Who should be the starting center for the Lakers: DeMarcus Cousins, JaVale McGee, or someone else?

DeMarcus Cousins
Apr 9, 2019; New Orleans, LA, USA; Golden State Warriors center DeMarcus Cousins (0) reacts after a dunk against the New Orleans Pelicans during the first quarter at the Smoothie King Center. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

We are now more than two weeks removed from the start of free agency, and nearly all of the available free agents have been picked up. The Lakers re-grouped following the Kawhi Leonard announcement, with an onslaught of free agency acquisitions to fill out the rest of the roster. The team brought in newcomers like Danny Green, DeMarcus Cousins, and Quinn Cook, while bringing back some familiar faces in Rajon Rondo, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, JaVale McGee, and everyone’s (second) favorite balding superstar, Alex Caruso. 

McGee and DeMarcus Cousins will join a frontcourt that includes Kyle Kuzma, Jared Dudley, LeBron James, and, of course, Anthony Davis. Kuzma and Dudley will most likely be at the small forward or power forward position exclusively, while LeBron will possibly split his frontcourt duties with being the team’s starting point guard. 

Anthony Davis has traditionally played power forward (and has indicated that’s his preferred position moving forward), so the starting center position for the Lakers is seemingly open. There’s definitely some pros and cons with each choice, but I’ll go ahead and start with some of the easy options to turn down before exploring the few main options.

Amar’e Stoudemire

I just wanted to get ahead of this since the Lakers were one of a dozen teams who watched a private workout involving Amar’e Stoudemire (and Monta Ellis). No, the Lakers should not take a flier on Stoudemire. Nope. Nah. No thanks. Bye.

Kyle Kuzma

Theoretically, Kyle Kuzma would be a pretty great small-ball five. It would allow the Lakers to have as many shooters as they can on the court at one time to surround LeBron James while he’s at the four. 

The fact of the matter is that the Lakers briefly tried this stunt early last year and it made me want to hurl. This is only somewhat better than the Amar’e Stoudemire option. Next.

LeBron James

This option isn’t likely happening, as it has recently been reported that LeBron might start for the Lakers at the point guard position. The only other position said to be locked in from that report was the shooting guard position, where Danny Green will be starting (it should be noted that head coach Frank Vogel indicated that nothing with the starting lineup is decided yet). These two players possibly being at the one and two is important for deciding who should start at the five. But it also should be noted that although LeBron could start at the PG and not the PF or C position, he still could play at the center position at certain points during the game. Anthony Davis would theoretically be sitting in that situation, with Kyle Kuzma probably being at the four. The Lakers could set up a pretty nice small-ball lineup, with some combination of Danny Green, Avery Bradley, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Alex Caruso, Quinn Cook, Jared Dudley, and/or Rajon Rondo filling in those three other spots.

This lineup would obviously be all about putting up as many threes as quickly as possible, with some inefficiencies to follow on the defensive end. Either way, it’s doubtful that there’d be any situation (short of injuries) that would cause Frank Vogel and the Lakers to consider LeBron starting at the five.

Anthony Davis

Davis may be the largest human to put on a purple-and-gold jersey since the Lakers “legend” Timofey Mozgov, but that doesn’t mean he will be starting as the Lakers’ center.

Davis has played as the power forward for the majority of his career. It’s been believed in the past that Davis does not enjoy playing the five position, with Davis admitting as much himself in his introductory press conference this past Saturday. Even more evidence of his preference to play the four are the signings of JaVale McGee and DeMarcus Cousins, which was in part requested by Davis to Rob Pelinka

However, looking back to Davis’ days with Boogie and Rajon Rondo in New Orleans, they did pretty well with AD at the five and Boogie not on the floor at all. 

The most used lineup during the 2017-18 Pelicans’ season was Cousins/Davis/E’Twaun Moore/Jrue Holiday/Rondo. That lineup, for as much as it was used, was somewhat middling with a net rating of -0.1 on the season. The second most used lineup of their season though had AD at the five and Nikola Mirotic at the four. Even with that being the second-most used lineup, it was still used half of the time that the aforementioned lineup was used. It did boast significantly better results though, with a net rating of 18.9 on the season. Within the NBA that year, that lineup posted the fifth-best net rating of any five-man lineup with at least 200 minutes played throughout the season.

A possible Lakers lineup that could mirror the lineup with AD and Mirotic at the five and four, respectively, could start with AD at the five and either Kyle Kuzma or LeBron James at the four. Kuzma would certainly be more similar to the type of player that Mirotic is, with this proposed lineup possibly being one that gives LeBron some rest in his 17th season. In addition to AD and Kuzma, the lineup could include Danny Green at the three, then any combination of the Lakers many guards at the two and one. 

As I said, this lineup could be one that gives LeBron James some rest. That obviously has nothing to do with the starting lineup, but it’s still something that I think shouldn’t be ruled out. If the Lakers realize that playing small gives themselves more of an advantage on a nightly basis, then AD being at the five is sort of a no-brainer. But, as NBA politics being the way they are with the team’s potential future franchise player not wanting to play the five, you should only expect AD starting at the five due to other injuries to the true centers on the roster.

