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Friday's notebook: Big success in Lakers' frontcourt

In this week's notebook, we look at 5 trends that have formed early this season

Happy Friday!

The 2019-20 NBA season is 9% complete and here’s a look at five noteworthy numbers, plays and quotes as we head into the Week 3 weekend.

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1. Lakers hitting it big (so far)

Anthony Davis expressed his distaste for playing center, and the Lakers made sure he wouldn’t have to play that spot full-time by re-signing JaVale McGee, adding DeMarcus Cousins and — once Cousins tore his ACL in August — Dwight Howard.

Still, it felt like a safe assumption that the Lakers would be at their best with those guys off the floor and with Davis at the five, and that Davis at the five would be the go-to configuration down the stretch in close games.

But in the Lakers’ close wins in Texas (Friday in Dallas and Sunday in San Antonio), Howard was on the floor with Davis and LeBron James down the stretch. In 36 total minutes of the trio playing together, the Lakers have outscored their opponents by 34 points.

Overall, the Lakers have been better with Davis at the four (combining his minutes with McGee or Howard) than they’ve been with Davis at the five (with both McGee and Howard resting).

Lakers with Anthony Davis on the floor
On floor MIN OffRtg DefRtg NetRtg +/-
Davis + McGee 99 97.7 101.4 -3.7 -11
Davis + Howard 72 120.8 85.3 +35.4 +58
Davis at 4 total 171 107.3 94.8 +12.5 +47
Davis at 5 72 96.4 96.4 0 0
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions

DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions

NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions

Davis himself has been more efficient at the five (effective field goal of 55%, true shooting percentage of 63%) than he’s been at the four (46%, 55%). One issue with the Lakers’ struggles in the minutes in which Davis has played center? James hasn’t been at the four for all of them.

In breaking up the time between minutes that James has been on the floor vs. minutes that he’s been off the floor, there’s a huge difference in how well the Lakers have played with Davis at center. In 49 minutes with Davis at the five and James on the floor, the Lakers have outscored their opponents by 24 points. In 23 minutes with Davis at the five with James on the bench, the Lakers have been outscored by 24 points.

Lakers with Anthony Davis at the 5
James on/off MIN OffRtg DefRtg NetRtg +/-
James on the floor 49 110.6 87.8 +22.8 +24
James off the floor 23 66.0 115.7 -49.6 -24
Davis at 5 total 72 96.4 96.4 0 0
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions

DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions

NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions

These sample sizes are all small (plus, that the Lakers have played only seven minutes per game with James and Davis at the four and five is kind of wild). Come April, the numbers may look a lot different. The Lakers may end up playing Davis at the five a lot more in the postseason. But if they can continue to have success in those big-lineup minutes (while also saving Davis from some wear and tear), that’s a big win.

The Lakers take their six-game winning streak into a challenging five-day stretch as they host the Heat on Friday (10:30 p.m. ET, NBA TV), the Raptors on Sunday (9:30 ET, League Pass) and visit the Suns on Tuesday (9 ET, League Pass).

2. Hayward in control

Gordon Hayward had himself a night in Cleveland on Tuesday, tying his career high with 39 points, while adding seven rebounds and eight assists in the Celtics’ 119-113 win against the Cavs.

Hayward was an incredible 16-for-16 on 2-point shots, 13-for-13 in the paint and 3-for-3 from mid-range. And one thing that stood out was the control with which he finished plays. These two drives are good examples of how Hayward was able to get into the paint, but then slow down and finish in control…

(And yes, after stopping Hayward’s initial drive on that first play, Kevin Love should probably have made a second effort to contest the short turnaround jumper.)

3. Modified ‘Spain’ in Boston

One play that has seen a big increase in popularity over the last couple of seasons is Spain pick-and-roll. It’s a high pick-and-roll with an extra screen — a back-screen for the big man who set the original pick — from a third offensive player who generally starts the play in the paint. It’s a tough play to defend, because it requires a lot of communication and three defenders to be in sync.

