The Los Angeles Lakers have a must-win game coming against New Orleans on Sunday, and they might be missing their only traditional center as they look to slow down Pelicans starter Jonas Valanciunas, as Dwight Howard has been added to the team’s injury report with hip soreness. He is currently being listed as questionable to play.
The team’s injury issues otherwise remain mostly unchanged, as Anthony Davis (right mid-foot sprain) and Kendrick Nunn (right knee bone bruise) remain out, and LeBron James (left knee sorenesss/effusion) is still questionable, while Talen Horton-Tucker (left ankle sprain) has been upgraded to probable after missing the team’s most recent game.
Head coach Frank Vogel said at the team’s Friday practice that he was hopeful that both James and Horton-Tucker would be cleared to play on Sunday in New Orleans, but that such a decision would not come until game day.
Howard, however, is a new addition to the injury report, and could be more important than usual in this matchup. The Pelicans grab the fourth-highest percentage of their own misses (30.1% offensive rebound rate) of any team in the NBA, and Howard is the only seven-footer the Lakers have currently. The Lakers are a bottom-10 defensive rebounding team in the NBA, and Howard, despite his deficiencies this year, has the best defensive rebound rate of any player currently on the team (23.5%).
However, as Donny McHenry broke down in our game preview of this important matchup from a standings perspective, two-way standout Wenyen Gabriel still may have been the team’s best center option in this one anyway.
Luckily, even if Howard was active, the Lakers’ best hopes at stopping the Pelicans’ offense probably lie with Wenyen Gabriel. Gabriel was signed by the team a few days following that late February blowout, and with him on Sunday, the Lakers might have a better chance at slowing down the Pelicans. A defense that deploys more switching than drop-coverage would definitely highlight Gabriel and the rest of the young Lakers’ defensive skills, and it’d cover up any issues that the slow-footed Howard might present.
So if Howard is declared out, look for LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Gabriel to grab most of the minutes at the 5, which — optimism for a Gabriel and James-fueled switching resurgence aside — could obviously still be problematic from a size, defense and rebounding perspective against a team as big as New Orleans.
We’ll see how the Lakers attempt to handle that when the two sides tip off at 4 p.m. PT on Sunday.