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The Lakers’ season depends on Anthony Davis playing center

The Lakers don’t have enough margin for error to keep another big man on the floor next to Anthony Davis in the 2021 NBA Playoffs.

Play-In Tournament - Golden State Warriors v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images

The Los Angeles Lakers were teetering on the edge of defeat in the third quarter of Wednesday night’s play-in thriller against the Golden State Warriors when they finally started to get serious. Trailing by nine points with a little more than five minutes remaining in the frame, head coach Frank Vogel checked in Wes Matthews for his first minutes all game, replacing Andre Drummond.

Matthews hit a three-pointer 30 seconds later. By the time the quarter ended, the Lakers were only down two points, and had the Warriors right where they wanted them.

The Lakers went on to win, 103-100, to officially punch their ticket to the 2021 NBA Playoffs and set up a first round series with the Phoenix Suns. The Lakers might have a No. 7 seed next to their name entering the postseason, but they are already the betting favorite against the Suns, and one of the favorites to win it all.

Even after a trying year defined by large chunks of missed time from their two superstars, the Lakers still believe they have a formula that can’t be beat. The NBA finally got to see that formula again vs. Golden State when Matthews checked into the game.

The Lakers’ idea of getting serious has little to do with Matthews, of course, who didn’t hit another shot in his 14 minutes of play. It has everything to do with Anthony Davis. For LA, sliding Davis to the center spot is their ‘break glass in case of emergency’ option. Both Davis and the Lakers resist playing him at center until it’s absolutely necessary, but the team might not have any other choice this year. The difference between Davis playing power forward and playing center will very possibly be the difference between the Lakers going on a long playoff run and possibly repeating as champions or heading home early.

If the Lakers didn’t go to Davis at the five, it’s possible they’d be facing the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday in an elimination game rather than preparing for Chris Paul and the Suns.

Davis playing center has been a hot button issue for his entire career. The New Orleans Pelicans once traded a first round pick for center Omer Asik — coming off a season where he averaged 5.8 points and 7.9 rebounds per game — and then locked him up with a $58 million contract. When Asik’s career was sadly compromised by a gastrointestinal infection, the Pelicans made a big trade for another center in DeMarcus Cousins. The Pelicans were looking good before Cousins suffered a ruptured Achilles that changed his career and symbolically ended Davis’ time in New Orleans.

Davis’ infamous trade demand to Los Angeles followed shortly after. The move was born out of a desire to play with LeBron James, but it came with one other stipulation: Davis didn’t want to play center. He stated as much in his opening press conference.

“I like playing the four, I’m not even going to sugarcoat it. I like playing the four, I don’t really like playing the five,” Davis said at his introductory press conference with the team.

The Lakers would eventually add JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard, who both became pleasant surprises on their march to the No. 1 seed in the West. When the Lakers entered the bubble, Davis started playing more center, going from spending 60 percent of his time at the four during the regular season to 60 percent of his time at the five in the playoffs. It wasn’t the only reason Davis was so great — he was also on a historic tear as a jump shooter — but it was a major reason why the Lakers won the title. After making it out of the first round of the playoffs just once in New Orleans, suddenly there were convincing arguments that AD was the best player alive.

Davis has played 91 percent of his minutes at power forward for the Lakers this season, according to Basketball Reference. Part of that is because the Lakers had the shortest offseason in league history, with only 71 days separating their title-clinching Game 6 win over the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals and their opening night game this season. Part of it is because Davis was limited to only 36 games with an Achilles strain. Part of it is because the league jammed its 72-game schedule into five months, which put more stress on the players’ bodies than ever before. Part of it is because the Lakers wanted the see what they had in their other bigs.

The biggest reason Davis hasn’t played the five much this season however is simply because he doesn’t like to do it. As the Warriors were building their lead in the play-in game, fans wondered if Davis at the five was ever going to happen.

The Lakers couldn’t afford to waste any more time than they did going with Davis at the five. Even a few more minutes of Drummond or Montrezl Harrell might have cost them the game.

The Lakers have some serious concerns as they enter the series with Phoenix. LeBron James has said he’ll never be 100 percent again in his career following his late-season ankle injury because of the long-term toll the game has taken on his body, and he certainly didn’t look like himself for much of the game against Golden State. Davis also doesn’t appear to be moving as well after his injury, and it’s likely his shooting won’t be as incredible as it was last season. Dennis Schröder has been a solid addition, but he doesn’t have the magic of Playoff Rondo and will absolutely need to play at a high-level throughout this run if the Lakers are going to repeat. The wings have to hit open shots.

Much of the talk about the Lakers heading into the playoffs has been about their ability to flip a “mental switch.” Maybe there is a psychological hurdle the Lakers need to clear to be at their best, but it feels overblown. What the Lakers really need to do is keep their two superstars healthy, and play them at their best positions, without another big man on the floor.

With Davis at the five and James at the four, the Lakers have a championship foundation. The other three players on the floor just need to shoot and defend and make quick decisions when they get the ball. It’s easier said than done, but between Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Alex Caruso, Kyle Kuzma, Talen-Horton Tucker, Schröder, and Matthews, the Lakers should have enough bodies to mix and match in optimized lineups around their two stars.

As Harrison Faigen chronicled at Silver Screen and Roll heading into the play-in, Davis is ready to play more center in the playoffs. The Lakers’ season legitimately depends on it.