The plan in the playoffs is for the Lakers to start Andre Drummond at the five so Anthony Davis can start at the four. Unfortunately, that plan is likely to crash and burn early and the Lakers likely to copy last year and go small.
There are many reasons why the Lakers going big with Andre Drummond at the five is not going to work and why going small with Anthony Davis at the five is the smart move, especially since it won the championship last year. Davis proved in the last playoffs he was willing to play the five when needed despite preferring to play the four. He understands he will again have to play the five close to half the time for the Lakers to repeat as NBA champs.
In the end, Vogel’s going to give the Go Big option a short leash and won’t hesitate to quickly and decisively turn to the Go Small option with AD at the five that won the championship last year if the Drummond experiment fails. Vogel already reverted to closing with AD at the five as the Lakers tried to comeback from down 20 against the Washington Wizards. Regardless of who starts at center, the Lakers are likely to close games with AD at the five.
With LeBron James possible returning tonight against the Kings at Staples Center, the Lakers will have only 10 games to figure out whether to go big or small in the playoffs. Here are five reasons why they should go small:
1. Optimizes Superstars James and Davis
The two players who took greatest advantage of the Lakers playing small in the playoffs to elevate their games were their superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis, who dramatically improved their shooting and defense.
During the 2019–20 regular season, LeBron averaged 25.3 points, 7.8 rebounds, 10.2 assists, 1.2 steals, and 0.5 blocks in 25.3 minutes per game, shooting 49.3% from the field, 34.8% from three, and 69.3% from the line. Playing small ball during the playoffs, James averaged 27.6 points, 10.8 rebounds, 8.8 assists, 1.2 steals, and 0.9 blocks in 36.6 minutes per game, shooting 56.0% from the field, 37.0% from three, and 72.0% from the line.
Meanwhile, Anthony Davis averaged 26.1 points, 9.3 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.5 steals, and 2.3 blocks in 34.4 minutes per game, shooting 50.3% from the field, 33.0% from three, and 84.6% from the line for the regular season. Playing mostly center in the playoffs, Anthony averaged 27.7 points, 9.7 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.2 steals, and 1.4 blocks in 36.6 minutes per game, shooting 57.1% from the field, 38.3% from three, and 83.2% from the line.
Spreading the floor with five 3-point shooters on offense and locking down opponents with five mobile and athletic defenders freed LeBron James and Anthony Davis to showcase their best superstar versions in the playoffs.
2. Opens Lanes for Schroder and Horton-Tucker
Dennis Schroder and Talen Horton Tucker are the two Lakers whose offensive games rely on their ability to get to the rim, something that is much easier when the Lakers spread the floor with small ball lineups.
Playing small ball is critical to optimizing Schroder’s and Horton-Tucker’s aggressive play as the only time they struggle in games is when opposing defenses pack the paint with multiple defenders or an elite rim protector. Teams know both players thrive attacking the paint and have learned the best way to slow them down is to take away their lanes to get to the rim and force them to shoot from the perimeter rather than from in the paint.
Talen Horton-Tucker and Dennis Schroder led all Lakers guards with 2.4 makes out of 4.1 and 4.5 shot attempts per game within 5 feet of basket. No other Laker guard even took as many as 2.0 shots per game at that range. Opposing teams know packing the paint with multiple defenders and rim protectors is the blueprint for forcing the Lakers to become a jump shooting team. Playing small ball opens up the rim for Dennis and Talen.
Dennis Schroder and Talen Horton-Tucker are both point guards whose playmaking ability in the playoffs will hinge heavily on the Lakers playing small ball so they’ll have lanes to attack the basket to score and assist.
3. Puts Additional 3-Point Shooters in game
One big advantages of the Lakers playing small ball with Anthony Davis at the five is it gives them the opportunity to put five 3-point shooters on the court and reverse what has been a negative 3-point differential this season.
During the regular season last year, the Lakers averaged 11.0 made threes out of 31.6 attempted threes per game, both of which ranked 23rd in the league. Their 34.9% shooting percentage from three was only 21st in the league. Playing more small ball in the playoffs, the Lakers raised their made threes to 12.1 per game and attempted threes to 34.2 per game, both of which ranked 11th, and shot 35,4% from three, which ranked 12th in the league.
This year during the regular season, the Lakers averaged 11.1 made threes, 24th in the league, out of 31.5 attempts per game, 23rd in the league. Their 35.3% shooting percentage from three was ranked only 22nd in the league. That leaves the Lakers in the same position as they were last year when they needed to take and make more threes in the playoffs to win. Fortunately, playing small ball will give them more 3-point shooters to do that.
Unfortunately, this year’s playoff opponents — Nuggets, Jazz, Clippers, and Nets — are higher volume 3-point shooting teams than last year’s, which means the Lakers will need to play more small ball if they want to win.
4. Intelligently Narrows Rotations for Playoffs
Playing small ball allows the Lakers to intelligently narrow their usual 10–11 man regular season rotation down to a tighter and more reasonable 9–10 man rotation for the playoffs similar to what happened last postseason.
Right now, Drummond, Gasol, and Harrell combined average almost 70 minutes per game at center, which is more than the 48 minutes available at center in a game not even factoring in Anthony Davis’ center minutes. Realistically, there is no way the Lakers can keep three players who can only play the center position and narrow their playoff rotation to 8–9 players. Doing so would require them benching valuable guards and wings.
Playing Davis half of his projected 36 minutes per game at center would still leave 30 minutes of playing time at center for Drummond, Gasol, and Harrell, which should be distributed among the three based on matchups. The result would be two of the three centers would be included in the Lakers 9–10 player rotations for the playoffs while one of the three would get an automatic Did Not Play Coach’s Decision each game due to matchups.
Playing small ball would then enable the Lakers to narrow their rotation to 9–10 players, including James, Davis, Schroder, Caldwell-Pope, Kuzma, Caruso, Morris, Horton-Tucker, and two of Drummond, Gasol, or Harrell.
5. Because Our ‘Small Ball’ is Not Really ‘Small’
Categorizing the Lakers’ lineups with Anthony Davis at the five as ‘small ball’ lineups is a misnomer. While the AD at the five lineups are more skilled, they are anything but small when it comes to size or length.
A Lakers’ small ball lineup of 6' 3," 170 lb Dennis Schroder, 6' 5,' 204 lb Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, 6' 9,' 250 lb LeBron James, 6' 9,” 245 lb Markieff Morris, and 6' 10,” 253 lb Anthony Davis can bang and hang with anybody. The Lakers also have the versatility to include 6' 10,” 221 lb Kyle Kuzma, 6' 4,” 234 lb Talen Horton-Tucker, or 6' 4,” 186 lb Alex Caruso as part of their small ball lineup depending on specific game needs or matchups.
Superstars Anthony Davis and LeBron James were the dynamic duo that anchored the Lakers’ lock down small ball defense, two unique players who can physically defend all five positions and at all three levels on the court. Davis was the rim protector and James the ‘middle linebacker’ directing the Lakers’ trapping, switching, and rotating defense. Unlike other superstars, both James and Davis were able and willing to defend other teams’ stars.
Looking ahead at the teams the Lakers will likely meet in the playoffs, small ball lineups with Anthony Davis at the five will have more than enough size and length to matchup opponents at both ends of the court.
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