When the Los Angeles Lakers signed JaVale McGee to a one-year contract at the veteran minimum, the center was grouped together with an uninspiring combination of new additions following LeBron James to Southern California.
Eight games into the season and that cannot be any further from the truth. Lance Stephenson, Rajon Rondo and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope have had their moments and, in some cases, stellar games. They have also had their duds and inconsistencies. Michael Beasley has barely been featured. Meanwhile, McGee has come out of the gate at top speed, showing the Lakers that he may be the most irreplaceable part of a team led by the best player in the world.
McGee’s career to this point has been overshadowed by gaffes that go viral on social media and Shaqtin’ a Fool. The big man never got major opportunities on the court and when he did, it was often for abysmal or dysfunctional squads.
As he has grown older and matured, however, the narrative surrounding the former 18th overall pick in the 2008 NBA Draft has changed. McGee became an integral part of two championship teams in two seasons as a member of the Golden State Warriors, most recently starting three of four games in the 2018 NBA Finals.
But while McGee was important to the Warriors, he was inherently replaceable for a squad featuring four All-Stars, playing fewer than ten minutes per game in two seasons in the Bay. That is not the case in Los Angeles.
To this point, McGee has been the only positive in the Lakers much-maligned depth at the center position. Ivica Zubac looks lost. Kyle Kuzma struggled on both ends of the floor. Johnathan Williams has been a pleasant surprise and nice story but does not appear to be much more than an energy option on the end of the bench.
McGee’s irreplaceability goes beyond the lack of depth behind him, however. At 31 years old, JaVale is playing the best basketball of his career, with a demonstrable impact on both ends of the floor.
McGee is averaging a career-high 15.5 points per game on 63.2 percent shooting from the field. His stellar rim-running and athleticism has given the Lakers a lob threat and finisher both in transition and in the half-court.
More importantly, McGee has been one of the lone bright spots on the defensive end for a team often featuring lackluster effort. His career-high 3.3 blocks per game lead the league despite his often limited minutes, erasing a few of the many mistakes made by teammates on the perimeter. McGee has been the most consistent Laker in giving a concerted effort on that side of the ball and it has shown in film and in the advanced stats.
The Lakers outscore opponents by seven points per 100 possessions when McGee is on the court with a defensive rating of 101.2, a figure that would rank third in the entire NBA behind only the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks.
When McGee sits, however, the Lakers are surrendering a drastically negative net rating, giving up an astonishing 118.4 points per 100 possessions which would account for the worst defense in the league, by far. In short, the Lakers have been 15.9 points per 100 possessions better with McGee on the court versus off of it.
That is a scary proposition given McGee’s history of playing low minutes. Prior to this season, he had played more than 20 minutes per game only four times in his ten-year career. McGee has already played more than 30 minutes in a game three times through eight games, a feat he had not accomplished since February 2013. How long that will continue for a player who has asthma (although he has claimed it’s an overblown restriction) remains to be seen but it’s clear the Lakers desperately need him on the court as they search for other options.
McGee will always have some physical limitations. He can get bullied down low due to his frame which conversely gives him the advantage offensively as one of the fastest centers in the league. The Lakers routinely gave up floaters and three-pointers to the Mavericks because McGee was dropping so far back in his pick-and-roll coverage. His foul rate has improved (from the eighth percentile last year to 35th this year) but it’s still an issue in keeping him on the court.
The Lakers ended the offseason declaring that they want to go small and that they believed they didn’t have a need for a traditional center other than McGee. They whiffed on that plan.
LeBron does not play defense with any effort at this point in his career – he cannot be the backbone of any lineup on that end of the floor. Kyle Kuzma has not been a good defender so far in his career – he cannot be the backbone of any lineup on that end of the floor. Williams was a lucky revelation but relying on an undrafted rookie after two positive games is a disaster waiting to happen. The Lakers are now waiting for Moritz Wagner to return from injury (he has been scrimmaging with the South Bay Lakers and was active for the Lakers’ game against the Mavericks on Wednesday) but asking a rookie to make up the mistakes routinely made by perimeter players, especially those on the bench, is asking for trouble.
There is not a single problem more pronounced for the Lakers right now than their lack of depth at the center position. Not the shooting that was discussed ad nauseum all summer. Not the coaching that has come under fire recently. Not even the late-game offense that has been a disaster in the early stages of the season.
The dependence on McGee is not a case of small sample size. It is a logical and obvious trend. And when the difference between wins and losses is whether or not McGee, playing at an All-Star caliber level, is in foul trouble or not, there could be major consequences come March and April.
Make no mistakes. McGee has been an incredible addition to the Lakers and his play thus far has been better than even his most ardent supporters (read: me) could have predicted. But the Lakers need to find a solution behind him. Kuzma is not a solution. Williams is not a solution. Wagner is not a solution. If the Lakers are to be a playoff team – a true playoff team and not one that ekes in to end the year – they are going to need a longterm plan behind their All-Star center.