On July 6, 2019, the Los Angeles Lakers signed JaVale McGee to two-year, $8.2 million contract. The enigmatic McGee had bounced around the league before finding somewhat of a home in Golden State during their 2017 and 2018 championship runs. He then made his way to the Staples center to play with LeBron James in the 2018-19 campaign.
He showed enough last season to be re-signed and considered for the team’s starting center role next to their new superstar power forward, Anthony Davis.
Almost two months later, the Lakers needed another center after an unfortunate knee injury to Demarcus Cousins. After some market scouring, they signed yet another enigmatic center who had seen his fair share of teams over the last few years. On Aug. 26, Dwight Howard inked a very unique contract that pays $14,490 every day his on the roster, per Bobby Marks.
With the roster set for training camp, pundits and fans grew skeptical of the fit. Anthony Davis seemed almost too perfect as a stretch five next to LeBron, a second playmaker and two shooters. A five-man unit fitting those parameters should be nearly unstoppable in today’s NBA, so why muck it up by playing Davis alongside a paint-clogging center like Howard or McGee?
For starters, Davis has made it abundantly clear that his preferred position is power forward. He would rather play on the perimeter and utilize his face-up game while avoiding the task of guarding brutes on defense.
Still, it seemed inevitable that the Lakers would eventually have to resort to Davis-at-center lineups to reach their true potential.
Outside of spacing concerns, there were justifiable trepidations when it came to the viability of the two centers. Howard is nearly eight years removed from his prime season and seemed to be on his way out of the league. Meanwhile, McGee seemed to be playing his best basketball over the last couple of years but there was always the possibility that he reverted to the Shaqtin-A-Fool MVP tendencies that plagued him throughout his career.
Fast forward to today, nearly one-third of the way through the season, and the Lakers are 23-3 thanks in the large part to the contributions from their two centers. Dwight Howard is providing an efficient 20 minutes a game in which he is shooting 72 percent from the field, while McGee is shooting 63 percent in his 16 minutes.
Surprisingly, the Lakers’ best offensive lineups have come with Howard at center, while their best defensive lineups have come when they go small with Davis in that position. When Howard is manning the middle, the Lakers have posted a plus-12.2 net rating, the best by any of the potential centers per Cleaning the Glass.
For comparison, the team operates at a plus-7.5 with Davis in the middle and plus-6.5 with McGee in that spot.
One of the more perplexing numbers to unpack here is the 116.1 offensive rating posted when Howard is at center. This number runs counter to the conventional belief that LeBron paired with a traditional center would be a spacing issue.
A number that immediately jumps off the page is the three-point shooting. With Howard at center, the Lakers are converting 39.9 percent of their three-point attempts, per Cleaning the Glass.
When you restrict the data further to only view lineups featuring Howard and Davis, the numbers are even more impressive. In those situations, the Lakers are posting an offensive rating of 123.6 and a defensive rating of 103.1. Basically, they are destroying teams when those two and LeBron share the floor.
While the three-point percentage is robust in these lineups, they are not attempting a high volume of those shots. The majority of the work for this group comes in the paint, where they attempt 42.5 percent of their total shots and finish 70.4 percent of those attempts. Each of those numbers places in the 97th percentile of the league, per Cleaning the Glass.
A lot of these numbers are boosted by the presence of LeBron, who boasts a plus-18 net rating currently and is in the running for league MVP. Without him, the numbers are very telling.
The Davis and Howard pairing continues to demolish people even with LeBron on the bench. They post a net rating of plus-24.1 in those situations, per Cleaning the Glass. They dominate the boards on both ends with an offensive rebounding rate of 36.7 percent and holding opponents to a rate of 22.4 percent in the same category.
McGee has only played along Davis and without LeBron for 33 possessions, but the results have been less than ideal. The Lakers have posted a minus-33.1 net rating in those minutes, per Cleaning the Glass.
When Davis plays at center with LeBron on the bench, the net rating is at a lowly minus-13.1. The rebounding falls apart in these situations, as does the ability to get in and keep opponents out of the paint.
Going forward, the biggest question for the Lakers will be whether they can sustain their paint dominance in Davis-Howard minutes. Based on these numbers, it appears Howard would be the answer as the team’s most played center. The Davis-Howard pairing would also appear to be the answer to how the team should play when LeBron is on the bench.
Going big has been strategy used before in previous iterations of LeBron-led teams when the King heads to the bench. The Miami HEAT would often pair Bosh and a traditional center in those minutes during the Heatles era.
Now, the Lakers may have found their own version of this strategy thanks to a rejuvenated Howard.
The true test of Howard’s comeback will, of course, be the playoffs. Defenses will stiffen and block the paint more aggressively and increased scouting could reveal hidden weaknesses in these lineups.
Encouragingly, the Lakers have been dominant in the fourth quarter with these lineups, a time that may most closely simulate a playoff situation. Every lineup that has played at least 10 fourth-quarter minutes this season features Howard, outside of one all-bench lineup that was presumably used in garbage time.
A possible closing lineup of LeBron, Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Davis and Howard has bludgeoned teams in the fourth quarter with a net rating of plus-27.3, per NBA.com. The Lakers have excelled in close games this season, thanks in large part to their dominance with this lineup when the games come down the stretch.
Going forward, it will be key to watch how this team develops over the course of the season and heading into the playoffs. While some of the impressive three-point shooting may regress, the team mostly makes its living by dominating the paint.
When it is time to win or go home, it might still be in their best interest to play Davis at center. The offensive possibilities with that lineup are endless and it may prove the antidote to some of the league’s stingiest defenses.
Howard, then, will be important in allowing the bench units to flourish. His continued emergence as a key piece in the Lakers’ rotation could swing a playoff series come May or June.
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