As the center position changes and coaches trade size for skill, we’ve gotten accustomed to big teams experiencing discomfort and being forced to adjust. However, in this case, the Lakers’ version of big creates the headaches. They’re tall and long, and they know how to use those traits. Their best player, LeBron James, is a stylish truck who dominates with power and panache. His ability to function as a point guard at 6-foot-9 and 250 pounds — very Karl Malone-like — allows Los Angeles to play lineups with two big guards, adding another dimension to their superior size.
But Anthony Davis really sets them apart with his versatility at 6-10.
The Miami Heat have learned all about AD’s multifaceted game during the Finals. With the Lakers leading the series 3-1, Miami is now fighting to stay alive after Davis spearheaded a stellar defensive effort in Tuesday’s Game 4. He was the Laker who cooled down Heat small forward Jimmy Butler. Think about that: A big man accepting the challenge to abandon the paint and chase around an elite perimeter player.
“Yeah, that’s why he’s the Defensive Player of the Year,” said James, purposely ignoring voters who selected another all-purpose defender, Giannis Antetokounmpo, as the 2020 DPOY award recipient. “We said that all year. His ability to play one through five, guard anybody on the floor, take the challenge, not only guard on the perimeter, continue to protect the paint. Guards drive on him. It’s hard to score on him.”
In appreciation of Davis’s defensive presence, James referenced an insane floater that Heat guard Tyler Herro made over Davis.
“You see how high Herro threw that ball up?” James asked. “It went in, but he had to throw that thing up to the skyscrapers, right? That guy can do everything defensively. Guarding the ball, guard the post, slide his feet with guards, contest, can body up with bigs. I mean, need I say more?”
Davis, who considers power forward his natural position, played center on offense for most of his 41 minutes Tuesday, and on the other end, he focused his defensive energy on Butler. Every time he crossed the half-court line, he made a dramatic positional shift. Still, Davis scored 22 points, grabbed nine rebounds and blocked four shots.
“I mean, he’s an incredible defender,” said Butler, who made his first five shots and then missed nine of his final 12 as Davis led an effort to contain him.
The scary thing about the Lakers is that they’re still a team in progress. They’re one victory from a championship, but as a squad full of players who haven’t had much time to grow together, there is room for significant improvement if their core stays together. There is also opportunity to put better pieces around James and Davis, though several of their role players, including Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Rajon Rondo, came through Tuesday night.
If the Lakers can sustain their success, it will be interesting to see how the competition tries to adjust to them. They are trolling the copycats who think this era is only about playing small ball, shooting three-pointers and employing interchangeable parts, no matter how uninspired, to mimic the switching defense that made Golden State so potent.
Meanwhile, the Lakers play with a traditional center as most of the time. They were a below-average perimeter shooting team all season. They don’t like to switch on defense. They are not of this era; they play a style for all eras. It works because James is so great and versatile, of course. But the biggest factor is that Davis represents the perfect modern big man. Over the past decade, plenty of talented big teams have been run off the court. But with James and Davis leading them, the Los Angeles gets to be big without suffering for it.
When playing the Lakers, the opponent must make a decision. Match their size? Many teams aren’t built to do that anymore. Try to force them to play small? Then you must deal with Davis as a galloping center, catching lobs and owning the middle. The Lakers are potent either way.
When we use the description small ball, it is an insufficient way to describe this movement. Coach Mike D’Antoni has long preferred the term skill ball instead because that’s the goal as the positional lines continue to blur: How do you get your five most talented players on the court and operating in cohesion when roles aren’t as easy to define as they once were?
Many teams play four or five perimeter players at once. But few are really willing to go itty bitty. Houston really went for it, and how’d that turn out for D’Antoni? The teams that have had the most success “going small” usually are ones that are oversized and over-skilled somewhere — think the Warriors with Kevin Durant — that allows them to create a crazy assortment of mismatches. But even with Durant and a versatile defender in Draymond Green in the frontcourt, the Warriors played with a center for most of the game.
Most NBA franchises don’t just go small recklessly. Those that do fail. We often think of positionless basketball as going small and lacking a center. That’s only a part of it, however. With the game evolving, the goal is to find the best cross-trained players. Height still matters. Strength still matters. Many players are being pushed to the middle of the positional spectrum. The most precious assets in the NBA are very big men with perimeter skills. They look like forwards and play like, well, it depends on the day and the task.
In Game 4, Davis went to James and made a request.
“I’ll take him,” Davis said of guarding Butler.
Oh, he took him. He took him out of the game, pretty much. Davis moved like a guard and used a 7-6 wingspan to stifle the Finals’ hottest player. It was extraordinary, but it was not surprising.
This is what the Lakers do to opponents. Now that they have such a versatile defender, this is what they will do for a long time.