Should NBA Contenders Size Up to Match the Los Angeles Lakers?

Should NBA Contenders Size Up to Match the Los Angeles Lakers?

Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press

At the start of the 2019-20 NBA season, the Los Angeles Lakers were one of the few teams that bet bigger was better. Nearly a year later, the bet paid off as the Lakers brought home championship 17 (or 12 if you are from Boston). 

Which raises the question, with the Lakers winning the title, will playing big be the new trend? 

The Lakers doubled down on size, backing up Anthony Davis with JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard. According to Cleaning the Glass, 60 percent of Davis’ 2,125 minutes came at the power forward slot.

The Lakers occasionally went “small,” which was still big with Davis at center and LeBron James as the power forward. 

In a copycat league, we might expect the Lakers’ success to force competing franchises to scale up. But for some teams, the smart move will be to stay true to their current identity, rather than change course.

What About the Clippers?

Mike Ehrmann/Associated Press

The Los Angeles Clippers, considered by most to be the biggest threat to the Lakers in the Western Conference last season, never got a true playoff test vs. their SoCal rivals.  

They split the season series 2-2, and lost the final game vs. the Lakers on the last play. They matched up well—Kawhi Leonard and Paul George as a tandem averaged a combined 67.3 points in the four matchups. The midseason addition of Marcus Morris Sr. from the New York Knicks meant another player who could defend both Davis and James, along with elite perimeter defenders in Leonard and George.

The Clippers had one sneaky bright spot during the playoffs—the growth of Ivica Zubac. As the lone 7-footer on the roster, his minutes increased when Montrezl Harrell missed time in the bubble due to personal reasons. His regular season minutes increased from 18.4 to 24.6 in the playoffs. 

Zubac rewarded the Clippers for the extra time by posting the team’s highest net rating (minimum 100 minutes played) of 17.7 when he was on the court. They were -8.8 when he was off during those games, a massive 26.5 swing. 

The Clippers will not need to scale up to match the Lakers; they’ll have to find a ball-handler. 

What Do The Nuggets Need?

Another team that already matches up well are the Denver Nuggets, which has plenty of talented size in Nikola Jokic, Paul Millsap and Mason Plumlee. They lost to the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals in five games, but they made the eventual champions work extremely hard. The point differential in their losses was 7.5, which included an amazing Game 2 buzzer-beater from Davis. 

Denver will have to decide in the offseason whether to bring back Millsap and Plumlee or look elsewhere for replacements. But the Nuggets don’t need to change their style; they have to find a consistent third star, who may already be on their roster. 

Paging Michael Porter Jr., Paging Michael Porter Jr. 

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

The Bucks Definitely Don’t Need Size

The Milwaukee Bucks, who also disappointed in the playoffs, do not lack size. Their main starting unit consisted of Brook Lopez and Giannis Antetokounmpo with Robin Lopez, Ersan Ilyasova and now-retired Marvin Williams off the bench for size. They split the season series with the Lakers, but it was merely a battle of the stars in those games. 

Ultimately, what doomed the Bucks was their inability to adjust in the playoffs. Much like the Clippers, they need another playmaker who can take pressure off Antetokounmpo’s plate.

The Warriors Need a LeBron Stopper, Not an AD Stopper

Last season was essentially a gap year for the Golden State Warriors with injuries to Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. Still, critics around the league seem concerned with how the Warriors size up against the Lakers and Davis. 

Those are misguided thoughts. If Draymond Green is healthy, it will be on him to guard Davis, as he has done in the past. The bigger issue for the Warriors is who is guarding James?  In their classic Finals battles, they used Andre Iguodala, Kevin Durant and even Harrison Barnes in the earlier death lineup iterations. All of those options are no longer with the team. The job is up for grabs.

The Warriors will have to look to the trade market to find that piece for the team. They can use the second overall pick in the upcoming draft and Andrew Wiggins as potential assets to bring that player and truly contend.

Going to Need a Bigger Boat

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

One team that leaned into small ball in an extreme way was the Houston Rockets. After trading Clint Capela at the trade deadline, the Rockets did not start anyone taller than 6’7”. Their playoff series against the Lakers proved they were too small. 

In that five game series, they were out-rebounded 227-163 for the series. The Lakers averaged 9.2 offensive rebounds. They absolutely crushed Houston on the glass all series. The Rockets’ extreme small-ball style gave them no way to compete with the Lakers’ size. 

A new general manager—and the eventual hiring of a new coach—most likely means the full commitment to extreme small ball will come to an end. With a lack of assets in their cupboard, the Rockets might look to move Eric Gordon and/or P.J. Tucker to find a big to help them compete.

Why Rudy Gobert Needs Help

It might seem odd, but the Utah Jazz are another team that actually do need to get bigger. Even with Rudy Gobert in the fold, the Lakers, as well as a few other teams, were able to play him off the floor. He’s a defensive juggernaut in the paint, but not mobile enough to guard the perimeter, especially when the Lakers play Davis at the 5. 

The other issue for the Jazz is how their defense drops off when Gobert is off the court. This past season, Utah had a defensive rating of 106.6 with him on the court, and 110.1 when he was off. This was a tough swing compared to the season before when they had Derrick Favors, who allowed them to stagger their minutes. In the 18-19 season, the difference in the Jazz’s defensive rating with Gobert on/off was just -1.1. 

This is not a call for the Jazz to trade the former Defensive Player of the Year, but they will need to find a way to hide his lack of mobility. It might be time for the Jazz to experiment more with some zone defenses. They also need to find a viable backup big to give the team more depth.

The Celtics Bigs Beg for Improvement

The Boston Celtics are another franchise that need to scale up to a degree. They already have Daniel Theis, who was a more than serviceable big man last season. But he was not enough to slow down the Heat’s Bam Adebayo in the Eastern Conference Finals. They also have Robert Williams, who showed flashes but is not ready to contribute at the level the Celtics need in order to contend. 

The Celtics are loaded with four picks, one in the lottery, in the upcoming 2020 draft on Nov. 18. Assuming Gordon Hayward opts in on the last year of his deal, they have enough assets to make a trade for a big man, and cap space in free agency. It doesn’t have to be a long-term deal—just someone who can contribute until Williams is ready for bigger minutes. 

Who is available?

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

There’s good news for teams in need of front-court help. The free-agent market is filled with those who can serve as stopgaps for teams. Players like Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Aron Baynes, the aforementioned Favors and Tristan Thompson are just a few names who could all be had on short-term deals. 

Things might get interesting on the trade market. The Cleveland Cavaliers could look to move Andre Drumound if he picks up his $28.7 million option, or move on from Kevin Love. There are always rumors floating around that Myles Turner from Indiana could be on the block. The Orlando Magic have a plethora of bigs, such as Nikola Vucevic and Aaron Gordon, who could probably be had for the right price. It appears that the Oklahoma City Thunder might be heading for a rebuild, which means Steven Adams may be on the move. 

There are going to be plenty of options for teams looking to add some size. The Lakers are not the only relatively big team—the Nuggets, Dallas Mavericks, New Orleans Pelicans, and the Philadelphia 76ers all fall into the category. 

The real genius of the Lakers that goes unnoticed is that they were not just a big team. They were versatile and could play big, big and mobile, small and, if needed, they could go really small. 

That’s the winning blueprint contenders really must match. 

Mo Dakhil spent six years with the Los Angeles Clippers and two years with the San Antonio Spurs as a video coordinator, as well as three years with the Australian men’s national team. Follow him on Twitter, @MoDakhil_NBA. 

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