LeBron James was a positionless player before it was cool. Routinely slotted as a small forward, James has spent the past 17 years defending across the positional spectrum, passing like a point guard, scoring like a shooting guard and rebounding like a power forward. The league has slowly caught up to his versatility and in some cases, exceeded it. The final frontier for LeBron has, largely, been playing center. It's a position he realistically can play but has largely avoided as a matter of both physical preservation and optimization. LeBron is so good at what he already does, and under normal circumstances, such radical decision making can have diminishing returns. If his teams already achieve their desired spacing with him as a forward, why deprive themselves of the opposing benefits playing a center provides?
The Houston Rockets are the answer to that question. Born out of the positionless basketball James helped popularize, the Rockets are built around a simple premise: centers are bad. Universally. And they even have proof of concept against the Lakers. Anthony Davis is perhaps the league's best center. When these two teams last met at full strength in February, Davis did everything the NBA's best center is supposed to do against a team that eschews the position entirely. He scored 32 points on 67 percent shooting. He finished the game with 13 rebounds and three blocks. And the Lakers still lost. They were outscored with Davis on the floor because Davis is a center, and according to Houston, centers are bad.
The "why" is mathematical. Post-ups, even against mismatches, are less valuable shots on average than the 3-pointers Houston values. Davis' mid-range jumpers are even worse. The Rockets willingly punt away the rebounding battle in favor of winning on the turnover and fouling front. As rarely as James Harden uses screens anymore, he still craves bigs to hunt in switches. The logic is, to this point, theoretical, and Davis is an exception to many of these rules. He can take and make 3's. He can defend the perimeter as well as most wings, and he can do so while still living up to his responsibilities as an actual big man. He is not going to get played off of the floor by anybody.
But normal centers? They're vulnerable. In fact, they're prey. Steven Adams is among the better ones in basketball. Oklahoma City got outscored by 50 points in the 210 minutes that he played against Houston in the first round. When he sat? The Thunder actually outscored the Rockets by five points across 131 minutes. Oklahoma City's best lineup, if you exclude garbage time, was the one that tried to beat Houston at its own game. If you take away a meaningless Game 4 buzzer-beater, the fivesome of Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Dennis Schroder, Lu Dort and Danilo Gallinari outscored the Rockets by 15 points. The only problem was that Billy Donovan never fully committed to using it. The group played only 14 minutes in the series.
Davis has averaged as many as 43 minutes per game in a single postseason, but even he has to rest. At the very least, there are going to be 8-10 minutes of game time in which someone besides him will need to be the tallest Laker on the floor. Early in the series, it might even be more. And as Oklahoma City learned, traditional center minutes don't get well against the Rockets.
There's a lesson for the Lakers to learn here. Frank Vogel is just as conservative with his lineup decisions as Donovan, but Adams is a far better player than either JaVale McGee or Dwight Howard, and while both can hold their own athletically against normal teams, they will, in all likelihood, be liabilities against Houston. Fortunately, the Lakers have the ultimate trump card sitting in their back pocket. They have LeBron, and their best chance at upending Houston's small-ball philosophy when Davis rests is to embrace it themselves by turning James into their backup center.
The Lakers tinkered with the idea in that February matchup, and some of the concepts that should survive into this series were evident then. Vogel paired LeBron with another bigger forward to serve as a sort of co-center to avoid overextending James, in this case, Kyle Kuzma. Markieff Morris will likely get the first crack at this role in this series, but his declining mobility was already on display against Portland. Houston is going to exacerbate that, and the endgame will likely be Kuzma again. The key to making that front-court tandem work is spacing it properly. This is where the Lakers failed in February. Their two worst shooters, Alex Caruso and Rajon Rondo, were part of this micro-ball lineup in that game, and while they put points on the board, they didn't exactly come through athleticism or shooting as they typically would with smaller lineups. The purpose of these groups, specifically, is to avoid players besides LeBron posting up. Bad process leads to a good result here.
