Behind the Lakers’ Decision to Dump Traditional Centers Howard & McGee
One of the unanswered questions from the offseason is why the Lakers dumped traditional centers Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee, whose elite rim protection had anchored the team’s third ranked NBA defense.
There have been extensive conversations about every move Rob Pelinka and the Lakers made this offseason but not a single word about why the Lakers decided to change course and dump Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee. While the team formally expressed its appreciation to both players for their contributions to winning the championship, the Lakers had clearly made a decision not to bring back either of the two centers this offseason.
While ‘dump’ might seem too pejorative to describe what happened to Howard and McGee this offseason, ‘dump’ is exactly what the Lakers did to the two traditional centers who had anchored their defense all season long. They declined to offer a contract to Howard even after he embarrassingly accepted an offer they hadn’t made and then gave the Cavaliers one of their few remaining second round picks to get them to trade for McGee.
What’s surprising about the Lakers’ decision is McGee and Howard had started 70 of the team’s 71 regular season games and 18 of their 21 playoff games, leading to a 52–19 regular season record and 16–5 playoff record. Even more puzzling is the Lakers appear to short handed at center as they get ready to open the 2021 season with only 36-year old Marc Gasol and 26-year old Montrezl Harrell listed on their depth chart as centers.
So what’s the story? Why did the Lakers dump Howard and McGee? Why did Frank Vogel suddenly sour on a center tandem who had done a good job all season long protecting the rim and anchoring the Lakers’ defense?
Analyzing the center position for the Los Angeles Lakers always has to begin with Anthony Davis, who said from the start of his career with the Lakers that he preferred to play power forward rather than center most of the time.
While he’s not going to start and often not even play half his time there, Davis is still going to play center to close games for the Lakers, which is why they only carried two centers last season and only need two this season. There was speculation after signing Clippers’ backup center Montrezl Harrell that he’d play the four because of his subpar defense and inability to protect the rim but it’s obvious now the Lakers view him primarily as a five.
With Anthony Davis, Markieff Morris, and Jared Dudley at the four, there’s no question Marc Gasol and Montrezl Harrell will play the five and replace Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee as the Lakers two-man center tandem. While Harrell’s signing was controversial, the opportunity to sign him along with seeds of doubt planted in the playoffs regarding the value of Howard and McGee could have been what triggered the Lakers’ changes at center.
Trezz is a unicorn talent and his speed, quickness, and motor will be a nightmare matchup for most centers and playing him alongside Anthony Davis at power forward would enable the Lakers to protect him defensively. Pairing an attack dog offensive center like Harrell with an elite playmaking and stretch five center like Gasol dramatically transforms the Lakers’ center tandem offensively so they can afford to sacrifice a little defensively.
Meanwhile, Howard and McGee became increasingly unplayable during the playoffs. Their lack of scoring threat on offense allowed teams to pack the paint and their lack of ability to defend in space became a liability on defense. The emergence of Markieff Morris in the playoffs convinced Frank Vogel that the ability to space the floor on offense and speed and quickness on defense were more important than pure size alone to protect the rim.
The Lakers clearly wanted to retain most of their championship team as 9 of the 14 players on this season’s roster are returnees from last season’s team but the players they added are going to dramatically change how the team plays. Center is the position that will see the greatest change in style of play at both ends of the court for the Lakers as Marc Gasol and Montrezl Harrell replace traditional low post centers Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee.
Overall, the Lakers will be sacrifice size and rim protection on defense by losing Howard and McGee but should be able to more than make up for that with the elite offensive firepower Gasol and Harrell will be able to deliver. The additions of a playmaking modern stretch five like Marc Gasol and a high-energy aggressive low post scorer like Montrezl Harrell are going to transform the Lakers’ half court offense into an high-scoring juggernaut.
In the end, that’s why the Lakers dumped Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee. They saw an opportunity to significantly upgrade offensively with Marc Gasol and Montrezl Harrell that they just could not resist.
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