Los Angeles Lakers made light work of the Utah Jazz on Friday night. LeBron James was aggressive, Anthony Davis effective, the defence was superb. Troy Daniels proved perimeter shooting. It was a welcome positive evening at Staples Center after a disappointing opening night loss to the Los Angeles Clippers.
Frank Vogel started Avery Bradley alongside James in the backcourt with Danny Green on the wing. Davis played the four while JaVale McGee started at centre. Dwight Howard played over 19 minutes at the five, too.
What was the most important moment, however, was at the start of the third quarter. Vogel ditched McGee and Howard for Alex Caruso – who didn’t appear against the Clippers or in the first half. Caruso is a crowd favourite and excelled at the end of last season, resulting in a two-year contract this summer. Nursing a knock, he missed out on opening night, but he has a big role to play for the Lakers.
The change saw Davis shifted to centre. The All-NBA big man isn’t keen on playing the five, but there’s no doubt the Lakers’ offence flowed better with him there. Caruso’s combination of playmaking and shooting eases the burden on James and spaces the floor – he will see plenty of minutes this year, and could start on Sunday if Rajon Rondo is still unavailable.
The pace picked up. The Lakers were able to push the ball in transition, as their improved defence shutdown the Jazz offence. Caruso would feed it to James on occasion, and sometimes he’d bring it up the floor himself. He’s a versatile player offensively, unlike Rondo. There’s a strong argument that he should start ahead of the former Boston Celtic when he returns to full fitness.
Defensively, Caruso is an underrated athlete. He can stay in front of most opposing point guards and has quick hands, regularly deflecting the ball.
Getting Caruso onto the floor requires Davis to play the five. The offence was crowded and messy with Davis and McGee/Howard on the floor. Space immediately opened up when they ‘went small’ with Caruso. Ultimately, Caruso-Bradley-Green-James-Davis isn’t a ‘small’ five in the 2019 NBA, it’s a balanced unit with shooting and sufficient size against the vast majority of opponents.
Davis is a five – the Lakers are a better team with him at centre. His reluctance to play the position creates a dilemma for Vogel. Having a flexible roster is a bonus, McGee and Howard will need to play plenty of minutes this season, but the starting and closing line-ups needs to have Davis playing at centre.