The proper iteration is something closer to what LeBron had in Cleveland. As in Los Angeles, it was more of a "break glass in case of emergency" measure than a rotation staple. The 2017-18 Cavaliers got extended run out of it in two critical moments: Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, and while trailing by double-digits in Game 1 of their second round series against the Toronto Raptors. Ty Lue's sole goal in this setting was to maximize shooting around James. Jeff Green served as the co-center (a necessity against teams that, unlike Houston, actually played normal centers). The other three slots? Kyle Korver, George Hill and J.R. Smith. That's a combined career 3-point percentage of 39.8. That trio made the paint look like an abandoned lot.
The true function of that space is what it does for LeBron as a driver. There's no help against him at the rim because anyone that might provide it is hugging a shooter to take away the 3-pointer. That's even true of actual centers. Jonas Valanciunas would clearly prefer to meet LeBron at the basket on this play, but he's pulled away by Jeff Green. Not even Pascal Siakam is athletic enough to stop freight train LeBron alone.
The shots are almost comically easy, especially with a generational passer like LeBron at the helm. Valanciunas is again mindful of the shooting threat... and it allows Green to jog into an alley-oop. This is the sort of cut Caruso makes in his sleep.
Switch the screen that LeBron calls for? He roasts his preferred matchup one-on-one. Duck under it? He steps into an open 3-pointer. Help at the basket? Someone else gets an open 3. Don't? He dunks. Short of having the sort of defender that can truly hang with LeBron one-on-one, a list that might only include Kawhi Leonard, there is no solution to this whatsoever. Houston doesn't even come close. The last time P.J. Tucker tried to defend LeBron in a playoff series, he averaged 36 points on 57 percent shooting. Robert Covington might be the best off-ball defender in the NBA, but he's overwhelmingly mediocre in one-on-one settings. Paul just shot 12-of-20 against him in the first round. Jayson Tatum and Terry Rozier combined to hit 19 of their 26 attempts against him in their 2018 second-round series. Nobody else has a chance.
The Caruso-Rondo variant doesn't have enough shooting to pull this off, but the Lakers can scrape it together if they're willing to commit. Offsetting Caruso with Danny Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope works, especially if the Lakers are open to a few Jared Dudley minutes to pick up the shooting slack. Inconsistent as he is, Dion Waiters has enough gravity to fill the role.
The theoretical tradeoff to this offensive boon should come on defense, but playing small-ball center has been the logical endpoint to LeBron's defensive role all season. Where the Rockets normally stretch big men is in forcing them to balance rim-protection and closing out. They almost always guard Tucker, who camps out in the corner and shoots when they're caught napping. Even Brook Lopez, a likely All-Defense choice, struggled to split the difference.
But it should surprise nobody to hear that LeBron is more athletic than Lopez, and unlike the pure rim-protector, he spent his season navigating this very conundrum. Outside of high-leverage moments, the Lakers usually plant LeBron on a shooter so that he can serve as a help-side rim-protector.
While he lacks the girth of a typical center, he makes up for it by beating the offensive player to the spot and using his lightning quick hands to impede their shot.
James allowed only 0.847 points per possession on spot-up looks this season, which places him in the 87th percentile league-wide, per Synergy Sports. His closeouts are technically flawless. He almost never leaves his feet and falls victim to fakes because he almost never needs to. He covers so much ground so quickly that he can contest jumpers without jumping. Contesting Tucker isn't hard. He's 6-4, not a particularly high jumper and has a low release point.
Vogel is going to be hesitant to turn to this look until he absolutely has to. He might not even then. The Lakers can't afford to let LeBron get into foul trouble battling Russell Westbrook at the rim. It's such a wild diversion from their norms that switching gears now could create unforeseeable problems.
But the Thunder lost their first-round series to the Rockets because of their stubborn dedication to the center position. Their greatest weapon against Houston was the one that the Rockets wield against everybody else. Billy Donovan wasn't creative enough to embrace it. If Frank Vogel wants to advance to the Western Conference finals, he might have to be.