JaVale McGee

JaVale McGee
Mar 26, 2019; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers center JaVale McGee (7) reacts in the second half against the Washington Wizards at Staples Center. The Lakers defeted the Wizards 124-106. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

I’m going to end here with the two that I think are most likely to start at the five for the Lakers, JaVale McGee and DeMarcus Cousins. They’re the only two players on this list that have started at the center position in their careers, other than the first two players which — again — just, no.

McGee comes into the 2019-20 season as one of six Lakers to return from last year’s roster. As LeBron James and Kyle Kuzma will see a good portion of rotation minutes and are two of the five others to return, maybe Frank Vogel decides to go with McGee to take advantage of any familiarity between the players that he can muster. McGee also seems like he could be an interesting fit alongside Anthony Davis, as the two could combine to create headaches for opposing teams in the painted area while McGee would definitely be able to rim run on fastbreaks with LeBron pushing the ball. 

McGee was also an above average roll man on PnRs last season, scoring 1.32 points per possession putting him in the 88th percentile in the NBA. The idea of LeBron or Davis taking a play off with the other person running PnRs with McGee is tantalizing, as it would give one of them a break while spotting up behind the arc with still a probable mismatch for the defense in the PnR due to sheer size. 

However, that familiarity might present itself as a negative if Rajon Rondo starts at the point guard position. Operating with the assumption that Kyle Kuzma starts (definitely not a given but seems likely), any sort of combination of LeBron and Rondo with the two other players didn’t go too well for the Lakers last season. McGee, LeBron, and Rondo together had a net rating of -4.8 with a DRTG of 113.3. Add Kuzma into that mix and the four-person combination had a net rating of -4.9 with a 118.0 (!!!) DRTG. But take Rondo out, and McGee, LeBron, and Kuzma have a much more preferred net rating at 3.1.

McGee would certainly deserve the starting center position due to his familiarity with the organization and returning players, but also due to his improvement last year. In the 2018-19 season, he averaged 12.0 PPG, 7.5 RPG, and 2.0 BPG. The 12.0 PPG was the most in his eleven-year career, while the rebounds and blocks were the most since his 2011-12 season with the Washington Wizards/Denver Nuggets. He would certainly be a viable starting center for the whole year, or even just as a starter for the beginning of the season since he already has a repertoire with LeBron and Kuzma, with this next guy possibly taking over down the road.

DeMarcus Cousins

As I noted above, the starting center position could rotate throughout the season with JaVale McGee being the most rational choice for the beginning of the season. However, DeMarcus Cousins is the true wild card for the Lakers’ roster this season, as he continues to try to return to form from his Achilles injury he suffered with the New Orleans Pelicans in the 2017-18 season. If McGee would be considered a high floor, low ceiling option given my points above, Cousins would be the low floor, high ceiling option that could really take the Lakers from a playoff team to one of the few championship contenders at the end of the season.

There were many signs pointing to Cousins joining the Lakers this season following his lone season with the Golden State Warriors. Take the Lakers’ history with Cousins dating all the way back to his time with the Sacramento Kings. During that time, the Lakers heavily considered parting with their 2nd overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft to acquire Boogie. Trade talks were halted with the Lakers being excited about their eventual pick, current Golden State Warrior D’Angelo Russell. 

Above all though, the acquisition and retention of Anthony Davis and Rajon Rondo, respectively, was about all you needed to strongly predict Boogie to the Lakers. His relationship and playing time with those two is definitely part of the reason he signed with the team (here Cousins jokes that Davis and Rondo “kidnapped him” to be on the Lakers), and could be one of the main reasons that he eventually is the Lakers starting center. 

Within my points about Davis being the starting five, I mentioned the Cousins/Davis/Moore/Holiday/Rondo lineup that seemed to be outperformed by the lineup with Davis and without Boogie. However, that lineup with Cousins, AD, and Rondo at the five, four, and one, respectively, wasn’t bad compared to the most used lineups in the league that year. Of lineups with at least 350 minutes played together that 2017-18 season, that lineup was 19th in the league in regards to net rating. However, the three measured together by themselves was one of three trios with a negative net rating in the Pelicans’ 15 most used trios in that season. Coincidentally, the only other two trios with a negative rating both included Rondo and Cousins as well.

The Cousins, Davis, and Rondo fit might be overstated by the three within the trio, just because they have good relationships with each other. With that being said there’s no guarantee Rondo will start, and Cousins and Davis have a good net rating as a duo at 5.3. Cousins could definitely start alongside Davis, and would almost be required to if he even comes close to his 2017-18 form, pre-Achilles injury. That year he averaged 25.2 PPG, 12.9 RPG, 5.4 APG, and 1.6 BPG. He was still in his world-crushing days, and if recent photos/videos of him seeming much thinner are any indication, maybe he can regain the conditioning needed to play the way he did in that year.

Overall I think McGee would be the best choice for the starting center position on opening night, with Boogie getting the opportunity later if he can prove that he’s more like 2017-18 Boogie than 2018-19 Boogie (which still wasn’t bad). As a side note, Cousins’ ability to create for himself as well as others would be much more needed on a bench unit that doesn’t have LeBron or Davis, as there are just not many of those types of players on the team. For that reason as well, I feel somewhat confident that we’ll see McGee in that starting spot at least in the beginning.

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