The Whiteboard is The Step Back’s daily basketball newsletter, covering the NBA, WNBA and more. Subscribe here to get it delivered to you via email each morning.
The Los Angeles Lakers‘ best center is not Andre Drummond. It’s not Montrezl Harrell, and it’s not even Marc Gasol. No, the Lakers’ best option at the 5 is obviously the guy who helped them turn around Wednesday night’s play-in victory — Anthony Davis, the inevitable, logical counter to the Golden State Warriors’ small-ball lineups.
Head coach Frank Vogel did the right thing deploying AD at the 5, and the results were quite stunning: In just over 21 minutes at center, which was more time than he spent at that position over 13 games combined since returning from injury, Davis shot 9-for-13 from the field.
When he shared the court with either Drummond or Harrell, he went 1-for-11.
The Lakers escaped with a 103-100 win by the hair of their chinny chin-chins (or, more accurately, the last ticky tick-ticks on the shot clock and LeBron’s scratchy scratch-scratched retina), but against a tough Phoenix Suns team in the first round, they’ll need to wean their rotation off of Drummond and Harrell as much as possible.
Going against a strong seven-footer like Deandre Ayton, conventional thought says the Lakers should respond to that size with their own brute strength. But Ayton, unlike Drummond and Harrell, is a mobile defender who can guard pick-and-roll action and hold his own away from the basket. So as much as those two can capitalize on the offensive glass against smaller Suns whenever LA manages to get Ayton switched onto the perimeter, Phoenix loves to target mismatches on the other end, using Chris Paul and Devin Booker to either get to their spot in the mid-range, feed Ayton down low when opponents switch, or find teammates wide open for 3 on the perimeter.
Golden State provided a blueprint for attacking the Lakers’ flat-footed bigs with skilled ball movement, which helped them go 15-for-34 (44.1 percent) from 3-point range. The Suns were a vastly superior offense and a slightly superior 3-point shooting team this season, so this is a real area of concern for the defending champs heading into this series.
Leaning into more Gasol minutes may help, but even he’s a step slow at this stage of his career. The Lakers can’t completely abandon their trio of more traditional bigs, since that size advantage can be useful as long as it’s utilized properly. And to be fair to Vogel, he made the right call in that second half on Wednesday, since he only played Drummond 17 minutes and put Davis in his deadliest position to help turn the tide.
But against this smart Suns team, the Lakers may have to be even more liberal with playing Anthony Davis at the 5. Everyone knows he’d rather play the 4 alongside a more traditional 5, and the Lakers can’t scratch Drummond and Harrell from the lineup entirely, but Vogel has to be willing to drastically lower their minutes if Phoenix starts capitalizing with small-ball (or normal, Ayton-at-the-5) lineups.
Wednesday night was not the first time Drummond and Harrell were noticeable detriments, and it might not take long into this playoff run for it to happen again.
The Grizzlies, meanwhile, need to play some of their bigs more
Yes, the Memphis Grizzlies got the W in their play-in game Wednesday night. And yes, Jaren Jackson Jr. is still working his way back into a proper rhythm after missing most of the season with a torn meniscus he sustained back in August. A young team like this should be taking a long-term approach with his health.
But he seems to be just fine, so it was impossible to ignore that Jackson — a franchise cornerstone the team drafted fourth overall back in 2018 — was pulled with 3:14 left in a close game with potential playoff implications.
On the one hand, the Grizzlies needed a win in order to keep their season alive, which was the top priority. Jonas Valanciunas was a beast all night, shortening the frontcourt rotation, and it makes sense why Jackson was pulled: After starting the game off with 8 points on 3-of-3 shooting in the first 6 minutes, he scored just 2 points on 0-of-3 shooting over his next 25 minutes of action. Memphis was crucified on the boards when he was in (he only collected four all night), and in his first 11 regular-season games coming back from injury, the Grizz posted a minus-10.5 Net Rating with him on the court … compared to a plus-2.2 Net Rating without him on the season.
However, that’s kind of the point: This young team needs to get to the point where it’s comfortable with one of its franchise cornerstones being on the floor in big moments, especially during games with postseason implications. The long-term benefits of getting guys like Jackson, Ja Morant, Dillon Brooks and the others legitimate playoff experience cannot be understated, as JV said himself.
And this, of course, is without even mentioning that Brandon Clarke was an inexplicable healthy scratch. Xavier Tillman played 10 minutes and was a minus-22, so there’s really no excuse for Clarke riding the bench all night.
Again, taking this must-win game was the ultimate goal, but with Jackson getting yanked late in the fourth quarter and Clarke being served a DNP-CD with no explanation for it, head coach Taylor Jenkins might need to be a little more generous with his minutes for his young core. The Grizzlies are gunning for that 8-seed, but if they get it, letting those two important big men participate in the upcoming baptism by fire will be good for the organization in the long run.
The Cleveland Cavaliers are veering toward their youth movement, but which players might not be around next season?
The Lakers may need to cut down on Andre Drummond’s minutes, but Mirin Fader’s profile on his chance to start over should not be missed over at The Ringer.