As training camp approaches, the Los Angeles Lakers have one perceived glaring weakness. The team’s depth at the center position is scarce with a reliance on unproven players to carry the load.
JaVale McGee was signed to a one-year contract and Moritz Wagner was drafted late in the first round of the 2018 NBA Draft, but gone are Brook Lopez and Julius Randle, the team’s two prominent five-men last season and arguably its best players.
The Lakers are hoping for a center by committee approach in year one of the LeBron James era. McGee, despite being a two-time champion and a better player than most give him credit for, is unable to play heavy minutes due to his asthma. Zubac has seemingly lost weight and is in better shape than he was last season but for much of that year, he was unplayable on both ends of the court. Wagner showed some promise in Summer League but he is a rookie who may not have the size, let alone the skill, to play center in the NBA for much time. James and Kyle Kuzma may see some time as small-ball fives.
All of this is to say that there’s a big question mark in the middle for the Lakers and depending on how Zubac has developed and how Wagner plays from the get-go, it could be a major issue for a team who will have to fight for a playoff spot even with James.
The team recently gained an open roster spot after buying out and waiving Luol Deng in order to create more future cap space. Right now, it seems unlikely that the Lakers will use that spot, seemingly hoping to keep it open into the season in case of a trade or buyout candidate signing with the purple and gold. But training camp is the time to experiment and if they can find the right fit, it would be wise to shore up that weakness before the games begin.
There are not too many names left out there to pick from but the free agency pool could be getting some reinforcements in the coming days. According to The Athletic’s Shams Charania, the New York Knicks are expected to part ways with center Joakim Noah soon.
Noah was among the first signings in the infamous summer of 2016 which saw the Lakers sign two albatross contracts in Deng and Timofey Mozgov. (In fact, Noah’s leaked contract ahead of free agency may have prompted the ridiculous cost of signing Mozgov for the Lakers). Since then, the center has dealt with continuous injuries, playing in only 53 out of a possible 164 games.
When he has played, Noah has been a shell of his former self. At his peak, Noah was a two-time All-Star and both a Defensive Player of the Year and Most Valuable Player candidate. His versatility at his position was the key to some phenomenal Chicago Bulls teams in the early 2010’s.
But in New York, Noah has averaged a meager 4.6 points and 7.9 rebounds a game in 20 minutes. He has only shot 49.1 percent from the field. Noah’s struggles can be traced back to his final year in Chicago where he shot a career-low 38.3 percent from the field in 29 appearances.
So with all of that to boot, what could Noah have left in the tank for a team like the Lakers?
Make no mistake, Noah was not a good player his last three seasons. But certain aspects of his game are still there and the Lakers could take advantage of them, especially at the much lower rate he would sign for.
Because he only appeared in seven games last year, it’s hard to take much from Noah’s stats in year two in New York. The 33-year-old’s 2016-17 numbers over 46 games, however, can serve to paint a broad portrait of the center’s current form.
According to Synergy, Noah’s 1.168 points per possession (PPP) on all offensive possessions (including those ending in assists) ranked in the 51st percentile, making him a roughly median player in the NBA. His shooting possessions, however, were mostly abysmal outside of two noticeable categories.
Noah scored 1.231 PPP (49th percentile) on cuts and 0.925 PPP (31st percentile) as a pick-and-roll roll man in 16-17. Those numbers are not mind-blowing by any means, but they indicate how Noah can best be used. It’s not hard to imagine Noah being an above average pick-and-roll threat and cutter alongside two of the best playmakers in the NBA in James and Lonzo Ball. James, Ball and Noah could form a deadly passing trio when on the court together.
Defensively, Noah is no longer the pesky game changer that he once was, but he’s no turnstile, either. Noah ranked in the 88th percentile in guarding pick-and-roll roll men, the 84th percentile in isolation, the 37th percentile in guarding pick-and-roll ball handlers and the 32nd percentile in post-ups.
It’s clear that Noah can no longer keep up with athletic guards on the perimeter and he can struggle to get enough lift to really contest shots at the rim. But he is still a heady defender and can use his length at a high level to be a menace on that end of the floor.
Noah is never going to revert to his prime form and who knows how one more year of aging and injuries has further impacted his game. But setting aside his salary over the past two seasons, it’s clear that he can still be a rotation player when healthy.
The Lakers will not be able to solve their issues at the center position at this point unless Zubac or Wagner really surprise everyone. But in Noah, they can at least find a competitive option, a veteran who has been around the league and can impart wisdom on the Lakers’ young bigs while still contributing in what could be an ideal situation for him.