Player Previews: Centers

On July 1st, the Los Angeles Lakers had only LeBron James, Kyle Kuzma, Anthony Davis, and JaVale McGee signed to a contract going into the 2019-2020 season. Because of this, most expected the Lakers to be focused on signing wings and guards to fill out the rest of the roster around James and Davis. 

Los Angeles ended up signing or resigning eight guards or wings like Rajon Rondo, Alex Caruso, Quinn Cook, Jared Dudley, and Danny Green amongst others. One pleasantly surprising sign came in the form of DeMarcus Cousins on a minimum contract. Immediately, pundits began to imagine how good a fully healthy Lakers lineup with Kuzma, James, Davis, Green, and Cousins could be by April.

Unfortunately, that imaginary lineup will remain imaginary for at least the next nine months as Cousins suffered an ACL tear on August 16th. Suddenly, McGee was the only true center on roster, and with limited options and only about a month left until training camp, the Lakers decided to sign Dwight Howard. Again.

DeMarcus Cousins

Boogie spent most of last season as a Warrior rehabilitating his achilles tear and regaining his conditioning and “gameday” form. Joining a juggernaut team looking to three-peat as champions allowed Cousins to function as a player with massive impact potential without being necessary to the team’s championship aspirations. Basically, Cousins found the perfect situation for him where he could push himself to get healthy and be utilized without the pressure of being one of the team’s best players.

He came back towards the end of the season and looked like he was slowly but surely on his way to returning to being one of the better centers in the league. And then he tore his quad in the first round of the playoffs.

Since Cousins was already in the perfect rehabilitative situation, it would have been realistic to expect him to just take it easy and sit out for the rest of the playoffs as the Warriors completed their three-peat under normal circumstances.

But the circumstances went from normal to dire when Kevin Durant started to miss playoff games with an achilles or calf strain. Because of this, pundits began to pressure the Warriors, constantly asking if and when either would be able to come back in the Western Conference Finals or the league Finals.

Both eventually returned. But in both cases, it seemed like the wrong decision. Durant completely tore his achilles in his first game back, and though Cousins did not sustain further injury, he did not play more than twenty minutes in the last four games of the finals as the Raptors upset Golden State.

Now with the offseason and plenty of time to get his body right ahead of the next season, the Lakers committed to a no-risk, high-reward veteran minimum contract with Cousins. And much like the Warriors, Cousins would not have had to come into Los Angeles and immediately be one of the most important pieces on a championship contending team immediately after coming back from an injury. With Davis, James, and even Kuzma expected to get more touches, a healthy, effective Cousins would just have been icing on the cake of the Lakers’ 2019-2020 aspirations.

But that will not happen. Cousins will probably not play at all this season, though there is always the chance he may be ready sometime during the playoffs in April. All Lakers fans can realistically hope for at this point is that Cousins is in a good mental space and gets himself right so that he may continue his career past this season. It would be sweet if he could make it back onto the floor for Los Angeles on their way back to glory, but even if he is healthy by April, it would probably be too inefficient for the team to try and finally integrate Cousins into an established playoff rotation.

JaVale McGee

With the signing of Howard, McGee seems to have become the forgotten option at center for the Lakers. Last season, McGee started the season as the starting center and actually was pretty effective in his role before missing some games due to pneumonia. 

In McGee’s first 29 games of the season, he averaged 11.8 points per game on 62.6 percent shooting, 6.7 rebounds per game, and was one of the best rim protectors in the league with 2.6 blocks per game in 23.5 minutes per game. At this point, the Lakers were rolling with a record of 18-11 and starting to come together after taking the time to learn how each other plays.

McGee was one of the last options on the court behind James, Kuzma, and Brandon Ingram, but his presence on the court was immediately missed as the Lakers went 2-5 in the seven games he would miss out sick.

With a mostly healthy roster, McGee was clearly a necessary piece to last year’s playoff aspirations. Unfortunately for him, during the second of those two wins the Lakers managed to earn in McGee’s absence, James strained his groin and would miss the next 17 games. James was the player most responsible for setting McGee up for success and with James’ absence, McGee saw some regression in his play.

McGee returned two games after James’ injury, and over the next 15 games, McGee averaged 8.9 points on 51.7 percent shooting, 7.6 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks in 19.3 minutes per game.

By this point in the season, the Lakers were in dire positioning trying to catch up with playoff teams and trying to salvage the season. Though McGee only missed a relatively small amount of games, he told Mike Trudell in late March that he was finally starting to regain his strength from his spell with pneumonia.

