when he’s available once again has been wondered about often, and is fair question considering how often Davis has started alongside a fellow big man during his time in Los Angeles.
But this shift won’t be a fad for the Lakers, as head coach Frank Vogel revealed following practice on Tuesday.
“I think you’re going to see Anthony playing a lot at the 5, and when Anthony is out (of the game), we have the lineups we’ve been playing right now with LeBron basically playing point center,” Vogel said. “It is the direction I think we’re going to land with this group towards the second half of the season, and one we’re seeing obvious benefits from right now that we feel like are going to be even more enhanced when Anthony comes back.”
Fundamentally, the Lakers aren’t doing anything that can’t be replicated once Davis returns. Because while James may be more of a playmaker than Davis, the general playing style the team has shifted towards is one that can be used when Davis returns.
“Yeah, a lot of similar concepts for both of those guys,” Vogel said. “And that’s the beauty of them is that they’re both versatile as playmakers and screeners, you know what I mean? And what we’ve done is open up the paint and we feel like it’s going to benefit both of those guys in that role.”
The Lakers have had plenty of success in employing James at center in recent weeks and have gained a healthy amount of sample size. In doing so, the team can now figure out how to best maximize those minutes when they are reduced once Davis returns.
Assuming Davis plays 32-36 minutes per game, the Lakers will only need 12-16 minutes of non-Davis minutes at center. With James playing more than double that currently, minimizing those minutes would theoretically lead to more efficient and better results.
But even with Davis, having a playing style that is more open and spaced out also helps utilize some of Davis’ best skill sets as an athletic forward capable of knocking down threes — at least prior to this season it seems — and punishing mismatches in the paint and around the rim. Crucially, Davis has also accepted the idea of playing center, with 70% of his minutes coming at that end of the court so far this season, per Cleaning the Glass. In a related development, Davis is shooting the highest percentage of his shots at the rim since his sophomore season and is converting on 74% of those looks, ranking in the 80th percentile.
And more than how the small ball play style applies to James and Davis, it ultimately lets the Lakers best utilize their roster as well. With so many guards and so few forwards, playing James and Davis at the 4 and 5 allows the team to put shooters and guards — of which there are plenty of on the roster — around them for more minutes.
So while the circumstances with which the Lakers entered a small ball era certainly were not desirable, the Lakers have made the best of it, and may have found the key to unlocking their offense moving forward. They won’t be going away from it just because they’re getting another star back.