Think Big

The Los Angeles Lakers have a potential “Death Lineup” at their disposal, but will they use it?

This season, the Lakers signed superstar LeBron James to join their young core in Los Angeles. Although they are third in the league in points per game, and sit at fourth in pace, the team has so far been plagued by poor effort on defense and defensive rebounding. They sit at 27th in opponent points per game, 24th in opponent field goal percentage, and 22nd in overall defensive rating. A huge contributing factor in this is the team places 27th in opponent offensive rebounds per game, and 22nd in opponent second-chance points.

New center JaVale McGee is not to blame for any of this. The man has been playing out of his mind, reaching career-high’s all across the board, and overachieving anyone’s expectations of him this season. The problem has become when McGee sits down, and coach Luke Walton gets cute, placing Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram, or even LeBron James at center, where they are vertically over-matched, and hemorrhage second-chance points to the opposition.

Why is Walton doing this? Because that’s the way of the league, of course. Look at the Golden State Warriors and their “Death Lineup”. This is when the Warriors play superstar forward Kevin Durant at center, and small ball their opponent to death. Walton comes from Steve Kerr’s championship coaching staff, so naturally, he wants to implement what he’s learned to this current Lakers team. When the Lakers signed James, there was talk about the Lakers own “Death Lineup”, where James would play center, and the Lakers could run their opponent out of the gym.

Honestly, I cannot for the life of me read advanced stats. I am aware there are stats on how each lineup is doing for every team in the NBA, but I can’t tell you for sure what any of them mean, or in what way they are all skewed (because they are). All I can report on is what I’ve seen. And what I’ve seen whenever the Lakers have anyone shorter than 7’0″ tall playing center is that they are a disaster.

Just last game against the Toronto Raptors, Serge Ibaka, who was previously averaging 16.3 PPG, gutted the Lakers for a new career-high 34 points on 15-17 shooting. They also allowed the Raptors to secure 13 offensive rebounds. Sure, offensively they can put the ball in the hole at a faster clip, but it’s hard to continue scoring at such a fast pace when your opponent is playing volleyball with offensive rebounds on the other end. And it’s much easier to push the ball after collecting it off a rebound than it is collecting it through the net.

Moreover, the Lakers “Death Lineup” can’t do the same things that the Warriors “Death Lineup” can. The Warriors players (Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, Klay Thompson, Steph Curry), from positions one through five are all a threat to hit the three. Three of the players from that lineup are bonafide marksmen (Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, and Steph Curry), hitting threes at a dangerous percentage of over 40%. Right now, only two Lakers are shooting over 40% from three (Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart), but time will tell if they can maintain such a high percentage.

Defensively, the Warriors boast at least one rim protector in Kevin Durant (Durant is listed at 6’9″, but he is really 7’0″, and at this point, isn’t really fooling anyone anymore). Draymond Green is only 6’7″, but is also well known for the effort he expends on the defensive end. The Lakers boast three players at or around 6’9″ (LeBron James, Kyle Kuzma and Brandon Ingram), but nobody of Durant’s true height and length to protect the rim, and neither of which are known for their efforts on defense (especially not James, whose lack of effort at this stage of his career is well documented).

To me, a team’s true “Death Lineup” answers this question: What can your team do differently that will infuriate the defensive scheme of the other 29 NBA teams?

For the Warriors, their strength is in how small all of their best players are, forcing the 29 other teams in the NBA to sit their bigger players in an effort to simply keep up; As a result, any team mimicking their formula, particularly when they play the Warriors, is doomed to fail. The Warriors do it best, and history has shown, only a conflicting playing style will knock off the team at the top. This rings true when you analyze how the Detroit Pistons defeated the Lakers in ’89, how the Chicago Bulls would later knock the Pistons out in ’91, and even how the Warriors have risen to prominence in this current era.

Magic Johnson and Lakers GM Rob Pelinka know as much, in constructing a roster where the formula is not to mimic the Warriors, but to beat them (per Rob Pelinka):

… [President of basketball operations] Earvin [Johnson] and I had a conversation, and LeBron echoed this sentiment: I think to try to play the Warriors at their own game is a trap. No one is going to beat them at their own game, so that is why we wanted to add these elements of defense and toughness and depth and try to look at areas where we will have an advantage.”

So, what’s the Lakers answer to the “Death Lineup” question?: Use LeBron James as a point guard, with a lineup of JaVale McGee, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, and Josh Hart.

For one game last season, James started at point guard for the Cleveland Cavaliers, and it was “a smashing success”, according to Cleveland.com. They obviously couldn’t continue it all season, because James is in his mid-thirties now, and that kind of usage will only weigh a player down as the season progresses. But, if you watch the way he plays the position, it looks very familiar.

In 1996, a special thing happened for the Los Angeles Lakers franchise and it’s fans: Magic Johnson, who had previously retired due to contracting HIV, came out of retirement.

With Magic back in the fold for the remaining 32 games of the 1995-96 campaign, the young Lakers, with a team average age of 27.1 years, would improve from the season before by five games (53-29), which was unfortunately still only good enough for fifth seed. I say, “unfortunately”, because it matched them up with the underachieving two-time champion Houston Rockets (who added shameless ring-chaser Charles Barkley in the off-season), ending the Lakers playoff hopes in four games (3-1).

