When DeMarcus Cousins tore his ACL in a summer pickup game, the Los Angeles Lakers seemed to be in big trouble. They were counting on Cousins, despite his recent injuries, to shore up the center position alongside JaVale McGee, pushing new acquisition Anthony Davis to his preferred power forward position.
Cousins’ injury momentarily changed those plans but the Lakers turned to an old acquaintance in Dwight Howard who turned into a major key for the organization.
Howard had only played nine games last season and was on the verge of being out of the league. The opportunity he got with the Lakers turned out to be a career-altering one as the former three-time defensive player of the year has turned into a revelation for the Lakers leading to the team fully guaranteeing the rest of his one-year contract.
Howard is not alone. McGee, after a slow start to the year, has regained his own form as well. Together, the two have recorded All-Star production all while keeping Davis as fresh as possible for a potential long playoff run.
On the season, McGee and Howard have combined to average 14 points, 12.6 rebounds and 3.1 blocks in 37.1 minutes per game. Against the Pistons on Sunday, the pair blocked six shots each, feasting on Detroit’s more inexperienced ball handlers as they approached the paint.
The production from the Lakers’ less-heralded frontcourt players has given the Lakers a bit of a dilemma. They are logically better when Davis plays center; it creates more spacing and they don’t lose much, if anything, on the defensive end. But in certain matchups, you could make the argument that going big for the majority of the game could be a winning strategy. The Lakers’ Christmas Day matchup against the Clippers was one such example.
The numbers give a similar outlook. Davis has played 506 minutes alongside McGee, during which the Lakers have scored 115.3 points per 100 possessions while giving up 107.5 for a net rating of 7.7.
In 272 minutes next to Howard, the offense gets worse (110.2 points per 100 possessions) while the defense gets better (103.9) but the net rating (6.3) is similar.
Davis has played 426 minutes at the center position all year, minutes during which the Lakers have scored 105.1 and given up 98 points per 100 possessions, outscoring the competition by 7.1 at that pace. This is somewhat misleading, however, as the Lakers have played many of those minutes without James on the floor.
When the Lakers star duo is on the floor and no centers are joining them, they are outscoring opponents by 18.5 points per 100 possessions with a stellar defensive rating of 89.8. There have been 229 such minutes this season.
The data suggests that the Lakers are still better with Davis in the middle, with the caveat that they only truly blow teams out of the water when James joins him. That’s a promising sign for the postseason where one can assume both James and Davis will play extended minutes while McGee and Howard have theirs cut.
Nevertheless, the Lakers have stumbled across a legitimate strength for the squad. The McGee and Howard partnership at center has kept Davis mostly healthy while producing at a high level to be assets for the Lakers in certain matchups.
Whether that duo will see that production in the postseason remains to be seen. McGee and Howard provide lob options offensively and protect the rim defensively but are detriments to the team’s offensive spacing in spite of McGee’s drug-test inducing 3-point prowess. They also give the Lakers a potential advantage that not many teams have counters to with their size. They can crash the offensive glass and ignite fast breaks with their rim protection on a night when the Lakers often streaky offense is struggling.
At the very least, McGee and Howard have given Frank Vogel an additional weapon and option in his arsenal. It may not come into play very often but when it does, it could be a significant factor in the Lakers’ postseason success.