Could the Evolution of LeBron James Be Small Ball Stretch Five for Lakers?
I had an epiphany watching LeBron James play small ball center in the Lakers’ overtime victory over the Pacers Wednesday night. Could LeBron James’ ultimate position with the Lakers be as a stretch five center?
I’ve long been a fan of LeBron at the five since he became a Laker and, after my epiphany, immediately thought of a Western Conference Finals between the Lakers with LeBron at the five and the Warriors with Dray at the five. Watching LeBron calling out opponent’s plays and directing the Lakers switching and rotating small ball defense reminded me of how Draymond continues to do the exact same thing for the suddenly resurgent Warriors.
We heard a lot about moving LeBron to the four and AD to the five with the arrival of Russell Westbrook but there are also solid reasons for the Lakers to seriously consider James starting at the five and Davis remaining at the four. While out-of-the-box, the idea of inverting LeBron and AD is not illogical. LeBron is 6' 9" and probably 260 pounds while AD is 6' 11" and 250 pounds. The difference is one player loves to physically bang and the other does not.
The Lakers want a center who’s more of a power than a finesse player. That’s a description that clearly applies more to LeBron than to AD. LeBron’s low center of gravity and natural physicality makes him a better center candidate. In the wake of my epiphany about LeBron ending his Lakers’ career as a small ball stretch five, it’s obvious the simple solution is to leave AD playing his preferred power forward position and start LeBron’s evolution to the five.
The Lakers can begin by playing LeBron at the five for six-minute stints at the end of the first and third quarters, where LA struggles. LeBron at the five surrounded by four 3-point shooters can help the Lakers win those quarters. LeBron’s also more engaged when he’s playing the five and doesn’t take off plays defensively like he does at the three or four. Instead, he calls out the other team’s plays and directs his own players where to be and what to do.
In some ways, playing the five could also be less work for LeBron. Unlike AD and most of the Lakers, LeBron does a great job boxing out and rebounding when he plays the five. That’s why the five might be LeBron’s ideal position. LeBron at the five also lets AD play his preferred power forward position where he can roam, lurk in the paint, and use his elite shot blocking as a help defender and let LeBron handle the physical banging of playing the five.
Most NBA players move up a position as they get older and less mobile. Small forwards become power forwards and power forwards evolve into small ball centers in the last few years of their careers. It’ll be the same for LeBron. We’re starting to see LeBron settle for step-back threes and one-legged fadeaway twos in the paint rather than ferociously attacking the rim like he did in his prime. Part of it is the defenses but part of it is LeBron evolving.
It’s almost as if LeBron himself sees center as his ultimate position as he finishes his Lakers’ career and wants to make sure to mold his bully ball and 3-point shooting skills to become the modern version of an elite NBA center. LeBron James will be 38 when his current two year Lakers’ extension ends in 2023. If he signs another two-year extension, LeBron could continue to play for the Lakers through the 2025 season, when he will turn 40-years old.
The Lakers should start regularly playing LeBron James at the five right now. LeBron’s maximum championship window is five more years: three years left on his current extension and a second two-year extension until he’s 40. LeBron’s goal with four rings is to tie or beat MJ’s six rings. That would mean winning at least two more championship rings in purple and gold out of a maximum of five possible Laker seasons. Evolving to play center will help.
Sometimes life gives you glimpses of the future that feel like epiphanies you should have seen before. That’s what LeBron James at the five feels like to me. It might not happen until his next Lakers contract but it’s going to happen.
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