Playing Small Ball Looks to Be the Lakers’ Best Option

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For the last two years, JaVale McGee has lived in the lap of basketball luxury. The Warriors silver-spoon-fed him for lob after lob, an exhibition that defenses stressed by Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, and Klay Thompson had little choice but to allow. So much of McGee’s game is glaringly impractical. He is a bright yellow hummer on a labyrinthine road, a fact that only endeared him further to his teammates in Golden State. Every minute of McGee was an endorsement of what the Warriors had built. It called out to the world: Bring us your gaudy, your spacey, your walking punchlines yearning to breathe free, the basketball castoffs of your ordinary franchise.

The Warriors relished the opportunity to make McGee a starter on a championship team, and that’s precisely why he makes for such a baffling Laker. For LeBron James’s first season in Los Angeles, the Lakers’ front office saw fit not only to invest in some of the league’s more difficult personalities, but the player from Golden State who most exemplified the Warriors’ “light years” exceptionalism. The talent around McGee insulated his role from any real stakes. To the extent that Golden State relied on him at all, it was largely just to prove it could. 

There were paths to re-sign Julius Randle or Brook Lopez, either of whom would be a more functional choice for a team in L.A.’s position. Instead, the Lakers will ride with McGee, Ivica Zubac, and rookie Moe Wagner as their nominal centers—a rotation that a team with four All-NBA talents might be able to get away with, but a LeBron-headlined solo act might not.

So it’s fitting that the Lakers, after signing McGee as a presumptive starter, are already dreaming small. From Eric Pincus of Bleacher Report:

“We may not see this on day one, but the coaching staff is eager to see our version of the [Warriors’] Death Lineup with Lonzo [Ball], Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram, [Kyle] Kuzma and LeBron,” a second Lakers executive said.

There’s a lot to like about that particular group—not least of all that it puts five of the Lakers’ best players on the floor at once. Some might opt for Rajon Rondo over Ball, or even Kentavious Caldwell-Pope over Hart, though the general principle behind the lineup remains the same. The Lakers’ best chance to compete will so often fall on smaller, quicker lineups where either James or Kuzma works as a functional center. The NBA game—particularly in the playoffs—moves that way whether the teams involved are ready for it or not.

Perhaps starting McGee is the Lakers’ nod to the fatalism of the center position in general. Why dedicate valuable resources, after all, to a player who won’t be able to stay on the floor against the best teams in the conference? It’s a charitable read, given some of the Lakers’ public comments on their new roster’s construction, but what the Lakers have done reflects a somewhat modern sensibility all the same. It would have been difficult under the circumstances for L.A. to pack more skill into the frontcourt than James, Ingram, and Kuzma could supply. So why not invest elsewhere?

The danger comes from assumption. LeBron might like the idea of smaller lineups but balk when forced to wrestle with centers throughout a marathon regular season. Kuzma, who would be the most natural alternative to LeBron at the five, has barely played the position to this point in his NBA career. Either option would be intriguing, though intrigue alone won’t account for all that much against the balance of titans like Golden State and Houston. 

The invocation of the “Death Lineup” is especially rich, and keeps with the tradition of making basketball comparisons based on only the vaguest or most superficial criteria. Line up each player, spot for spot, and you’ll find that the small-ball Lakers are similarly sized to the Death Lineup Warriors. Everything beyond that is where the comparison falls apart. What makes the Death Lineup so lethal is that the best-shooting lineup in basketball is likely its smartest.

The reads that go into every possession transform them; the Death Lineup could hardly be the same without Curry’s natural feel for parsing pick-and-roll coverage, Draymond Green’s ingrained sense of when to help, and Andre Iguodala’s nuanced grasp of the geometry of the floor. The Lakers have LeBron, the premier basketball intellect of his time, but would surround him with prospects too busy finding their own games to grapple with all the interlocking variables around them.

This is the state of these clearly incomplete Lakers. Playing small looks to be one of the team’s best options, and yet any feasible small-ball lineup would be a considerable work in progress. Now is the time to try.

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