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Going small with LeBron James at center has gotten big results – Orange County Register



It’s taken 20 different starting lineups, but the Lakers have found something that might just carry them through the stretch without Anthony Davis.

One of the notable aspects of the Lakers’ torching of the shorthanded Portland Trail Blazers on Friday night was that it was the second time the Lakers have started LeBron James at center. The ultra small-ball lineup has, at the very least, given the team the most energy that they’ve had in weeks, going 2-0 without playing traditional centers.

Part of it, coach Frank Vogel acknowledged, is that James is playing out of his mind. His 43-point, 14-rebound, 0-turnover game against Portland is just the latest in a string of incredible games for James: He’s scored at least 30 points in seven straight, his longest such streak since 2013. But turning to James at center might also be helping him go supersonic.

“During that stretch really showed us that this could be something that makes the game easier for him,” Vogel said. “He’s not wrestling so much and there’s more space for him to be a roller, there’s just a lot of positives to that. Can’t really get away with it with certain matchups on the other end and obviously when AD comes back he’s going to play a load at the five and then we can play this smaller lineup as well.”

The Lakers started getting more invested in James at center back in November in an overtime win over Indiana, when Davis was out with sickness. James scored 39 points in that game while hitting five threes.

Since Davis has been injured, the Lakers have been turning to it more, most notably helping them fuel a 33-20 fourth quarter rally against the Nets. At 6-foot-9, James is still a strong rim protector, averaging over a block per game this season, and his communication skills help organize the defense from his back line position.

“I try to stay two or three steps, and even four or five steps in front of plays,” James said. “Where I’ve played in enough games, I’ve envisioned enough plays where I know what’s going to happen or how it’s going to happen, if I can have two or three different reads along that way.”

According to stat site Cleaning the Glass, the Lakers have a plus-2.5 rating when Davis, DeAndre Jordan or Dwight Howard are off the court, putting James and Carmelo Anthony at the 5. The defensive rating isn’t ideal (110.0), but there’s fertile ground to believe it can be better, Vogel said.

The scoring, however, goes way, way up. The Lakers’ offensive rating (107.3) is languishing at No. 24 in the league, but the small-ball lineups carry have a 112.4 rating. The Lakers can put more long-range shooters on the floor, and James and Russell Westbrook have more open lanes to the basket.

It resembles the gambit the Houston Rockets once made in the 2018-19 season, trading away center Clint Capela to give Westbrook better spacing on offense and playing without a traditional center. While Westbrook didn’t reference the link, he acknowledged he likes how it spaces the floor.

“Keep our spacing, that’s big too,” he said. “Creates a lot of open shots for people when our spacing is good and you see that tonight.”

That potential might lie in an upcoming key decision: Stanley Johnson is approaching the end of his 10-day contract on a hardship waiver. Because the Lakers only have one player left in COVID-19 protocols, it’s unlikely they’ll be able to sign him to a second deal. But assuming a proposed trade of Rajon Rondo to Cleveland goes through and they cut Denzel Valentine, the Lakers should have a roster spot they could use – potentially on Johnson.

The 25-year-old has averaged 8.3 points and 3 rebounds in his four games, but it’s clear the Lakers value him for his defensive versatility and how he helps unlock the small ball lineups by playing power forward. Vogel said one reason he started Johnson was to get a player who could be faster to double-team Damian Lillard. The Lakers believe Johnson can help fill in.

James cited Johnson’s hunger and toughness on defense. Vogel is clearly enamored, too.

“The thing I like about Stanley is the physicality that he has, you know what I mean?” Vogel said. “He’s not just a quicker guy, but he’s strong as hell, too.”

That decision, however, is up to the front office. In the meantime, the Lakers are figuring out their starting groups night by night.

“You play Houston, Christian Wood at center, that’s a clear, ‘Yeah, let’s put Bron at center.’ That’s an easy one,” Vogel explained. “Next game, Steven Adams, biggest, strongest guy in the league; let’s play Dwight at center. That’s an easy one. These next few games in the middle, there’s gonna be a lot of in-between types of decisions that we have to make on a game-by-game basis.”



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