During a season that was marred by injuries, inconsistent play, and poor roster construction, there was perhaps no more volatile position for the Lakers than the center position. In a way, the highs and lows of the center rotation could be seen as an accurate representation of the roller coaster that was the Lakers’ season. The team started the year with just one true center seeing the floor in JaVale McGee before eventually finding two capable backups in Tyson Chandler and Ivica Zubac. But, as was so often the case with the 2018-2019 Lakers, health issues and questionable front office decisions ultimately derailed a rotation that, at times, showed flashes of true promise.
JaVale McGee was one of last offseason’s biggest question marks along with, well, every one of the Lakers’ post-LeBron signings. For the most part, though, his play more than justified his veteran’s minimum contract – especially at the beginning of the season.
Out of the gates, McGee was playing some of the best basketball of his career. He seemed to block nearly every shot that came his way, with 2.8 blocks per game in October and November. He finished dunks and lobs with regularity. He was an all-around exciting player to watch for the first portion of the season, but his most important contributions early on were arguably on the defensive end. If the end of the year awards were handed out in the first quarter of the season, then JaVale McGee could have been a legitimate contender for defensive player of the year.
That all changed in mid-December when McGee missed seven games due to a battle with pneumonia. He returned to the lineup just before the new year, but the lingering effects seemed to hinder his play for some time and it wasn’t until very recently that the JaVale McGee of yesteryear (in this case, October) finally graced Lakers fans with his presence once again. The month of March saw him average a double-double in 16 games played – the only such month of the season.
His crowning achievement on the season, unfortunately, came in the very same game that eliminated the Lakers from the playoffs. Against the Brooklyn Nets on March 22, McGee posted career highs in points and rebounds, 33 and 20 respectively, and also sent back a total of 6 blocked shots. It was a virtuoso performance and a reminder of just how good he can be in the right situation.
Tyson Chandler joined the Lakers in early November, a gift to LeBron James from his former teammate turned Phoenix Suns general manager James Jones. Following the overall theme of the season, Chandler’s tenure started out relatively strong before fading and eventually falling off of a cliff as a result of nagging injuries.
Chandler never offered much in the way of flashy numbers on the box score, but when he arrived he provided exactly what the team had been missing – an adequate backup big who could give JaVale McGee some much-needed rest, yes, but most importantly: size. Experimenting with Kyle Kuzma as a small ball center never panned out, but once Chandler was plugged into the backup role, the dynamic of the team shifted. Suddenly, the bench had a guy who could keep plays alive by batting missed shots away from the basket for better rebound opportunities. He never showed much on the offensive end, but he was a brick wall when it came to setting screens.
Basically, he did everything that was asked of him and did it well for the most part, even though his age and mileage prevented him from seeing the floor for long stretches. A myriad of issues kept him on the injury report consistently down the stretch, and he only played in ten games after January.
It surely wasn’t the swan song that Chandler might have envisioned when signing with the Lakers in November, but if this is it for him, then at least he got to live out the dream of playing for his hometown team.
It’s always bittersweet to watch young players that you’ve grown so invested in flourish in a new environment, but that’s an unfortunate reality that Lakers fans have known all too well lately. Ivica Zubac was the latest casualty of Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka’s bold and forward-thinking strategy. But before Zubac was traded across the hall to the Clippers, packaged with Michael Beasley to create an open roster spot that was ultimately used as a revolving door for South Bay call-ups, he had been playing the best basketball of his young career.
Zubac’s main window of opportunity came while JaVale McGee and Tyson Chandler were dealing with their health issues, and for most of January, he was easily the Lakers’ best option at center. He averaged 11.5 points and 5.9 rebounds in the month, and while those numbers don’t jump off the page, it was truly a time of growth for him as a player. He had a couple of showcase games against Oklahoma City and Phoenix during this stretch that really spoke to his potential, which only made it more baffling that the front office chose to make the move that they did just a couple of weeks later.
We won’t be seeing Zubac in purple and gold any longer and Tyson Chandler is approaching 40 years old, but I would like to see JaVale McGee brought back next year. It might be tough though since he’ll rightfully want more money and the Lakers will once again be waiting on the top-tier free agents to make their decisions before filling out next season’s roster. Some continuity would be nice too, though, and McGee would be a nice starting point toward building that.