LeBron James was guarding Clippers backup center Isaiah Hartenstein at the top of the key in a game two weeks ago. Hartenstein began dribbling and LeBron fell asleep, assuming the ball would go to a Clippers guard. But Hartenstein drove to the rim instead. LeBron didn’t have enough time to recover. The center strolled in for an easy dunk.
LeBron didn’t wait long to get him back. The next time down the floor, he handed the ball to Malik Monk and cut to the basket. Hartenstein was more engaged on defense than LeBron had been, but it didn’t matter. He couldn’t guard Monk and cover LeBron as he barrelled toward Hartenstein at full speed. Monk set up LeBron for a dunk of his own.
The common theme in both plays was that LeBron wasn’t playing with a big man. He was in a smaller lineup with three guards (Russell Westbrook, Monk, and Wayne Ellington) and a forward (Carmelo Anthony) next to him. No one could clean up his mistakes on defense but also no one would clog the lane on offense. LeBron was the big man.
He’s certainly more than big enough. LeBron (6-foot-9 and 250 pounds) falls a few inches below a 7-footer like Hartenstein, but weighs just as much. Hartenstein can shoot over him but he can’t bully him. There are a million reasons why LeBron had never played as a small-ball center, but the biggest is that he never wanted to. It’s a tough job that requires a lot of banging in the paint. Many of the best (Draymond Green, Montrezl Harrell, and P.J. Tucker) are former second-round picks who had to scrape and claw their way into the league.
LeBron has always built teams that kept him from getting his hands dirty, whether it’s been in Miami, Cleveland, or Los Angeles. It was the same template each time. He plays next to a versatile 4 (Chris Bosh, Kevin Love, and Anthony Davis) and a more traditional 5. His teams start big and downsize over the course of a game. He’s been at his best when his big men could spread the floor, but it hasn’t mattered all that much. LeBron has always been so skilled and athletic that he could dominate regardless of how many defenders collapsed when he drove into the paint.
LeBron’s as skilled as ever in his 19th season, but his athleticism isn’t quite what it was. You can’t blame him: LeBron is 36 and fourth all time in regular-season minutes (50,686) behind only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, and Dirk Nowitzki. He defied the age curve for a very long time, but the decline had to happen at some point.
The numbers suggest that something is going on. LeBron is averaging career lows in free throw attempts (4.5 per game) and shots within 3 feet of the rim (29.3 percent). It’s the first time the latter has dropped below 35 since his second season in the NBA. Part of the decline is the NBA’s rule changes, but that’s not all of it. He’s also averaging the fewest rebounds since his rookie season (5.9) while posting a career high in 3-point attempts (7.9). He’s not grabbing as many loose balls and he’s settling for more jumpers.
The other indicator is how often LeBron gets injured. He was a man of steel in his prime who could seemingly walk off any collison or fall without a scratch. Two of his first three seasons in Los Angeles were marred by injuries and he’s played in only 17 of 29 games this season.
It’s important to not overstate things. Even a less athletic version of LeBron is still incredible, averaging 26.1 points on 50.4 percent shooting, 6.9 assists, and 5.9 rebounds per game. And his numbers should increase as he gets closer to the playoffs. No one has ever been better at pacing himself in the regular season.
But he does need more help than he’s used to. The older LeBron gets, the more spacing he needs. Playing LeBron at the 5 is Frank Vogel’s version of a controlled experiment. It hasn’t happened much this season (84 minutes) and the early returns have been mixed (net rating of minus-1.3). The key is that LeBron’s individual offensive numbers are up in those lineups while the Lakers defense has remained consistent. That’s impressive considering that he’s no longer a great rebounder and doesn’t have much experience as the sole rim protector on the floor.
The other benefit is that it could actually relieve some of the pressure on his body. It’s not the same league he joined in 2003. There aren’t many old-school bruisers roaming the paint. Most second-unit centers aren’t bigger than LeBron. Nor does he have to expend energy chasing smaller players around the perimeter in this new role. The best way for him to stay healthy is to remain on the ground and use his size on defense instead of running and leaping. Playing in the air is a young man’s game. LeBron can’t sprain his ankle if he rarely jumps in the first place.
It’s not like he would ever be a full-time center with Davis on the roster. But it’s part of a broader shift in his minutes from starting at the 3 and playing some 4 to starting at the 4 and playing some 5. That’s the shift Vogel has made over the last few weeks, ever since LeBron returned from an abdominal injury that kept him out for eight games. The difference in his production is dramatic:
LeBron’s Splits Before and After His Injury
|LeBron's Injury Status
|LeBron's Injury Status
The shift is the result of several things happening at once. It’s not just LeBron who is better in smaller lineups. Davis is best at the 5. The Lakers have always been better when they went smaller. Now they have to. Big men DeAndre Jordan and Dwight Howard are more names than players at this stage in their careers. Dwight can still be effective in a smaller role, but DeAndre came to Los Angeles after falling out of the rotation in Brooklyn. There was no reason to expect it would be any different this time.
The other factor is the addition of Westbrook, who might be the worst 3-point shooting point guard of all time. Houston stopped playing centers two seasons ago to create more driving lanes for him. The only way starting a more traditional big man can work for the Lakers is if that player can also stretch the floor. The assumption was they would have to go small once the trade happened, and now that moment has come.
But “small” is a relative term. Westbrook, LeBron, and Davis all have great size for their positions. The issue has been less how they fit with each other and more how they do with a center. They have a net rating of plus-11.4 without Dwight and DeAndre compared to minus-7.2 with DeAndre and minus-19 with Dwight.
What Vogel and Lakers GM Rob Pelinka need to figure out are the other two positions on the floor. Playing fewer centers means playing more perimeter players. Carmelo and Trevor Ariza (who has been out all season with an ankle injury) are the only other ones above 6-foot-6. The Lakers don’t have much size or shooting and the players with one don’t have much of the other. This lack of depth is shocking. Vogel has been leaning heavily on Avery Bradley, now on his sixth team in the last four seasons, including two separate stints with the Lakers. Bradley has started 21 games after being cut in training camp by the Warriors.
It was always going to be tough to build the roster considering how much money the Big Three make. But the Lakers probably should have trusted their scouting department instead of trying to put together the best possible NBA 2K12 team. Austin Reaves, an undrafted rookie out of Oklahoma, has the best net rating (plus-9.8 in 335 minutes) of anyone in their rotation.
The other options are trades and buyouts. The problem with the former is that they don’t have any more picks to deal, while Talen Horton-Tucker is their only moveable salary ($9.5 million). The Lakers will likely be active in the latter but the expansion of the playoff picture has meant that fewer players get bought out. The ones that still do may not be worth the trouble. See Andre Drummond last season.
The good news for the Lakers is that there are always ways to fill out a rotation. LeBron and Davis are tectonic plates. Changing their positions has a seismic effect on the rest of the roster. Everything else is secondary.
The sky isn’t falling in Los Angeles despite their struggles this season. The Lakers are still in a decent position, part of the huge pack of teams in the middle of the West. They are only two games behind the Grizzlies at no. 4. Their goal should simply be to stay healthy and avoid the play-in games. They should improve when Ariza and Kendrick Nunn return from injury, although that might be evened out by their schedule getting tougher.
The sky would indeed be falling if LeBron were falling off. But changing his position could delay that process for a few more years. Go back to that list of players on the all-time minutes list. Kareem started for the Lakers in the NBA Finals at 42. So did Malone at 40. LeBron is 36. He is moving into the last stage of his legendary career. But this is the beginning of that stage. Not the end.