Rob Pelinka’s revolving door at center: A brief history of Lakers big men

PORTLAND, OREGON - JANUARY 22: Thomas Bryant #31 of the Los Angeles Lakers reacts during the fourth quarter against the Portland Trail Blazers at Moda Center on January 22, 2023 in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
PORTLAND, OREGON - JANUARY 22: Thomas Bryant #31 of the Los Angeles Lakers reacts during the fourth quarter against the Portland Trail Blazers at Moda Center on January 22, 2023 in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images) /

Ever since he’s been the general manager of the Los Angeles Lakers, Rob Pelinka has adopted a revolving door approach for the team’s centers. After the season ends each year the door opens to eject the current big men and to welcome a couple of others on board.

This summer Pelinka signed one free agent center, Jaxson Hayes, and is still looking to add another to the team’s roster. But the GM’s peculiar merry-go-round for big men not named Anthony Davis may not provide much comfort to Lakers fans.

In addition to bringing in a carousel of centers, Pelinka seems to change his mind annually about the type of big men he wants. Few of the centers he’s acquired have been more than marginally successful, and many have been outright duds.

A brief history of Lakers centers under Rob Pelinka:

A quick review of the last several seasons demonstrates Pelinka’s whims. Magic Johnson was still in charge the first few years Pelinka was with the organization. Let’s take Pelinka off the hot seat and assume he was just following orders when the revolving door was first created.

When Magic first took control in February 2017, he made getting rid of the team’s albatross, otherwise known as center Timofey Mozgov’s contract, his first priority. Even the need to sweeten the pot by adding D’Angelo Russell into a trade package didn’t deter him. He was happy to swap those two once the 2017 season ended for center Brook Lopez.

Lopez went on to have a fine 2017-18 season and, along with backup Andrew Bogut, helped mentor the squad’s young 7-footer, Ivica Zubac. The Lakers had also drafted a center, 6-10 Thomas Bryant, who did well in the G League and played limited minutes for the Lakers in 15 games.

But at the end of that season, the door at center started to revolve again. For reasons nobody understood then or now, Magic and Rob failed to re-sign Lopez, a versatile big man who could score both in the low post and behind the three-point line. Instead, Brook signed a cheap deal with Milwaukee that the Lakers could easily have offered. And for some unfathomable reason, instead of exercising a cheap option on Bryant, they waived him.

Magic and Rob then replaced Lopez as the Lakers center in 2018-19 with a completely different kind of player, 31-year-old JaVale McGee. McGee, strictly a post scorer, started most games at the 5 that season, which was LeBron James’ first with the team. JaVale became a featured part of the offense and averaged 12 points per game, the highest mark of his career. He was backed up by 21-year-old Zubac and aging veteran Tyson Chandler.

Then, for reasons unclear, Magic made an inexplicable trade at the 2019 deadline, sending Zubac to the Clippers for Mike Muscala. Zubac has since improved steadily and continues to start for the Clippers. Muscala contributed little to the Lakers and walked away as a free agent when the season ended.

Two months later Johnson abruptly resigned. Pelinka, with the blessings of Jeanie Buss, became the man in charge with full responsibility for every move from that point forward. And the revolving door he’s operated at the center position has been puzzling and just plain weird.

Shortly after the 2019 season ended, Pelinka completed the trade for AD that Magic had started. But the 6-10, 253-pound Davis made it clear that he much preferred playing power forward rather than center.

To play the 5, Pelinka re-signed McGee and added DeMarcus Cousins to his carousel. But Cousins tore his ACL shortly before the season, so the GM replaced him with former Laker Dwight Howard, who was no longer a dominant post player. Together they helped anchor a strong LA defense and provided a little bit of offense here and there. During the regular season, McGee started, Howard relieved him, and AD usually finished.

But coach Frank Vogel played chess in the playoffs, setting up the best possible matchups. The deeper the Lakers went, the more McGee’s minutes shrunk until he didn’t play at all in the NBA Finals against Miami. Meanwhile, Howard was a key figure in the Western Conference Finals against Denver, but his minutes sharply diminished in the Finals when the Lakers captured the 2020 title.

Although many players wanted to run it back the following season with the same roster, Pelinka had a different idea. He thought the team needed to change their approach at center to provide more offensive firepower. In the short offseason, he acquired big men Montrezl Harrell and Marc Gasol to replace McGee and Howard on his merry-go-round.

Harrell had just completed a career year coming off the bench for the Clippers. But in the same role for the Lakers, teamed with James and Davis, he was far less effective, and at just 6-7 he was not a rim protector.

Meanwhile, Gasol’s game had significantly deteriorated by this point in his career. Although he shot 41% from deep, the former all-star established career lows in points, 5.0, and rebounds, 4.1, in what proved to be his final NBA season.

The new centers were so ineffective that Pelinka started up his carousel again and added a different kind of center, Andre Drummond, with 21 games left. Drummond was an excellent rebounder and could score some inside. But he had a shooting range of about 5 feet and hands like Kwame Brown. And the Lakers lost in the first round of the playoffs to Phoenix.

