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The Lakers Are Trying to Make Size Matter More in the NBA

But should they? Playing bully ball isn’t so easy in a 3-point-shooting world, even with LeBron James on your side.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The 2019-20 Los Angeles Lakers were one of the few elite teams in recent history to construct a team without elite spacing. LeBron James’s brain is a mind map of the most efficient spaces on the floor. He has created so many corner 3s you sometimes think he invented the drive-and-kick. Most general managers would load up on shooters around James and profit off the formula that blazed the King’s trail to three titles, but the Lakers chose a different path. The way the Warriors could live with Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala’s lack of spacing because they had the Splash Bros., the Lakers decided they could live without shooting if they leveraged the best of James’s (and Anthony Davis’s) other skills: IQ, playmaking, transition scoring, rebounding, at-rim finishing.

When the Lakers added the likes of Rajon Rondo and Dwight Howard, most observers (myself included) lambasted their moves. At the time, it seemed like Rob Pelinka and Co. were so deep into The Alchemist that they didn’t realize their offseason ran against the league’s biggest trend. But then they ruled the vertical space (a.k.a., throwing up lobs and hoping they stick), pummelled opponents in the paint, and won the Finals while gobbling up more offensive rebounds than the Miami Heat.

After injuries crushed them in 2020-21, the Lakers retooled by pairing James with another triple-double machine in Russell Westbrook, a relentless rebound-gobbling freight train who likes to have the ball in his hands and shot just 31.5 percent from 3 last season. In order to trade for Westbrook, they reportedly made a late pivot away from negotiations with the Kings for Buddy Hield, an automagic long-range bomber.

While the Lakers did manage to cobble together a hodgepodge of sharpshooters on minimum contracts, the core of the team is inherently [flips hair] not like other girls. They’re still loaded with offensive weapons, just ones who will often wrack up points with brute strength rather than outside finesse. In doing so, the Lakers could be a guidepost for just how far a team can go in the modern NBA without prioritizing 3-point shooting. Headed by James, the NBA’s best advanced problem solver, the Lakers are the league’s most interesting experiment.

The Lakers’ 2020-21 affair was decimated by injuries, but it also included evidence in the margins that showed the front office had gone too far in the direction of physicality without having enough regard for shooting. After the Pistons and Cavs dropped Andre Drummond, Sports Illustrated’s Chris Herring pondered how important rebounds could be if the league’s best rebounder was in the buyout market. Three days later, the Lakers picked him up.

Signing Drummond—despite already rostering centers Marc Gasol and Montrezl Harrell—also meant positioning Davis at the 4 even more: Davis played 10 percent of his minutes at center in the regular season, and 20 percent in the playoffs. Drummond, meanwhile, looked out of sorts in the 21 minutes a game he played in the first five games of the Lakers’ first-round matchup with the Suns, and didn’t play at all in the series-deciding sixth game.

The Lakers will have more options to turn to in order to find space this season. Malik Monk, Kent Bazemore, and Carmelo Anthony shot over 40 percent from 3 last season. Rondo, back for his second tour, has sneakily been a 40 percent shooter overall over the past two years. Getting another shooter on the floor ensures that James and Westbrook will create efficient spot-ups as opposed to taking off-dribble prayers. A lineup that plays a traditional center next to Davis wouldn’t just concede spacing, it would concede shot quality from the perimeter. The question is how much Frank Vogel will use them.

It was a relief to hear that Davis, who has historically preferred to play power forward, acknowledged in training camp that he expected to play a lot more minutes at center. But Vogel walked the Davis-at-center talk back, saying the balance would look closer to what it was like in the 2019-20 season, when Davis played 60 percent of his minutes at power forward and 40 percent at center. Perhaps Vogel just wanted to hold his lineup cards close to his chest. Perhaps he was recoiling at the thought of the defense of an undersized wing rotation that will pair Westbrook (6-foot-3) with Wayne Ellington (6-foot-4) and Malik Monk (6-foot-3). To make matters worse, Trevor Ariza’s recent right ankle injury is expected to sideline him for two months, thinning out a wing rotation that’s already lacking players who can shoot 3s and play defense.

But defense can’t be a regular-season calling card for one of the oldest teams in NBA history. If they want to find the bottom of their bag, Vogel, a defensive-minded coach, will have to stomach more blowbys than he’d like.

If you’re not going to match your opponent 3 for 3, you have to find other places to make up the difference: easy transition and paint buckets, extra possessions (i.e., steals and offensive rebounds). Pushing against the 3-point revolution is a math problem, and the Lakers are well-suited to try a number of different ways to solve it. LeBron, Westbrook, Rondo, and Davis are an all-rebounding-and-transition team with multiple elite playmakers. Throw Bazemore or Monk in there for speed and shooting. Pair Davis and a traditional big man for spurts or throw together a defensively challenged shooting lineup and you’re still likely to have two elite rebounders and playmakers on the floor.

Perhaps the Lakers can find balance that other teams lack in the postseason, but it has to start with Davis playing full-time at the 5. Howard and DeAndre Jordan are intriguing bit players, but their strengths aren’t as valuable as they used to be. The Lakers dominated vertical space in their championship season, but lobs aren’t a silver bullet in a Western Conference patrolled by ball-swatters like Deandre Ayton and Rudy Gobert.

Controlling the boards hasn’t proved to be an effective counter to shooting, either. According to our Zach Kram, in the past 10 years, the team with a higher offensive rebound percentage won the playoff series 52 percent of the time—a coin-flip. Even teams with a significant advantage in offensive rebounding percentage (five points or more) went 29-28.

Size and physicality still matters, but the modern game can’t be played without concessions. Take the Sixers. They’ve been near the top of the offensive rebounding charts in the playoffs through the Process era, only to find themselves flatfooted and outgunned when it matters. The Al Horford–Joel Embiid frontcourt experiment was a disaster for their offense, clogging up what little space Ben Simmons had to operate. When Horford was traded, the Simmons-Embiid experiment flourished around shooters. Now that Simmons wants out of the lab, the next iteration of the Sixers is likely to have more space for Embiid’s mid-post Kobe impression.

Historically, Lakers big men have been a prism of the league, a cheat code for their times. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wielded an unblockable hook shot in a defense-optional era of finesse. Shaq bruised and dominated harder than anyone in the ugly post-Jordan aughts. Similarly, Davis is lab-designed for the modern NBA: He can live and hunt on the perimeter as well as he can down low. He can shoot and handle, and defend ball handlers and rollers in the pick-and-roll. The promise of his career has been that he can do anything from anywhere, and in order to carry the Lakers into the next decade, he might have to do it where he least wants to: at center.