This is part two of a three-part series analyzing criticisms of Rob Pelinka’s off-season moves for the Los Angeles Lakers.
Most everyone believes that Rob Pelinka did an outstanding job filling out the Los Angeles Lakers roster, especially considering how little cap space he had. But there are some who still say, “Yes, he did a good job, but the Lakers still need to sign another center”. Let’s take a closer look to determine whether this is true.
JaVale McGee started 68 of the Lakers’ 71 regular-season games this past year at center. He and cohort Dwight Howard combined to play 36 minutes per game at the 5, and together averaged 14 points, 13 rebounds and 2.5 blocked shots. They helped the Lakers dominate the paint area and were solid contributors to the team’s regular-season success.
Anthony Davis, who has publicly said he prefers playing power forward to center, nonetheless played virtually all of the remaining 12 minutes each game at the 5.
The 7-foot McGee and 6-10 Howard are similar in style. Both focus on protecting the rim on defense. But their offense is essentially confined to converting lob passes and offensive rebounds into dunks and lay-ins.
Neither scores many baskets from beyond five feet from the hoop. As a result, they each had outstanding field goal percentages. McGee shot 63.7%, the fourth straight year he’s been over 60%, while Howard shot a sparkling career-best 72.9%.
The biggest difference between the two is that McGee is a bit more athletic while Howard is considerably stronger. Underneath the basket, McGee tends to get pushed around by bigger centers.
The duo’s effectiveness changed dramatically in the postseason when the competition stiffened and they encountered different styles of play, most notably small ball. Their combined playoff stats were not nearly as impressive.
Together they played just 25 minutes a game and their averages dropped to 8.7 points, 7.7 rebounds and 1.1 blocks. McGee was ultimately benched for seven games and Howard only played in 18 of the Lakers 21 games.
Once the season ended, Howard was a free agent while McGee had a player option. Speculation regarding their plans as well as the team’s ran the gamut. But the only thing that really mattered is what Pelinka would decide to do.
Pelinka’s management style includes two important elements:
1. He relies on a collaborative effort. He discussed what the team should do with the team’s two big stars, Davis and LeBron James, with Coach Frank Vogel and his staff, and with many in the front office, including Jeanie Buss and Kurt Rambis. In so doing, he built a consensus about the best way to fill out the team roster.
2. He is a detailed planner. He developed Plan A, but backed it up with Plans B, C, D and beyond so that he always had avenues to pursue if his preferred path(s) didn’t succeed.
In the early days of free agency, Pelinka surprised just about everyone outside the organization when the Lakers signed free agent center Montrezl Harrell, who had played the last three seasons for the neighboring Clippers and had just been named Sixth Man of the Year.
At virtually the same time, Howard first tweeted that he was returning to the Lakers, then quickly deleted it and immediately announced he was signing with the 76ers instead. The circumstances remain a bit murky, but it seems that Dwight mistook the Lakers “example” for an actual offer, one that apparently was never officially extended.
To many, it seemed that Howard jumped the gun, that he agreed to a minimum offer from Philadelphia way too soon in the free agency period. It was also puzzling why he’d want to go to a team where he would back-up arguably the best center in the NBA, Joel Embiid, who will eat up major minutes at the 5.
Shortly thereafter, McGee exercised his player option and was ostensibly returning to the Lakers to team with Harrell at center. But Pelinka had other ideas. He strongly pursued free-agent big man Marc Gasol, and once he got a commitment from him, he promptly traded McGee to Cleveland to clear salary space for Gasol.
The bottom line is that the Lakers now have a brand new tandem at center, Gasol and Harrell. And this duo has completely different strengths.
The 6-11 Gasol is a strong post defender as well as an outstanding passer who has a good outside shot with three-point range. He is neither particularly quick nor a good leaper, but he has excellent hands and a very high basketball IQ.
Harrell relies on boundless energy and determination in the paint. He consistently scores over bigger men and excels at the pick and roll. He is also adept at positioning himself to take charges against opponents driving to the hoop.
Their stats last year include 54 minutes of combined play with 24 points, 13 rebounds and 2 blocked shots. Clearly, they will upgrade the position on offense. While they may not protect the hoop quite as well as McGee-Howard did, their overall defense shouldn’t amount to much of a drop-off.
Yet there are fans who continue to lobby for the team to sign another big man. They argue that as he approaches age 36, Gasol likely will incur some injury this season and that he is a defensive liability against teams that spread the court and play small ball.
Furthermore, they contend that Harrell at 6-7 is too undersized to play the 5 against bigger opponents. The current “favorite” for the Lakers to sign seems to be Dewayne Dedmon.
Here is the counterargument to those opinions. The Lakers will likely play Gasol and Harrell for about three quarters and AD will once again play about 12 minutes at the 5. Vogel will manage those minutes carefully depending on opponents and match-ups. There will be little court time available for a fourth center.
The 7-0 Dedmon had somewhat of a breakout year in 2018-19 for Atlanta. He then signed a lucrative free-agent contract with Sacramento but performed poorly and quickly lost his starting position to Richaun Holmes. He was traded back to the Hawks and then to Detroit, who waived him shortly thereafter.
Should a player who wasn’t good enough to earn minutes for the Kings, Hawks or Pistons realistically be expected to contribute meaningfully to the world champion Lakers? The answer of course is a resounding no.
The Lakers still have a roster spot open and it’s possible that they’ll fill it with a big man. But that player would essentially fill the 14th or 15th spot on the roster and occupy the end of the bench. Therefore, it appears more likely that Pelinka will leave one spot open to start the season rather than adding a center.
Later in the season, if they need to fill that spot due to injury or any other reason, they can explore free agents, trades and players who are waived. For now, however, the Lakers are well-stocked at center with Gasol, Harrell, Davis and perhaps Markieff Morris now and then.
The idea that Pelinka fell short because he didn’t sign another center has little merit. Instead, he has put them into a position to defend their title.
Part three of this series will deal with other criticisms of the Lakers roster as presently constituted.
All statistics courtesy of www.basketball-reference.com