Desperately seeking a small ball center!
Why finding a small ball center to backup JaVale McGee is the Los Angeles Lakers’ most pressing roster need right now
The tough decision let Julius Randle walk, failed attempts to play Kyle Kuzma at center, and apparent hesitancy of LeBron James to embrace the role finds the Lakers desperately seeking a small ball center to backup JaVale McGee.
McGee’s fabulous early play at both ends of the court has been one of the Lakers’ brightest developments. He’s averaging 17.2 points (3rd on team), 7.0 boards (2nd on team), 1.6 assists (6th on team), and 2.8 blocks (2nd on team and NBA) in 25.4 minutes per game, which is a surprise since JaVale only played more than 20 minutes per game once last year and has averaged less than 10 minutes per game with the Warriors over the last two years.
While nobody knows whether McGee can continue to play at this level, the Lakers believe playing him in short bursts with multiple rests is the answer. McGee’s impact on the Lakers’ defense has been truly transformational. In the 127 minutes JaVale was on the floor, the Lakers’ defensive rating was 102, which would have ranked 4th in the league. In the 118 minutes he was not on the floor, the Lakers’ defensive rating jumped higher than the league worst.
The lack of a quality small ball center to backup McGee is the Lakers’ most pressing roster need right now and something they frankly cannot wait for a midseason trade to fix. Here’s a look at the possible immediate solutions:
- Jonathan Williams. An undrafted rookie from Gonzaga, Williams is on a G-League two-way contract, which means he can’t spend more than 45 days playing for the Lakers. Since arriving 4 games ago, Jonathan’s been indispensable playing backup small ball center behind JaVale McGee. He’s averaged 5.7 points, 3.7rebounds, 0.7 assists, and 1.0 blocks per game and has been a big part of the team’s improved play the last three games.
- Michael Beasley. Signed as a free agent after a stellar year coming off the bench for the Knicks last season, Beasley has struggled to earn playing time on the Lakers’ deep roster. Now that the Lakers have given up on trying to turn Kuzma into a small ball center, they’re likely to change their focus to Beasley. The one big advantage that Beasley has is his ability to stretch the floor as he shot over 40% from deep the last two seasons.
- Moritz Wagner. The rookie stretch 4/5 has been sidelined since training camp with a deep bone bruise but could finally see action next week. Like Beasley, Wagner would be more of an offensive than defensive solution as backup center. He does have ability to stretch the floor with his 3-point shooting but would likely struggle mightily to defend as small ball five. Just assigned to the G-League, Wagner is an energizer like Josh Hart.
- LeBron James. So what happened to all the talk of LeBron playing small ball center in the Lakers’ version of the Warriors’ Death Lineup? We finally got the answer last night, when Luke went small to close the game versus the Nuggets with Lonzo, Hart, Lance, Kuzma, and LeBron with the King actually playing small ball center and guarding Nicola Jokic for 9 scoreless possessions. Luke will save the Death Lineup for big games and playoffs.
- Willie Cauley-Stein. I’m a big fan of WCS’s speed, athleticism, and ability to defend all five positions, which is exactly what the Lakers need as a small ball center to backup McGee. While he’s has gotten off to a good start, averaging 16.4 points, 7.4 boards, and 0.4 blocks in 29 minutes per game, Willie’s on the last year of his contract and isn’t part of the Kings’ front court of the future. The Lakers would be wise to talk to the Kings.
It will be interesting to see if Jonathan Williams will be able to rise the challenge and fill the role as the Lakers’ small ball center backing up McGee or whether Michael Beasley or Moe Wagner will be able to play well enough offensively to overcome their obvious defensive deficiencies. If not, the Lakers would then be forced to sign or trade for a veteran power forward or center who could be the small ball backup when JaVale McGee goes out.
I’m especially intrigued by a JaVale McGee and Willie Cauley-Stein duo at center for the Lakers. Both are not only tall, long, and athletic players who can finish at the rim but also run like a deer and thrive playing super fast. More importantly, both are plus defenders who can guard smaller players and excel in the Lakers’ switch-everything small ball defense. You don’t have to be small to play small ball. WCS would be a perfect backup for McGee.
Finding a small ball center to backup JaVale McGee is the Los Angeles Lakers’ most pressing roster need right now. How the Lakers’ front office solves this problem will go a long way to determining the Lakers’ success this season.