Hey, remember back in mid-July, when the Lakers traded the moon and stars for one of the most talented young players in the NBA? Remember that? Remember when the team and the player did their big introductory press conference? Remember during that press conference, when that player—who is listed by the NBA as standing 6-foot-10, and who has a 7-foot-6 wingspan, and whose tremendous defensive value is derived overwhelmingly from his world-class ability to close off the paint and discourage, alter, and block shots at the rim—looked over at his new head coach and said, “If it comes down to it, Coach, and you need me to play the five, I’ll play the five”?
I bring that up for a very specific reason:
It was bad enough when the Lakers were making eyes at Dwight Howard as a replacement for the physically ruined DeMarcus Cousins. Howard is a greatly diminished goof with a long track record of irritating his teammates and a more recent track record of being too broken down to take the floor for an NBA team, but at least he looks impressive in an NBA uniform. Noah hasn’t been a good or relevant NBA player in at least five years. Speights peaked as an NBA player at “useful,” and that was four years ago, and it was in a cushy bench role on the most star-loaded team in modern NBA history. Marcin Gortat was actively bad and easily replaceable last season, in Los Angeles, in the same damn building where the Lakers play.
These are not credible rotation options for a team with legitimate championship aspirations. Most irritatingly, they are being considered not because the Lakers desperately need some hulking intimidator to bang on the block with, like, Clint Capela, but because the excellent natural center already on their roster—the one for whom they recently traded away their future—would prefer to play a position other than center. They have a chance to run out a versatile and genuinely exciting starting and closing lineup featuring LeBron James, Kyle Kuzma, Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Anthony Davis, but because Davis is the 160-pound lapdog of NBA big men, they’re gonna wind up sitting Caldwell-Pope or Green in favor of some lumbering stiff last seen mouldering in a trash heap.
The only way for that aim to hold up is if the Lakers commit themselves to giving “big minutes” to some combination of JaVale McGee and one of these dismal retreads currently without an NBA gig. There was a reasonable case to be made that even signing Cousins to a significant rotation role was a counterproductive accommodation, given his defensive shortcomings and the perils of the Western Conference playoffs. Now that he’s gone, giving that role to someone with a fraction of Cousins’s talent and potential in order to spare Davis from the misery of having to play his best position would be extremely suspect.
The Lakers are in a tough spot with Davis. They expect him to stay long-term, but with time running out on Davis’s current deal, championship expectations bearing down in a loaded conference, and LeBron edging onto the downslope of his career, that’s far from guaranteed. The Lakers’ argument for keeping Davis will be based on their ability to keep him happy, and requiring him to play the position he least wants to play, with no end in sight, would be a risk. But plugging him at the four and cramming friggin’ Marreese Speights into a hefty rotation role would make the team actively worse and damage their shot at a title. Treating Davis as a center maximizes their championship chances during whatever is left of LeBron’s contending window; stretching to accommodate Davis’s preference prioritizes a post-LeBron future where Davis is the veteran centerpiece of their next core, which incidentally is how the Lakers will justify the package they sent to New Orleans if the team fails to win a title during the LeBron years.
Given the franchise’s history over the last six or seven years, the safe bet is that the Lakers will find a way to screw this up. And based on how they’ve handled news of Cousins’s injury over the last week, they appear to be on their way.