The Lakers’ march to the NBA championship has seen an evolution in Frank Vogel’s coaching philosophy as he has embraced small ball lineups not only to create better spacing on offense but also speed and quickness on defense.
For a veteran coach who started and played two bigs the entire regular season, the transformation has been remarkable and one of the big reasons why the Lakers are on the verge of winning their 17th NBA championship. The metamorphosis has turned the Lakers into a juggernaut that’s rolled through the playoffs without losing more than a single game in any series and dramatically changed the team’s offseason roster building priorities.
Vogel’s embrace of small ball in these playoffs has shown the Lakers why a traditional defensive oriented shot-blocking center is not the only way to protect the rim and keep superstar Anthony Davis from getting beaten up. The speed, quickness, mobility, and athleticism of small ball lineups allows the Lakers to fight through pick-and-rolls, rotate faster after double teams, and more aggressively challenge shots on the perimeter and at the rim.
The time the Lakers played small ball can easily be measured by the time traditional centers McGee or Howard were not on the floor. During the regular season, the Lakers played small ball for just 12.5 minutes per game. That number has jumped dramatically in the playoffs where the Lakers played small ball for 21.7 minutes per game. In the Finals, the Lakers have almost abandoned going big, played small ball for 34.4 minutes per game.
To put those numbers in perspective, the more important the games became, the more small ball the Lakers played, averaging 26% of the time in the regular season, 45% in the playoffs, and finally 72% in the Finals. While matchups and McGee’s poor play certainly influenced Vogel’s decision on how much small ball to play, there’s also no question the elite play of the Lakers’ small ball lineups forced Vogel to rethink the issue.
Ironically, the 34.4 minutes per game and 72% of the time the Lakers have played small ball in the NBA Finals is even greater than the 32.7 minutes and 68% of the time they played small against the diminutive Rockets. Playing small ball 72% of the time against a Heat team with an All-Star and All-Defensive center Bam Adebayo, who was guarded by LeBron James and Markieff Morris as Anthony Davis defended Jimmy Butler, is remarkable.
The transformation from two traditional bigs to small ball lineups with Anthony Davis at the five is likely to continue this offseason. Re-signing Markieff Morris may be more important than re-signing Dwight Howard. McGee’s tenure with the Lakers may be over. We may see renewed interest by the Lakers in modern centers like DeMarcus Cousins, Serge Ibaka and Myles Turner and who can both stretch the floor and protect the rim
As the Lakers take the court in their Black Mamba jerseys this Friday night looking to close out the Miami Heat and the NBA Finals in five games, Frank Vogel may go all-in on small ball by starting Morris instead of Howard.
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