Buha: Why the Lakers’ potential return to a two-big approach doesn’t make sense


Share post:

In recent weeks, one of the more interesting storylines around the Lakers has been the organization’s potential return to using a second big man next to Anthony Davis.

Vice president of basketball operations and general manager Rob Pelinka voiced that desire publicly in early July, adding that the team’s objective to sign a third center also factored into that plan.

“Coach and I have talked a little bit with Anthony in the offseason about more minutes of some of the 2020 success we had, where Anthony got to play with a big,” Pelinka said at Las Vegas Summer League on July 9. “I think adding Jaxson Hayes was key to that. I think of Jaxson much like maybe Dwight Howard in that stretch for us: big body, rim protector, active roller. … I think Jaxson is going to be big there. But we are looking to add an additional center as well.”

This is hardly the first time the team has advocated for this sentiment. Ever since their two-big starting lineup worked in the 2019-20 season, with low-cost veterans JaVale McGee and Howard often flanking Davis en route to the 2020 championship, Los Angeles has been trying to recreate that magic. The Lakers started a traditional big next to Davis on the opening night of his first three seasons as a Laker. Pelinka, in fact, issued a similar sentiment ahead of the 2021-22 season, saying the Lakers’ goal in signing DeAndre Jordan and reuniting with Howard was “shifting back to, especially defensively, a model of sort of two rebounding defensive centers like we had when we won the championship in 2020.”

Even after that approach failed and Davis took over more center minutes in 2021-22, the Lakers entered last season with plans to maintain the two-big look, with tandem of Thomas Bryant and Damian Jones serving in the McGee-Howard roles. Jones got first-team reps at the beginning of training camp and in the team’s first preseason game. But the team swiftly pivoted in the preseason, as Davis logged 99 percent of his minutes at the five in helping the Lakers reach the Western Conference finals, per Cleaning the Glass.

Given their success deploying Davis at center full-time last season, the Lakers’ interest in returning to their previous tactic is puzzling. Is there a way it could make sense?

In short: No, there isn’t. But let’s dive further into it.

Many of the reasons to deploy Davis at the four alongside another big do not hold water with this roster. Theoretically, two-center lineups give the Lakers more size on both ends, which helps with rebounding, rim protection and exploiting mismatches inside. Perhaps another big could handle most of the center assignments, allowing Davis to spend more time outside of the paint and endure less of a physical pounding. Maybe reducing Davis’ defensive workload will give him more energy to be a more consistent offensive player.

Yet none of those factors have produced an overwhelmingly positive impact in the past. Even before last season, the numbers indicate shifting Davis to center and deploying LeBron James more as a power forward (and even a small-ball center at times) has benefited both superstars and the team as a whole. The sample sizes are relatively small, with so much year-over-year roster turnover and Davis’ injuries affecting a lot of this data, but the Lakers have been better with him at center in three of his four seasons. It’s often been their trump card late in games, including in the 2019-20 season, the very point of comparison for returning to the two-big approach.

Anthony Davis at C vs. PF



Net diff. at C


Poss. at C


Net diff. at PF


Poss. at PF






















On top of that, Pelinka’s actions so far this summer have spoken louder than his words. The Lakers only have two traditional big men on the roster (three if you include two-way rookie Colin Castleton). Their big-man signings in free agency, or lack thereof, don’t align with the idea of using more two-big lineups next season. It’s tough to play two bigs together when they’re the only two you have. If the Lakers wanted a two-big build, they should’ve prioritized making a more significant trade on draft night and/or adding a better big with one of their two salary-cap exceptions instead of using them on a guard (Gabe Vincent) and wing (Taurean Prince). This current roster doesn’t align with their recent public messaging.

While the Lakers could argue that McGee and Howard were low-cost signings in 2019-20 (McGee signed for slightly more than the minimum), using two veteran’s minimum bigs next to Davis isn’t as sustainable or shrewd as it was back then. Hayes, whom Los Angeles has been publicly talking up, is, at best, the 10th-best player on this team and certainly not at the level that McGee or Howard reached in 2019-20. He can make similar highlight-reel blocks and jaw-dropping alley-oop finishes, but he has yet to impact games as consistently, particularly defensively.

The Lakers believe Hayes has the potential to develop in a new environment under the tutelage of Davis, head coach Darvin Ham and the team’s development staff. Still, a significant step for him would be the rosiest of outcomes. He was the third- and sometimes-fourth-string center on New Orleans last season. Finding more than 10 minutes for him when projecting the rotation is difficult.

It’d be even harder to do for Christian Wood or Bismack Biyombo, the team’s leading candidates to fill the final roster spot, as previously reported by The Athletic. Each provides tangible strengths but comes with their fair share of weaknesses. Biyombo is the closest archetype to Howard and McGee, but he doesn’t have the commanding physical presence of Howard or the sheer length and athleticism of McGee. Wood is the inverse of the McGee/Howard mold. His biggest value to the roster would come from his shooting — he shot 37.6 percent on 3s last season on 4.2 attempts per game and is a career 37.9 percent 3-point shooter on 3.5 attempts per game — and he’d have an argument for being the Lakers’ third-best frontcourt scorer behind James and Davis. But while he’s at least mobile and solid at challenging shots, he’s mostly been a minus defender throughout his career, which has seen him play for seven different teams in seven seasons.

Meanwhile, this roster is loaded at power forward. Why would the Lakers shave off the minutes of better players, like Rui Hachimura, Prince or Jarred Vanderbilt, to commit to a two-big look? Even if they sign Biyombo or Wood, it still makes sense to start Davis at center and use Hayes and Wood or Biyombo off the bench.