“People don’t realize once you get pneumonia it takes a couple months to get over it,” McGee told Trudell. 

This answer was prompted after Trudell basically asked McGee if there is any reason why he was turning in his best performances of the season in the five games between March 19th and 27th. With James firmly back from the worst injury of his career and McGee finally getting right, the big man put up stellar numbers of 18.4 points per game on 57.1 percent from the field, 14.4 rebounds per game, and a whopping 3.8 blocks per game over 31.6 minutes per game in those fives starts.

Now, with Howard returning to the Lakers, the center position really becomes a two-man race for that final position to finish games alongside Danny Green, James, Kuzma, and Davis. Last week, I mentioned that that spot is equally as likely to be filled by a ball-handling point guard as it is to be filled by a true center as Davis has consistently said he does not prefer to play center.

Howard, if you ask me, has to chase down McGee for the top center spot on the depth chart, so-to-speak. Though he has had down games due to illness and other personnel injuries, McGee brings championship experience to this team with championship goals and has already established himself as an effective player around James.

And beyond what we already know about what McGee can bring to this team next to James, playing center next to Anthony Davis opens up many more doors. McGee is a constant lob threat and threat allows Davis the ability to wander out to the perimeter more often. And it should go without saying: Davis and McGee at their peak could have a real shot at being the best defensive frontcourt in the league.

Dwight Howard

Yes, Dwight Howard is a Laker again. *Sigh*.

I will not lie: I very vividly remember that dumpster fire of the 2012-2013 season. Kobe, Nash, Pau, and Dwight had potential to be the best team in the league. But it went sideways when Nash broke his leg and Howard and Bryant never got along. 

What soured my feelings towards Howard even more was that Bryant had to carry the team just to make it to the seventh seed in the conference that year, but he tore his achilles doing so with just one game to go in the season. And then the Lakers promptly got embarrassingly swept in the first round by the Spurs with Howard unable to pick up where Kobe left off.

Let me put it this way: when Cousins tore his ACL and the Lakers needed a new center, I was on the Joakim Noah train as opposed to the Howard train. 

And it is not like that one Lakers season is the only thing rubbing me in the wrong direction about Howard. Over the six years since that fateful season, he has been steadily declining from being the best center in the game.

After being frustrated with the lack of post touches he got in Houston the three years after being in Los Angeles, he signed with Atlanta for a year who had just recently decided to go into the tank. He then signed with Charlotte for the 2017-2018 season. 

Though Howard has been pretty underwhelming these last few years since that Lakers season, he actually saw some resurgence in Charlotte. Averaging 16.6 points and 9.3 rebounds per game, these were his highest averages since his first year in Houston. He even played 81 games for the first time since 2010.

Now, if Howard had kept that season’s momentum going into last year with Washington, maybe my opinion of how effective he could be for the Lakers this coming year would be more sympathetic. In reality, Howard saw huge setbacks.

Because of a glute injury, Howard only played nine games in a Wizards uniform. His previous low for a season was in 2015 with Houston when he only played 41 games. It should be said that in the age of load management, Howard has remained one of the most durable players throughout his career – until last season.

Though it was a small sample size, he did still put up 12.8 points and 9.2 rebounds per game. But he only averaged 0.4 blocks per game, which was a very steep drop-off from his previous career low of 1.2 bpg in 2017.

At this point in his career, Howard does not inspire much confidence on the defensive end. Yes, he is still strong and in shape enough to defend post-ups on the block, but nothing indicates he can be as athletic and explosive as McGee continues to be. He says he lost 25 pounds this summer and is in the best shape of his life, but he has said a version of this every summer for the past four seasons.

Look, simply put: I do not trust Howard. He left a bad taste in the mouth of Lakers fans who demand championship work ethic from the team no matter who is on the court. And as long as we are discussing who will be finishing games with those other four names for the Lakers, Howard might not be able to even be out there as he still shoots 60 percent or worse from the free throw line.

At the same time, I still believe he has the capacity to be a viable player for a team with the goal of winning it all.

I just need to see it to believe it. And that will not happen until at least October 22nd. So right now, since the Lakers will most likely decide to play a true center during crunch time to appease Anthony Davis in his contract year, McGee is the guy. If Howard shows up and finally proves that he is willing to be an effective piece on the periphery of a talented team, if he can handle being a pick-and-roll lob target for 90 percent of his touches, then he should be given a starter’s chance.

But until then, there is no reason McGee should not be the big man to lean on.