Everyone points back to this season and remembers, “Well, he wasn’t quite the Magic of old, but there were flashes every now and then”. Some (me) even go as far as referring to his season as “Fat Magic”, downplaying the comeback even further; However, looking back at his comeback season, he actually fared pretty well. He would help the team to a 22-10 record with him back in the lineup, recording 8 double-doubles, and one triple-double, with a few of those double-doubles just shy of becoming triple-doubles (2/16/96 Magic notched 30 points, 11 assists and 8 rebounds!)

I tried to think back and remember why we as Lakers fans didn’t look back at this season as fondly as we should have, as his numbers were actually pretty good. One possible reason was that Del Harris was bringing Magic in off the bench, which is pretty humbling for a player of his caliber. The other glaringly obvious reason was his conditioning.

I remember him as “Fat Magic” for a reason. Magic could no longer play the point the way he did when he was winning MVP’s and championships for the Lakers in the 80’s. Admittedly, “Fat Magic” is pretty harsh, as I’m fairly certain even 36 year-old Magic could run my fat 34 year-old ass off the court with little to no effort. But, due to his advanced age and new build, then-coach Del Harris was forced to bring him in off the bench at the forward position, instead of his familiar spot, running the point.

What’s the difference? Watch how the mere presence of Magic Johnson at point guard creates match-up problems for the Warriors in the 1991 NBA Western Conference Semis:

The Warriors point guard was none other than the crossover king himself, Tim Hardaway, but then-coach Don Nelson would have been brain-dead to leave the 6’1″ Hardaway on an island with the 6’9″ Magic Johnson. To make up for the giant difference in height, Nellie opted instead to have 6’6″ forward Chris Mullin, who wasn’t known for his defense, defend Magic, shifting the Warriors entire defensive game plan. Hardaway would shift to defend Lakers two-guard Byron Scott, moving their two-guard to forward James Worthy.

OK, that wasn’t so bad. Just a minor adjustment for Golden State, right? How about some simple pick and roll action, forcing the defense to switch, yet again? The Lakers could do this because Hardaway isn’t up top guarding Magic anymore, he’s defending off-ball. A much taller but slower player is tasked with guarding Magic now. So, you can see how Magic playing the point could give the defense fits.

Defensively, there are no headaches for the Lakers with Magic at point. You can see the Lakers are able to mask Magic’s defensive liabilities by simply switching him to a taller player, while the smaller and more athletic Scott switches to the point guard. This is also something the current Lakers can do with James and Kyle Kuzma or Josh Hart, to give him a break defensively (Hart’s strength adds yet another wrinkle of flexibility, allowing him to guard larger players).

Flash-forward to 1996, when the Lakers had a 36 year-old Magic, who subbed in at power forward, at their disposal. Here’s how he fared against the 72-10 Chicago Bulls:

In the 80’s, when the Pistons would switch forward Dennis Rodman to guard Magic Johnson, their 6’0″ point guard Isiah Thomas would have to defend Byron Scott, and they would shift and shift and so on and so on. In the above example, the Chicago Bulls are free to have Rodman guard Magic without penalty. Nobody has to shift, and therefore, nobody is confused with their role on defense. So, while Magic was still able to create and record a triple-double every so often, much the way LeBron can now, it wasn’t really at an inconvenience to the defense. In essence, this is where the “Fat Magic” moniker comes from.

I don’t hear anyone as of yet referring to LeBron this season as “Fat LeBron” (he’s even wearing size “smedium” shorts). He was a favorite for MVP last season, and up until a week ago, was Vegas’ odds on favorite to win the award this season. In 1996, the Lakers got Magic back at the back-end of his career, whereas in 2018, the Lakers signed James while he is still playing at an MVP caliber level, making this more a hodge-podge of when Magic rejoined the team and when the Lakers signed Shaquille O’Neal just a few months later.

If usage is a concern (at 29.9%, LeBron currently places 15th in the NBA in usage percentage), the Lakers don’t even have to play James heavy minutes at the point. I can’t make out much from those lineup stats, but I can read that the Warriors so far have only deployed their “Death Lineup” in six games for a grand total of fourteen minutes (an average of 2.4 minutes per game). The Lakers have yet to log a single minute this season testing James at point guard.

So, why are the Lakers using James like a “Fat Magic”, restricting him to only the forward and sometimes center positions? Don’t you think the 1995-96 Lakers would have killed to get the 1990-91 version of Magic that led them to the NBA Finals?

The Lakers have that man right now, and instead of mirroring what the Warriors are doing, should look instead to make the reigning champions think, for possibly the first time in several seasons. What do they do when James is playing point guard from the high post, backing down Steph Curry? Where do they switch Curry when he suddenly becomes a defensive liability? These are the questions that are raised when the Lakers finally discover their own “Death Lineup”.

On October 30th, coach Luke Walton met with his boss, Magic Johnson, to discuss the team’s sluggish start to the season, and likely shared possible solutions.

But sometimes the answers are right in front of your face.

Follow me on Twitter, for far more crazier ideas than this one, as well as some other takes on other players from other teams (I swear!) during the 2018-19 season. The Lakers finding yet another point guard in LeBron may lead them to decide whether Rondo or Ball need to be traded. Personally, I love Rondo’s leadership, but Ball can easily play Hart’s minutes should he be injured or get into foul trouble. That’s a tough one, but I bet Luke gets terminated before he even tries my idea. So we’ll cross that bridge if we even get to it I suppose.

Author: Commissioner Dan

Unofficial-next-commissioner of the NBA. Covering all things pro basketball (mostly Lakers), even if it's not like it was in the '90's.

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