JaVale McGee benched as Lakers experiment with new starting lineup in loss to Rockets

JaVale McGee
Aug 3, 2020; Lake Buena Vista, Florida, USA; Los Angeles Lakers center JaVale McGee warms up before a NBA game against the Utah Jazz at The Arena at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

LeBron James and Alex Caruso’s absences due to injury were not the only noticeable changes to the Los Angeles Lakers during Thursday night’s loss to the Houston Rockets. Starting center JaVale McGee was a healthy scratch, made inactive by head coach Frank Vogel as the Lakers went with a new starting lineup.

After the game, Vogel explained his reasoning for benching the big man, chalking it up to experimentation with a smaller lineup against a Rockets team that does not start any true big men.

With slow starts plaguing the Lakers since their arrival in Orlando, it’s no wonder why Vogel felt the need to make a change. In 41 minutes as a unit in the bubble, the starting group of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Danny Green, James, Anthony Davis and McGee has been outscored by astonishing 30.1 points per 100 possessions. While that number is a case of small sample size theater, it also follows the trend of the regular season as a whole where it holds a -1.2 net rating despite being the team’s second most used lineup (294 minutes).

McGee isn’t the sole cause for that, of course. Green has not been able to find the mark from three and Caldwell-Pope has not found the form he had all year which made him arguably the Lakers’ third best player. Even James and Davis have had their fair share of struggles in Orlando.

But, as much as it pains me to say it, McGee has also been a major root cause of the struggles in the bubble. His timing and positioning defensively has been an issue, with the big man often caught in no man’s land while guarding pick and rolls, neither containing the ball-handler not recovering to his center counterpart.

Offensively, McGee has not been as involved in the flow of the game and both he and Dwight Howard have not had the same success catching lobs at the rim as they did all year, perhaps a factor of teams having four months to game plan against Lakers actions.

If McGee is not protecting the paint well and he is not putting pressure on the rim offensively, then his value on the court is largely neutralized. And against a team like the Rockets, you cannot afford to throw out a seven-footer if he is not giving you enough production on both ends.

In fact, McGee being benched points to a larger trend for the Lakers as the postseason approaches. The team has loved its size all year and has taken advantage of it to brutalize opponents down low. But it’s becoming more and more obvious that in the playoffs, they won’t be able to do that for significant minutes.

Vogel seems to have taken notice. Both McGee and Howard have seen diminished minutes in the bubble. Davis is playing approximately 59% of his minutes without either of the two centers on the court compared to 40% on the year.

Against the Rockets and Clippers – two teams that seem somewhat likely to face the Lakers in the postseason – playing two big lineups seems like asking for trouble. Both teams isolate heavily and hunt mismatches. The Clippers will try to take advantage of the Lakers bigs dropping deep in coverage by drilling mid-range jumpers while the Rockets will hunt 3-point shots that both McGee and Howard struggle to get out to and contest. Even in a game where McGee did not play, they attempted 57 shots from deep against the Lakers.

It seems all but certain that for at least those two potential playoff series, we’ve seen the end of twin towers lineups for the Lakers. How the minutes distribution will be affected remains to be seen. Vogel seems to have more trust in Howard so does that mean McGee will be benched entirely? Or will one get backup center minutes in the first half and one in the second half to appease both? To his credit, McGee has usually had a good attitude when benched for a game or pulled early because of his mistakes. Not to mention that we should expect some improvement to his form given what he’s done for the Lakers for two seasons now relative to his four poor performances after the shutdown.

This is one of the more fascinating storylines surrounding the Lakers. Vogel has recently put an emphasis on the team’s offensive spacing not being good enough and that seems to point to a more permanent lineup solution involving McGee.

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