Lakers Doubling Down on Small Ball?
How Magic Johnson’s and Luke Walton’s embrace of positionless basketball could lead to Lakers playing even more small ball
The holy grail for positionless basketball is a team of five interchangeable skilled players who can do it all and play and defend all five positions, an unattainable goal unless you can clone Magic Johnson or LeBron James.
Positionless basketball or small ball is about having skilled players at every position so the critical roles and responsibilities for scoring, playmaking, rebounding, and defending can be shared and distributed across the team. Magic Johnson and Luke Walton have not been shy about their embrace of positionless basketball and the veteran free agents they signed to go with LeBron James and their talented young stars all fit this small ball model.
Offensively, small ball is about outrunning opponents in transition, stretching defenses and spreading the floor in half court, creating mismatch nightmares, and forcing opposing teams to sit traditional bigs. Defensively, it’s about team defense over individual defense, switching everything to limit penetration and defending the 3-point line. Strategically, small ball’s about style of play. It’s about making opposing teams abandon their game and play your style.
There’s no question the Los Angeles Lakers front office is going all-in on positionless basketball and doubling down on the Lakers playing small ball. When you consider JaVale McGee, who’s the Lakers only traditional center, averaged less than 10 minutes per game with the Warriors the last two years and only played 20 minutes in one game all of last season, it’s not difficult to project the Lakers are likely to end up playing small ball most of the time.
Last season, the Lakers played small ball about 26 minutes per game or around 55% of the time. Assuming we get 16 minutes per game out of McGee, who’s limited physically by his asthma, that leaves 32 minutes per game or 67% of the time for small ball, about a 20% increase over last year. While the Lakers will likely start JaVale McGee at center to start the game and the second half, look for LeBron to play small ball five to close games.
In addition to LeBron James, the Lakers plan to give power forwards Michael Beasley, Kyle Kuzma, and Moe Wagner playing time at small ball center. Beasley played small ball five with the Heat Miami and Knicks and the Lakers have already been experimenting with Kuzma playing center this preseason. While Wagner is seen more as a stretch four, he could also earn minutes as a stretch five but will most likely spend a lot of time with the South Bay Lakers.
There’s no doubt the continued rise of positionless basketball and small ball has changed how teams approach the center position. The traditional low post center who can patrol the paint and protect the rim isn’t what modern NBA teams are looking to anchor their defense. As small ball and switching everything proliferates, having versatile centers who can defend out to the 3-point line and recover has become more valuable than rim protectors.
That’s why most of the Lakers center options are really power forwards. When you play small ball, shot blocks become a team stat. The game in the low post is no longer about centers playing isolation one-on-one defense. Now it’s about team defense, help defense. That’s where the blocks should come from. When you play small ball, most teams give up rim protection in order to be able to switch on the perimeter and defend outside-in action.
The vision Magic Johnson and LeBron James shared last summer was not to try to beat the Warriors with better shooting but by playing better small ball. The Lakers and LeBron want to play fast and physical. They may not be able to outshoot the Warriors but they can even the field with a tough physical switching defense that triggers a juggernaut fast break led by LeBron James. The Lakers ultimate goal is to become the premier small team in the NBA.