That offseason, it was time once again for the revolving door to resume operation. For the team’s centers in 2021-22, Pelinka signed two veterans with 30 years of NBA experience between them: Dwight Howard, back for a third time with the Lakers at age 36, and DeAndre Jordan, age 33. He also added a 7-1 undrafted rookie, Jay Huff, to a two-way contract.

Jordan was the opening night starter, but he was so ineffective that he was moved to the bench and then ultimately released in March. Howard had his moments but overall was a shadow of his former self, posting career lows in points, rebounds, blocks and minutes.

The team had to insert Davis at the 5, but injuries limited him to just 40 games. In the Lakers version of “next man up”, at center they were forced to turn to none other than LeBron James, who was their point guard when they won the title two seasons earlier! Huff, who showed well in the G League, only played 4 games with the Lakers.

Clearly, Pelinka had to re-open up his carousel. For the 2022-23 season, in place of Jordan and Howard, the GM signed former Laker Thomas Bryant, who had played well with the Wizards, along with young journeyman Damian Jones, who had once been a first-round draft pick. The roster also included 6-9 Wenyen Gabriel, a power forward masquerading as a center.

But the center most often used by new coach Darvin Ham was a familiar face: Anthony Davis. Probably the biggest reason why was that 38-year-old LeBron could no longer chase small forwards around the perimeter game after game. At this point in his career, he was best suited, at least defensively, to play power forward. That meant moving AD to center and going with a smaller lineup.

At midseason, Pelinka made a flurry of moves with 6 players leaving and 6 others arriving. And naturally, the revolving door at center was re-activated. Both Bryant and Jones were traded and 7-foot Mo Bamba was acquired.

Bamba is an interesting player, a 25-year-old who could hit some three-pointers and block shots at the rim. But injuries limited him to just 9 games in a Lakers uniform and just 3 games totaling 10 minutes in the playoffs.

Once the season ended, Pelinka decided to waive Bryant and his $10.3 million non-guaranteed contract. They had some interest in re-signing him to the veteran’s minimum, but Philadelphia beat them to the punch. (Interestingly, Bamba was the fourth former Lakers center the Sixers have signed in recent years, following Howard, Harrell and Drummond).

In the early days of free agency this summer, the Lakers carousel stopped to let in the 6-11 Hayes, age 23. He is most reminiscent of a young JaVale McGee, an athletic, somewhat undisciplined big.

Other than Davis, the only other center on the roster is 6-11 Colin Castleton, who signed a two-way contract and was impressive in the Summer League. The Lakers have the option of converting him to a regular NBA deal, as they did two years ago with Reaves. But he is probably not quite ready for prime time and can likely benefit more from playing regularly in the G League than by sitting at the end of the Lakers bench.

There are currently two open spots on the roster. One probably won’t be filled now so the team has greater flexibility later. But the other is targeted for another big man. Several possibilities exist.

Pelinka recently mentioned that the team would like to add a big man who has different skills than Hayes. The most prominent player of that sort is probably Christian Wood, who is really a 6-10 power forward. He is a first-rate offensive talent who has averaged double figures in points the past four seasons and shoots 38% behind the arc. But he is a below-average defender and has been a disruptive force with teammates, which is probably why he’s still on the market.

The Lakers may think that Davis, who was Wood’s teammate for a short time in New Orleans, James and Ham can keep him under control. But how is Wood going to earn big man minutes with AD, LeBron, Hachimura and Hayes on the team? For now, he is hoping some team will offer him more than the minimum, which is all the Lakers can extend.

In the meantime, Pelinka considers his other options, which undoubtedly include bringing in a veteran to mentor both Hayes and Castleton. That could be someone like Tristan Thompson, fan favorite Dwight Howard (who is not, contrary to myth, a “Jokic stopper”), or McGee, who may get bought out by Dallas. Any one of that trio would only provide help on the court once in a while. But most 14th men on NBA rosters aren’t expected to often contribute.

Other big men available as of now include Bismack Biyombo, Willy Hernangomez, Dewayne Dedmon, Meyers Leonard, Moses Brown, Olivier Sarr, former Laker Markieff Morris and Gabriel. The Lakers’ front office can also wait to see which bigs are released by other teams.

Hayes’ contract includes a player option for next season. If he plays well enough, he’ll decline that option and likely head for greener pastures elsewhere. So we can expect that Pelinka’s revolving door at center won’t be dormant for too long.

If you’re keeping score, the carousel of big men over the last 6 years has included Mozgov, Zubac, Lopez, Bogut, Bryant (twice), McGee, Chandler, Muscala, Cousins (although he never played), Howard (twice), Davis, Harrell, Gasol, Drummond, Jordan, Huff, James, Jones, Gabriel, Bamba and Hayes. That’s 21 different players, and still leaves out a few power forwards who filled in at the 5!

Who’ll be the next to enter through the revolving door?

Next. 22 players the Lakers gave up on too early. dark