When Frank Vogel first broached the concept of playing Marc Gasol and Montrezl Harrell together, the idea seemed farfetched at best and a tad patronizing at worst. The plan was conceived as a countermeasure when Andre Drummond's signing ensured that at least one, if not both, would lose playing time. Vogel was adamant that the Los Angeles Lakers would need all three of their centers for the postseason, but for that plan to work, all three would actually need to play somewhat steadily in the regular season in order to remain conditioned and engaged for the playoffs. It was, in essence, a theoretical way of keeping everybody happy.
But the Lakers struggled to find a matchup in which unveiling the lineup made sense, so a firmer pecking order began to establish itself. In the early going, Drummond started, Harrell came off the bench and Gasol played sparingly. This appeared to be the motivation behind the Drummond signing in the first place. Had the Lakers been satisfied with Gasol, they likely would not have offered his starting job to a free agent, and Harrell, the recipient of the valuable Lakers mid-level exception and a reigning Sixth Man of the Year, was needed for scoring with LeBron James and Anthony Davis out.
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But Gasol played too well to be benched, and that plan has largely been scrapped. His playing time increased, and Drummond needed every minute he could get in order to be acclimated for the postseason. So, with few viable alternatives, the Lakers finally decided to give their two-center look a try. Gasol and Harrell never shared the floor in the first 67 Lakers games this season. They've played nine minutes together in back-to-back wins over the Phoenix Suns and New York Knicks.
The results have been mixed thus far. The Lakers have lost these minutes by eight points, though the sample is far too small to be particularly meaningful. Vogel agreed with that sentiment Monday when he remarked that two 3-pointers in a brief stretch Sunday had an outsize impact on their point-differential. Such defensive foibles were to be expected. Gasol himself acknowledged that while the duo had strong offensive potential, it would take time for them to learn to play together defensively.
"I think offensively it can work just fine just because of the nature of each other and how we play," Gasol said Monday. "On the other side we have to do a better job of communicating and being on a string. Everyone needs to be aware that it's an adjustment process when that lineup is on the floor."
Though both are centers, their styles are so divergent that they fit together comfortably. Just look at where they position themselves on this possession, which turns into free throws for Harrell. Gasol never crosses the 3-point line. Harrell fights for space in the post.
Even if they hadn't played together before this stretch, their styles were always complementary. The closer Harrell is to the basket, the more valuable he becomes, and the farther Gasol is from the basket, the more valuable he becomes. That difference played a part in the Lakers choosing them as their two centers last offseason. They wanted schematic versatility and they got it. Gasol, especially with LeBron James and Dennis Schroder out, functions primarily as a playmaker. Harrell functions as a play-finisher, and he moves so well off the ball that he's able to take advantage of Gasol's passing:
These differences can be weaponized in a variety of ways. On this play, Harrell halfheartedly attempts to set a screen for Gasol, but when he gets doubled, Harrell slips and forces Jae Crowder into a difficult decision: leave Talen Horton-Tucker alone, or watch Harrell go in for a dunk. He tries to split the difference and Harrell passes to a wide-open Horton-Tucker. Horton-Tucker travels, but the advantage was successfully created offensively through a combination of Harrell's rolling gravity and the defense's desire to get the ball out of Gasol's hands:
But Harrell, at the best of times, is an average defender, and while Gasol remains a good one, his athletic limitations at this stage of his career prevent him from covering for poor teammates. That makes him better suited to playing with starters, as his positioning and communication become more valuable alongside big-play athletes like LeBron James and Anthony Davis. His pairing with Harrell has been filled with miscommunication. On this play, for instance, Gasol seemingly expects to switch onto Crowder following the screen. Harrell is a beat late in doing so, as he stays on Crowder before scampering back over to Frank Kaminsky, who takes advantage of the confusion to create enough room for a fadeaway jumper:
A similar miscommunication occurs on this play, when Gasol is caught in no man's land. He's not hounding Chris Paul, but he's far enough up for Kaminsky to slip through the crack. Horton-Tucker, the designated weakside low man, rotates to the basket to try to cut him off, which he can do comfortably because Ben McLemore is behind him ready to rotate onto his man. But when he gets there, Harrell has converged on the basket as well, leaving Crowder open for the 3-pointer:
These are problems that arise when you try to play a center at power forward, which, in turn, is the fundamental problem of fitting Harrell into a defense in the first place. He's not big enough to do the things that most centers need to do on defense, but is so effective there offensively in most settings that he's only ever really played center in the NBA. That leaves him ill-equipped defensively against both centers and forwards.
Again, the offensive tradeoffs are often worthwhile, but on a team with James and Davis, they might not be. The Lakers needed every point they could get when the superstars were out, but when they're playing 40 minutes per game in the playoffs, individual scoring just isn't going to be at a premium. Floor-spacing and ball movement will be, and Gasol offers those in spades. If Harrell isn't providing that same offensive value and is still a liability defensively, it's worth wondering just how much playing time he's going to get in the postseason.
Recent trends suggest that it might be less than it once appeared. Harrell played less than five minutes against the Knicks and was held out of Friday's game against Portland entirely. He was similarly benched for a recent game against Dallas, and since then, has averaged only 15 minutes per game, down from 24 beforehand. Gasol, not Harrell, has been the first big man off the bench in the past two games, and his recent resurgence has seemingly resolidified his role in the rotation.
In that sense, it almost appears as though Harrell is falling into the same position Gasol once occupied: needing to stay fresh in case he is needed in the playoffs, but a clear No. 3 in the big man pecking order. Pairing him with Gasol over the past two games has been a somewhat effective compromise. With the Lakers missing so many guards to injuries, Gasol was functioning enough like one anyway to justify pairing him with another big man, and it got Harrell minutes he might have otherwise missed out on. Their defensive limitations together in conjunction with the overall makeup of the roster at full strength will likely prevent Vogel from using the two of them together in the playoffs, but for now, it serves the important purpose it was originally intended to: It helps keep everybody happy.