Lakers finally start LeBron James at center, and he rewards them with a triple-double in victory over Rockets

The Los Angeles Lakers are under .500 and scraping the bottom of the basketball barrel for a win right now. They finally got one on Tuesday — 132-123 over the Houston Rockets — to snap a five-game losing skid. 

LeBron James posted a triple-double. So did Russell Westbrook. Carmelo Anthony and Malik Monk combined for 49 points while hitting seven of their 15 3-pointers. 

Take this with a big grain of “it was against the Rockets” salt, but the Lakers (17-18) got good looks all night. The floor was about as spaced as a Lakers lineup can be in support of Westbrook and James, the latter of whom got his first official start of the season at center. This will not be a viable option once Anthony Davis returns, but right now, LeBron and Russ without a big man on the court is very clearly the best option. 

Lakers interim coach David Fizdale is right. When LeBron has been on the court this season without Anthony Davis, DeAndre Jordan and Dwight Howard — it doesn’t matter if James is technically listed at center; the point is he’s playing without a traditional big — the Lakers are beating opponents by 7.4 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning The Glass, with a 112.9 offensive rating, which would register as third-best in the league. 

More than LeBron’s center numbers, what’s truly ridiculous, one might argue, is that it took this long for this to happen. Frank Vogel (who’s in COVID-19 health and safety protocols at the moment) has been maddeningly adamant about starting twin-tower bigs as Davis continues to resist having to play as a lone big man for one more second than absolutely necessary. 

Jordan is a disaster, but beyond that, Westbrook is the real issue here. He can’t shoot. I know that comes as a shock, but it’s true. When LeBron is on the court with Dwight Howard and Westbrook, the Lakers are minus-3.5 per 100 possessions, per CTG, but if you dump Westbrook and have LeBron play with Howard, they go to plus-10.5, albeit it in a pretty small sample. 

Having a non-shooting big on the floor with Westbrook further cramps the already claustrophobic space with which LeBron has to work. Benching Westbrook isn’t an option. So until Davis — who can, at least historically, make jump shots — returns, taking the big out of the equation becomes, if nothing else, the most palatable default solution. 

Aside from the improved spacing with the ball in LeBron’s hands, it opens up LeBron to become a screener/roller/cutter in Westbrook actions with an open lane with direct paths to the rim. It got the Lakers two big buckets, one on an emphatic dunk from LeBron, down the stretch on Tuesday. 

The reverse is also true, with the ball in LeBron’s hands and Westbrook flashing to the open lane.

After the game, LeBron was asked about playing in these smaller lineups, and here’s what he had to say:

“I can play any type of basketball game … this is Year 19 for me, and I’ve been successful at the offensive end my whole career. If it’s a game that calls for a big line up I can be successful. If it [calls for] a small lineup, I can be successful,” James said.

This is true. LeBron, who finished with 32 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists and has now scored 30-plus points in the last five games, is still one of the best players in the world independent of circumstance. But nobody else is that good on the Lakers. 

Westbrook, in particular, needs optimal conditions to be anything close to a winning player. The Rockets traded Clint Capela solely to give Westbrook a chance without a center on the floor during his final season in Houston, and it largely worked. On Tuesday, it wasn’t a coincidence that Westbrook joined LeBron in the triple-double ranks with 24 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists on an efficient 10-of-17 shooting. 

Again, don’t read too much into this. It was a nail-biting win over the Rockets. Big picture, the Lakers remain a mess, and Westbrook remains a massive issue. But they got good looks on Tuesday. The offense looked, at least, encouraging. Right now, the Lakers have to take whatever small victories they can find. 

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