While there was plenty of excitement last summer over the Los Angeles Lakers signing LeBron James, free agency came and went without the team doing much — at least on the surface — to address the center position.
Heading into the offseason it was unclear if Ivica Zubac would return at all after a disappointing sophomore campaign which saw him playing mostly in the G League. Brook Lopez signed with the Milwaukee Bucks, and the Lakers lone step was to ink JaVale McGee, a career reserve who had played a mere 10 minutes a game off the bench the prior two seasons.
It looked ominous at the time, but for the most part it has turned out better than expected. For one thing, McGee was dynamic to start the season and far exceeded expectations. He was playing 25 minutes a game or more and was very effective on both ends of the court.
He was defending the paint better than any Lakers center had done in years and was among the league leaders in blocks. On offense, he paired very well with James and was dynamic scoring in a variety of ways around the rim, often the beneficiary of a great pass from James.
Big problems arose, however, when McGee would exit games for rest. The Lakers expected to feature a small-ball lineup but with Julius Randle and Larry Nance Jr. playing for other teams, there was simply no one left who could effectively play center.
The coaching staff seemingly did not want to play Zubac, and first-round draft pick Moritz Wagner was slow to recover from a knee injury suffered in Summer League. Wagner is more a power forward, but in a pinch he could fill the role of a stretch center.
The Lakers were losing and the situation was desperate. However, Tyson Chandler was unexpectedly bought out by the Phoenix Suns, cleared waivers, and signed with the Lakers. It paid immediate dividends, as Chandler was energized to be out of Phoenix and playing with James.
Chandler started his Lakers career blocking a last-second floater from rookie Trae Young to preserve a one-point victory. But that was in November. The calendar now says it is late January, and much has changed for the Lakers.
Once a strong number No. 4 seed in the Western Conference, James has been out a month with a groin injury and Lonzo Ball is now missing for an extended period with a badly sprained ankle. The Lakers find themselves in a precarious position and ninth the West.
In the interim, McGee missed seven games with pneumonia, and although he has been back for a while, he is yet to come close to resembling the player from earlier this season. Chandler has played more minutes than he is really capable and looks fatigued. Recently, Chandler has started at center but it has not gone well.
How should the Lakers set their rotation for the rest of the season? In recent games the coaching staff has been rotating all three centers each game which is unworkable and only makes them look indecisive.
McGee, Chandler and Zubac all play the same style of basketball; back to the basket and score around the rim.
At this point in his long and celebrated career, Chandler is not capable of being a starter and it is silly for the coaching staff to put him in that position. If Chandler plays regularly at all, he is best suited for spot minutes in key strategic situations. Of course, he is also a valuable insurance policy if someone else is injured.
Since the coaching staff continues to show little confidence in Wagner, it comes down to McGee and Zubac. A month ago this would have been an easy decision, but a lot has changed.
In a word, Zubac has been outstanding the past month. On Christmas Day, he was instrumental in helping the Lakers defeat the Golden State Warriors on the road, and whenever he has gotten the chance to play since, he has been nothing short of a revelation.
In the Lakers’ stunning road victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder last week, Zubac scored a career-high 26 points and grabbed 12 rebounds in 28 minutes of playing time. For some unexplainable reason, in the next game in which the Lakers took the Houston Rockets to overtime, Zubac barely played for the first three quarters.
He entered the game to begin the fourth quarter and never left, scoring 17 points including several crucial free throws at the end with the game on the line. Nothing is more unexpected about the Lakers in 2019 than the fact that Zubac has become the best free throw shooter on the team, connecting on an astounding 89.6 percent from the line. He is also leading the team in overall shooting percentage at 62.3 percent.
In contrast, Chandler and McGee shoot 63 and 64 percent, respectively, from the charity stripe. So unlike Zubac, they can be a liability on the court at the end of games.
The coaching staff probably fears that the clock will strike midnight and Zubac will turn into a pumpkin again. But the eye test suggests this is not the same old soft, timid, slow Zubac. He looks like a totally different player.
Although a very convincing argument could be made that Zubac should start, the best guess is that the coaching staff will want to go with a veteran and that means McGee will get the nod. Zubac, however, should immediately spell McGee when he comes out and he should play throughout the contest, not just in the fourth quarter.
If McGee falters, the Lakers should not hesitate to insert Zubac as the starter. It is unfortunate that the Lakers do not have a center who can stretch the floor, and that Zubac, Chandler and McGee all essentially do the same thing.
Still, each is a good player who can make big plays. If one is struggling the others can come in and do the job. Overall, it is an enviable position for the Lakers to be in.
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