Starting Davis next to Hayes and/or another center would have a trickle-down effect in sliding the Lakers’ many power forwards down a position more than is optimal. That would affect James the most, as it’d force him to spend more time defending opponents’ top scoring wings, a sizable challenge for a soon-to-be-39-year-old. Even if only a few teams have dominant, rangy wing scorers like Kevin Durant, Jayson Tatum, Kawhi Leonard, Brandon Ingram and others, there are enough of them, especially in the West, to put the Lakers in difficult positions on a near-nightly basis.

The Lakers could deploy Davis more on the perimeter against those types of scorers, as they’ve done in the past, particularly against Leonard. But that would require Davis to navigate screens on and off the ball and chase players sideline to sideline, thus drawing him away from the paint and taking away his elite rim protection.

One other under-discussed factor that allowed the 2019-20 team to use two-big lineups was its plethora of defensive-minded guards with size, most notably Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Alex Caruso, Danny Green and Avery Bradley. Even Rajon Rondo, whose play on that end had slipped in the latter stages of his career, had some impressive moments. That allowed James to hide in certain matchups, with Caldwell-Pope, Green or even forward Kyle Kuzma taking certain wing matchups.

The 2023-24 Lakers aren’t as equipped with defensive talent at the guard spots. The collective of Austin Reaves, D’Angelo Russell, Vincent, Max Christie and Jalen Hood-Schifino is a clear step down from the title group in terms of backcourt defense. If the Lakers want to start two bigs, they’d likely need to replace Russell with either Vincent (a better defender) or Christie (a better and bigger defender), with Reaves assuming more primary ballhandling duties.

That’s before we get to the more obvious offensive spacing concerns of potential two-big lineups. With James and Davis falling off as shooters last season, inserting a non-shooter in the third frontcourt spot is a non-starter. If Wood joins L.A., he at least possesses the skill set to space the floor, but it comes with defensive concerns. The Lakers got away with playing three non-shooters during stretches of the regular season with Vanderbilt in the starting lineup, but they eventually had to go away from that trio during the playoffs. If Davis was as lithe as he was during his first Lakers season, or he converted his 3s like he did in the bubble, there would potentially be an argument for more two-big looks. But he’s been regressing from the perimeter ever since that title season.

A large part of the reason the Lakers used Davis at power forward earlier in his Los Angeles tenure was his longstanding apprehension about exclusively playing center, dating back to his time New Orleans. But Davis has publicly pushed back against that notion over the past two seasons. With him embracing the five spot, both publicly and privately, there isn’t a logical reason to play him at his lesser position.

Even the idea that playing more power forward could keep Davis healthy doesn’t hold water, as there has been little to no correlation between Davis’ injuries and the position he plays. The weight he added ahead of the 2021-22 season was probably unnecessary, but he’s progressively slimmed down since then. In truth, his lower-body injuries more so sap his trademark athleticism, explosion and mobility, further necessitating him playing center rather than power forward.

To be clear: Los Angeles should experiment with a two-big look during segments of games, particularly in matchups against bigger and slower teams, where Hayes and Davis can leverage their relative speed and athleticism. The same would be true if the Lakers signed Wood or Biyombo. There is no harm in trying it out. The Lakers found some success with a different version of the two-big strategy during the 2020-21 season, first with Marc Gasol and then Andre Drummond next to Davis. If Hayes takes a step and/or if the Lakers sign Wood and he buys into a smaller role amid Ham’s defense-first culture, these hypothetical two-big lineups could certainly exceed expectations.

But that’s different from the way they’ve publicly framed the plan. There’s an inherent risk in relying on the most optimistic outcomes. If the Lakers try to replicate the formula of the first two years of Davis’ tenure, they are more likely to suffer the fate of his most recent two — either sticking too long ineffective lineups or quickly abandoning the two-big plan once they see it up close. Even in the 2019-20 season, Howard’s and McGee’s minutes progressively decreased in the postseason, outside of Howard momentarily getting a bump in the Western Conference finals against Nikola Jokić and the Denver Nuggets. McGee, the team’s starting center for most of the season, wasn’t in the rotation at all in the finals.

At this point, the evidence is clear: Davis is a center, and James is a power forward. Teams should build their identities around the strengths of their stars. If anything, the Lakers should be looking for another 3-and-D wing who better complements Davis and James than their current options. Perhaps that player could be available around the February 2024 trade deadline.

But until then, the Lakers’ best bet is continuing to play Davis at center, where most of his best moments in Los Angeles have come.

(Top photo: Mark Ralston / AFP via Getty Images)

Source link

Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

Recent posts

Related articles

Man City’s lack of squad depth is by design but it cost them against Wolves

There is never a good time to make a point that nobody wants to hear, especially when...

Kenley Jansen fortified Boston’s bullpen in 2023, but he’s looking for more in 2024

BALTIMORE — There were two days left in a disappointing regular season and Kenley Jansen was running...

Chris Snow, data-forward Flames exec who used platform to raise ALS awareness, dies at 42

Chris Snow, the Calgary Flames assistant general manager who used his platform to offer hope and raise...

Khan: Undefeated Texas isn’t perfect, but its championship potential is as clear as ever

AUSTIN, Texas — When Texas went into the locker room leading Kansas by only six points at...

Iowa QB Cade McNamara suffers apparent leg injury vs. Michigan State

Iowa quarterback Cade McNamara was carried off the field with a lower-body injury midway through the first...

Can Penn State learn from slow start at Northwestern? Offense has plenty of issues to work on

EVANSTON, Ill. — As Penn State headed to the locker room at halftime against Northwestern with the...

The Ryder Cup was turned on its head Saturday. Here’s what it looked like

ROME — Members of the United States Ryder Cup team sat upon a crowded hillside late Saturday...

Warriors’ Draymond Green sprains left ankle, expected to miss start of training camp: Source

Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green sprained his left ankle in a pickup game at Chase Center...