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Which Old Center Is the Best Fit for the Lakers?

With Boogie Cousins on the mend, the Lakers are dipping into the past for help. Can Dwight Howard, Joakim Noah, or Mo Speights fill the void? We assess the good and the bad of each option.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

What could have been the dawn of a new era for the Lakers became a summer of almosts. They almost signed Kawhi Leonard, but he joined the Clippers instead. They almost picked up their first choice for head coach, Ty Lue, but negotiations fell apart and he joined Doc Rivers’s staff. But things weren’t all bleak when the dust settled. The signing of Danny Green and the possibility that DeMarcus Cousins could return to greatness gave the Lakers as good a chance as any to win the title.

They still might, but any path to glory will be marched without Boogie, who tore his left ACL last Monday. Thanks to a pair of huge contracts (LeBron James and Anthony Davis combine to eat more than 50 percent of L.A.’s cap this season), some poor past decisions (paying Luol Deng $5 million per year not to be on the team), and NBA rules that restrict trading a player acquired in free agency before December 15, the Lakers’ options to replace their fallen All-Star are limited.

On Tuesday, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported the Lakers were planning workouts with three big men: Dwight Howard, Joakim Noah, and Marreese Speights. None of the three is a great choice to fill the void left by Boogie, who was a backup plan himself. Alas, these are the Lakers’ lemons, rotten and abscessing. Here’s a look at which of the three center candidates has the best chance of making lemonade.

Dwight Howard

Why it might work

Dwight still shows glimpses of the talent that once made him a once-in-a-generation center. He played just nine games last season for the Wizards, but nearly averaged a double-double, and had a 25-point, 17-rebound showing against a competent Brooklyn team in November. The season before last, he averaged 16.6 points and 12.5 rebounds for the Hornets, logged 53 double-doubles, and had the second 30-point, 30-rebound showing of the century.

If Howard can overcome the glute injury that kept him out for most of last season, he might be able to provide the Lakers with a capable option off the bench. He’s not the rim protector he once was, but his nose for the boards (he was fifth in the NBA in rebound rate among 2017-18 regulars) and sheer size (to use scientific terms, he’s an absolute unit) make him a lob threat. Dwight’s first spell in purple and gold didn’t work out, but in a reduced role, there’s reason to believe his second one could.

Why it won’t work

Forgive me, but I’ve heard this story before. In 2012-13, Dwight graced the Staples Center with his presence … and promptly brought an end to the Lakers’ dynasty. Along with Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant, Dwight was supposed to usher in the next generation of Los Angeles dominance over the league. Instead, their lone season together resulted in plenty of infighting, a first-round sweep at the hands of the Spurs, and an infamous Sports Illustrated cover.

The situation wasn’t an outlier for Howard, either. As my colleague Rodger Sherman explained last summer, Dwight might be the most universally disliked player in the league. He burned bridges on his way out of Orlando, culminating in a wildly awkward press conference with Stan Van Gundy. He fell out hard with the Rockets, Hawks, Hornets, and Wizards, and his Lakers era will likely be remembered more for this picture than anything he did on the court:

Howard is technically still under contract with the Grizzlies, and last played a professional basketball game on November 18, 2018. A few weeks after that, he had lumbar surgery to address the glute injury. Traditional big men over 30 who rely on their athleticism rarely get more nimble with age. The Lakers are in this situation because they placed a bet on a once-dominant center with a litany of injuries; adding another to the fray is akin to crashing your car into a light post, backing it up, and then driving head-on into it a second time. And that’s before considering Dwight’s less-than-stellar locker room history.

Joakim Noah

Why it might work

After a sad end to his tenure with the Knicks, Noah experienced something of a rebirth in Memphis last season, averaging 7.1 points and 5.7 rebounds in 16.5 minutes per game. After Marc Gasol was shipped off to Toronto for Jonas Valanciunas, Noah was even better, tallying 11.3 points on 55 percent shooting and 7.8 rebounds a night in an increased role.

Of the three candidates, Noah is the strongest interior defensive presence. He logged 1.6 blocks per 36 minutes last season, along with 1.0 steals and 12.4 boards. And unlike Howard, he isn’t a major liability at the free throw line, shooting a career 70 percent from the stripe. He may not present the ceiling Howard does, but he’s got a higher floor. For a team with two superstars in the frontcourt already, that might be enough.

Why it won’t work

Before Noah had his resurgence with the Grizzlies, he too was beset by injuries. He’s played 80 games just twice in his career, most recently in his final All-Star season in 2013-14. Since then, he’s played just 47 percent of his possible games, and over the past four years, has had as many seasons with fewer than 30 games played as he has had with more than 30.

Like Howard, he isn’t a threat from beyond the arc, having never made a 3. Though he shoots well from the free throw line, he gets there far less often than Howard does. And with JaVale McGee already on the roster, it’s hard to see what he could add that McGee couldn’t in limited minutes.

Marreese Speights

Why it might work

Mo’ Buckets is the only player on this list with championship experience, having won a ring in 2015 with the Golden State Warriors. Like his former Bay Area teammates, Speights has a knack for knocking down the long ball, shooting 35.6 percent from beyond the arc for his career. He hit 37 percent of his 3-pointers on 4.5 attempts per game in 2017-18 for a Magic team with a congested frontcourt, and could offer spacing at the 5 off the bench that would give LeBron and Co. plenty of room to drive at the rim.

Speights doesn’t offer much in the way of rim protection or board collection, but his offensive contributions dwarf those presented by Howard and Noah. You can never have too many shooters—especially when they’re large and play for the veteran’s minimum. Speights has never played fewer than 52 games in a season (his tally in 2017-18), and could be an ideal substitute for a Lakers squad with a lackluster bench.

Why it won’t work

Remember Kyle Kuzma? The only non-LeBron player the Lakers were hell-bent on keeping? They shipped off Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, and Josh Hart to get Davis, but Kuzma was the young player they kept. Last season, Kuzma built on his already-impressive rookie campaign, averaging 18.7 points and showing the versatility to play both forward positions and moonlight as a small-ball center. Almost everything Speights can do, Kuzma can do, but better.

Mo is slightly bigger (6-foot-10 and 255 pounds vs. Kuzma’s 6-foot-9 and 220 pounds) and shoots slightly better from beyond the arc (35.6 percent for his career vs. Kuzma’s 33.5 percent), but he’d be a redundancy for L.A. More than anything else, like all other potential Lakers signings, he stops head coach Frank Vogel from running out his best possible frontcourt. Don’t overthink it, Frank. Just play LeBron at the 4 and Davis at the 5.