LeBron James’ team could not score. Worse yet, his star big man was injured.
The Miami Heat managed just 75 points against the vaunted Indiana Pacers defense led by Frank Vogel in Game 2 of the 2012 Eastern Conference semifinals. Chris Bosh pulled an abdominal muscle in Game 1 and wouldn’t be back for the foreseeable future. The Heat were in crisis mode.
The next day, the Heat held practice to figure out who was going to replace Bosh in the starting lineup. Ronny Turiaf and Udonis Haslem started Game 2, but matching the Pacers’ massive size up front wasn’t working. David West and Roy Hibbert weren’t budging.
After practice, the Heat’s brain trust gathered for an intense meeting. Some believed staying big was the only logical choice. Others thought going small would force the Pacers to adjust. Pat Riley voiced his thoughts and so did New York Knicks head coach David Fizdale, who was a Heat assistant coach at the time.
The late-night meeting never resulted in consensus. Spoelstra and the Heat brass walked to their cars in the parking garage along Biscayne Bay.
Spoelstra turned to his colleagues.
“I know what I’m gonna do,” Spoelstra said with a look.
They knew what it meant.
The next night, Spoelstra signed his starting lineup sheet with Shane Battier starting as a big, allowing LeBron James to effectively operate as the power forward on offense. The Heat lost Game 3, but Spoelstra kept at it. In Game 4, the Heat exploded for 101 points as James erupted for 40 points, 18 rebounds and nine assists with Ronny Turiaf as the Heat’s lone true big man on the court.
James was unlocked as a do-it-all big man. He set screens. He crashed the boards for putback dunks. He sliced through the defense as West shadowed Battier at the perimeter. After two 75-point games, the Heat would go on to average 100.7 points for the rest of the playoffs and eventually win the 2012 NBA Finals with the smaller, unconventional formation with a fully recovered Bosh at center.
Now, in 2019, the Los Angeles Lakers are facing a similar dilemma -- but with a twist. Now, Vogel is the head coach with the chance to go small. With James’ star big man DeMarcus Cousins out with a torn ACL suffered last week, does his coach effectively make James a big again?
That doesn’t happen without Anthony Davis’ blessing. And therein lies the rub.
At 6-foot-10 with a 7-foot-6 wingspan and listed at 253 pounds, Davis is one of the largest human beings on the planet. But even while the league is moving away from lumbering 7-footers, Davis still prefers not to play the position of players his size. In fact, he told the Lakers up front that he wanted the roster stocked with centers.
Sitting between Lakers GM Rob Pelinka and Vogel at the Lakers’ introductory press conference last month, Davis was asked about his ideal position.
“I’m not going to sugarcoat it,” Davis said. “I like playing the 4. I don’t really like playing the 5.”
Then Davis smiled and put his hand on Vogel’s shoulder.
“But if it comes down to it, if coach needs me to play the 5, then I’ll play the 5.”
Pelinka jumped in, emphasizing the fact that the Lakers granted the upcoming free agent’s wishes by getting commitments from JaVale McGee and Cousins.
“When Anthony and I first started talking about the roster, he did say, ‘Hey, I’d love to have some 5s that can bang with some length.’ He’s 26. We want a decade of dominance out of him here so we’ve got to do what’s best for his body,” Pelinka said. “And having him bang against the biggest centers in the West every night is not what’s best for his body, or for our team or for our franchise.
“We wanted to make sure to honor what Anthony asked for: to get some 5s that he can play with.”
The Lakers aren’t exactly turning tides. Looking at the New Orleans Pelicans’ free agent signings over the years, it’s clear that Davis’ preferences were granted there, too.
In 2015, the team signed center Omer Asik to a five-year, $58 million contract and center Alexis Ajinca to a four-year, $20 million deal. In 2016-17, the Pelicans traded Buddy Hield, Tyreke Evans, Langston Galloway and a future first-round and second-round pick for yet another center, this time, the All-Star Cousins. In 2017-18, the team swung a deal for sweet-shooting center Nikola Mirotic, who starred as Davis’ counterpart in the 2018 playoffs after Cousins went down with a torn Achilles in January of that season. With Mirotic spacing the floor next to Davis, the team swept the Portland Trail Blazers.
Like he professes to do for Vogel, Davis has manned the 5 in high-profile situations. In 60 possessions while Davis guarded Jusuf Nurkic in that playoff series, the Blazers’ offense managed just 50 points, spitting out just 83.3 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com/stats. On the other end, Davis manhandled Nurk to the tune of 64 points on 59.5 percent shooting in 134 possessions with the Portland center guarding him. Davis’ soaring putback dunk on Nurkic in Game 3 was the signature moment of the series, symbolizing Davis’ power as a towering big man.
Putting Davis-at-center on the backburner until the postseason may be the Lakers’ plan. McGee could be the regular-season stopgap until the postseason arrives and then they could more regularly unleash a pseudo-Death Lineup with James at the 4 and Davis at the 5.
Though McGee was the Lakers’ full-time starter last season, he wasn’t nearly as entrusted to be the finisher. Simply put, he started 76 percent of the Lakers’ games, but played just 31 percent of the team’s clutch minutes. Presumably, Cousins was supposed to fill that role, but his season is in doubt recovering from an ACL tear.
Protecting Davis’ body should be a top priority for the Lakers. After all, Davis in street clothes can’t play any position. On that point, Davis has suffered no shortage of nagging injuries over his seven-year career, holding his career high in games played to just 75 games. On his left side of his body, public book-keeping data shows that he has missed games due to an injured toe, ankle, knee, hip, groin and shoulder. On the right side, he has sat out with a damaged toe, quad, hip, elbow and shoulder. More generally, he has been sidelined games with concussions, a sore back and bruised chest. You can understand his reluctance to “bang” with centers every night.
As of now, McGee doesn’t have a true backup center on the depth chart, if we’re not counting Davis. James, Jared Dudley and Kyle Kuzma could moonlight as small-ball centers in a pinch. With Cousins out, the Lakers reportedly are bringing in free agent centers Dwight Howard, Joakim Noah and Mo Speights for workouts this week, with Marcin Gortat on the radar.
But if the choice is between veteran free agent centers to eat up minutes, the call is an easy one for me: it should be Noah.
Though Noah is not the dynamic scorer that Cousins is, the 33-year-old brings the same playmaking and rebounding abilities as Cousins, but with more defensive fire (see: Devin Booker). Noah can fill the void left by Cousins as a distributor. Last season, only six centers tallied more than six assists per 100 possessions, per Basketball Reference tracking. Cousins was one of them. Another was Noah.
In the end, the best Lakers’ replacement for Cousins is Davis himself. If we earmarked Cousins for 30 minutes a night at center, most of those minutes should now go to Davis. That allocation might not happen until playoff time in the name of preserving Davis’ body. But it should still happen.
While the focus is on the short term, what the Lakers do with their lineups in April, May and June is most important. The Heat didn’t go to Bosh at center until late in the 2012 playoffs and it resulted in their first title together. The next year, they won again with Bosh at center, culminating in his iconic rebound in Game 6 to save the season. It’s not hard to see Davis being the new Bosh and Dudley filling Battier’s role as the veteran dirty-work spacer. Imagine Davis and James working in a spread-out system. That could be the silver lining of Cousins’ injury.
Just like that Heat team, the Lakers can use this adversity and turn it into an opportunity. James likes to say that the greatest teacher you can have in life is experience. It’s a saying that he picked up in Miami, only after losing the Finals in 2011. Hopefully for the Lakers, they won’t have to experience a similar defeat for Davis to see it.
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