- With the LeBron James era in Los Angeles underway, the Lakers face several questions about its roster especially at the center position. Will JaVale McGee be capable of starting? Or will the King have to sacrifice his body and guard the likes of Nikola Jokic and Karl-Anthony Towns?
So much has been made about the Lakers’ supporting cast since LeBron James made his westward move. Here’s the quickest recap I can offer of all the ink that’s been spilled since July 1. The young players are pretty promising. But the newly acquired veterans—the MUD group—are a curious decision at best, a potentially disastrous one at worst. While the free agent pickups could ultimately pan out, L.A. still has a glaring issue on its roster—are the Lakers seriously planning on entering the season with Javale McGee, Ivica Zubac and Mo Wagner at center?
NBA teams always say the right things during training camp. That’s why you’ve seen reports about the Lakers being excited about playing James at center, and how Luke Walton wants to push the pace and get out onto the break this season. The problem is both of those ideas fly in the face of how LeBron has played for most of his career.
LeBron at center is certainly a tantalizing concept. If you could surround James with stars and shooters—Paul George or Kawhi Leonard really would have been great fits—putting him at center is possibly the best antidote against the Warriors. The issue is, James has barely played center during his career, especially during the regular season. Is Walton really going to trot out James at the five during a January road game? What about on the second night of a back-to-back?
The West is no joke when it comes to bigs. Would LeBron be willing to guard Nikola Jokic, Karl Towns or Boogie Cousins? Bang with Steven Adams or Jusuf Nurkic? The question is not if James is capable, but if the Lakers—who could be in a fight for playoff seeding all season long—would be willing to put that kind of physical toll on LeBron before the postseason even begins. As much as teams may finish with their smallest lineups, many are still playing seven-footers for large stretches beforehand. I’m not sure James or Kyle Kuzma can match up with those guys consistently and not wear down.
L.A.’s current centers leave a lot to be desired. Javale McGee hasn’t played more than 15 minutes per game since 2014...when he played 16. He didn’t even average 10 minutes per game in his two seasons with the Warriors. McGee’s effectiveness in Golden State was based almost entirely on him playing in short, concentrated doses, surrounded by All-Stars with a hardened defensive identity. The Warriors’ supporting cast made McGee’s job incredibly easy, and even then he never played in anything more than brief bursts.
The Lakers, meanwhile, are likely counting on McGee to start, and to play with considerably less talent around him. L.A. was decent on defense last season, but LeBron’s habits on that end haven’t been up to snuff the last couple seasons, and there will be even more pressure for him to give max effort if he has to cover for McGee’s deficiencies. Simply put, the more they count on McGee to play a normal starter’s load of minutes, the more the Lakers are likely to experience considerably diminishing returns.
(We can talk about Zubac as well, or we can agree right now that he’s also not a long-term solution. Okay, we’re in agreement.)
Asking McGee, Zubac, James, or Kuzma to match up with the number of talented or athletic centers in the West poses serious problems. James is definitely the best option of that group, but asking him to play center looks a lot better on paper than it does in practice, particularly when he already figures to have an incredible burden on him in nearly every other facet of the game.
L.A. is hoping to solve some of these issues by playing fast. Here’s where LeBron’s teams have ranked in pace the past four seasons: 12th, 16th, 28th, and 25th. Even when James was playing in Miami with Dwyane Wade, his teams never placed higher than 15th in pace. Again, LeBron is certainly capable of running up and down the court. But will he be willing to maintain all that running 16 seasons deep into his career, especially if it’s an adjustment from all the success he’s had the last eight years? Even if the Lakers are struggling as he adapts to his new team? And while Lonzo Ball may like to push the, uh, ball, James and Rajon Rondo are much more deliberate, and both of them will likely be in charge of the offense for a significant amount of time.
Let me now clear up any possible misconceptions—I want the Lakers to be good! I want to see LeBron back in the Finals! But this team just doesn’t make any sense to me at the moment. The Ball-Josh Hart-Brandon Ingram-LeBron-Kuzma lineup sounds very exciting, but it makes much more sense in a playoff series than heavy use over the course of an 82-game season. With the current center rotation offering more questions than answers, the Lakers may find themselves playing small more out of necessity than anything else. That sounds fun in early October, but the sustainability of that plan is a serious question mark, and the Lakers may not have the luxury of time to find answers.