(Here’s the Knicks running it successfully on Wednesday. And here’s Jonathan Isaac breaking up a Spain pick-and-roll from the Mavs the same night.)

With Hayward having it going on Tuesday, the Celtics ran what looked like a modified Spain pick-and-roll, with Kemba Walker setting the second screen.

But instead of it being a standard high pick-and-roll, it was a dribble handoff, with Hayward first getting a pin-down screen from Brad Wanamaker and then the handoff from Robert Williams on the left side of the floor. Instead of starting under the basket and setting a back-screen, Walker starts on the right wing and sets a screen to the side of Williams’ defender (Tristan Thompson). That leaves only 6-foot-1 guard Collin Sexton to protect the rim against the 6-foot-7 Hayward going downhill.

Opponents have shot 16-for-20 (80%) at the rim when Sexton has been there to protect it this season.

This after timeout play was a clever wrinkle from coach Brad Stevens.

Like the Lakers, the Celtics have won six straight games after dropping their opener. They’ll take that winning streak into San Antonio on Saturday (5 ET, League Pass).

4. High praise for Horford

The fight between Joel Embiid and Karl-Anthony Towns was the big story in last week’s Timberwolves-Sixers game. The result of the fight was a two-game suspension for both All-Star big men. The result of the game was a convincing win for the Sixers in which they often outmuscled the smaller Wolves.

After the game, Minnesota coach Ryan Saunders turned a question about the Sixers’ size into some strong praise for Philly big man Al Horford.

“It gave us some problems on both ends,” Saunders said. “I’ll attribute that also to the personnel and the individuals, where Al Horford is somebody who’s carved himself … he can fit into any system. He’s the ultimate professional in this league. And I’ve always had a lot of respect for him. So he poses a problem when he’s playing the four.”

The Sixers have struggled offensively, scoring less than a point per possession, with both Embiid and Horford on the floor. But they’ve held their opponents to just 83.7 points per 100 possessions in their 59 minutes played together.

The numbers with Horford at the five (and Embiid off the floor) aren’t as good on defense, but much better on offense. Wednesday in Utah, the Sixers lost by two in a game in which they were outscored by nine points in 12:10 with Embiid off the floor.

Philly completes its road trip on Friday in Denver (9 ET, League Pass), where Horford will match up with former teammate Paul Millsap. Additionally, Kia MVP candidates Embiid and Nikola Jokic will go head-to-head for just the fourth time in their careers.

5. Wins against winners

Through Thursday, there are 14 teams with winning records. And there are nine teams (all within the group itself) with multiple wins over those 14 teams.

That latter group is led by the Milwaukee Bucks, who are 4-2 against the other teams that have winning records, with wins over the Rockets, Raptors, Wolves and Clippers. Those last two wins came with Minnesota missing Towns and the Clippers missing Kawhi Leonard. But the Bucks can pick up another one when they visit the 5-3 Jazz on Friday (9 ET, League Pass).

Teams w/ multiple wins over teams currently over .500
Team GP W L Pt. Diff.
Milwaukee 6 4 2 +5.5
L.A. Lakers 4 3 1 +3.8
Miami 5 3 2 +4.6
Utah 5 3 2 -0.6
LA Clippers 6 3 3 0.0
Boston 3 2 1 +1.0
Denver 3 2 1 +6.0
Philadelphia 4 2 2 +7.3
Phoenix 5 2 3 -1.0

If we did this calculation on Thursday, the Lakers would have been 4-1 against teams that had winning records, but the Hornets dropped to 4-4 with their loss to Boston on Thursday night. (The Lakers, as noted above, play three more teams within the group — Miami, Toronto and Phoenix — over the next five days.)

The 4-4 Indiana Pacers, meanwhile, are the only team that has yet to play a game against one of the 14 teams that currently has a winning record. The Pacers next three games are against the 4-5 Pistons (Friday), the 2-6 Magic (Sunday) and the 3-5 Thunder (Tuesday).

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John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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