The start of the season hasn't been easy for the Los Angeles Lakers. The growing pains associated with a young team learning to play with LeBron James have hurt the team early on and they limped to a 4-6 record through their first 10 games.
They've been as-advertised offensively but have struggled to hold up on defence, currently sitting with the 23rd overall defence giving up 120.0 points per game. Help is on the way, though, as the Lakers and veteran centre Tyson Chandler agreed on a deal for the rest of the season.
After being bought out by the Suns over the weekend, the 36-year-old big man passed through waivers on Tuesday en route to signing in Los Angeles. Chandler isn't a huge name anymore - nor the dynamic defender LeBron might not-so-fondly remember from 2011 - but he's the exact type of player the Lakers have needed.
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To be clear, starting centre JaVale McGee has been fantastic and one of the clear positives for the Lakers to start the season. He's averaging a pretty remarkable 14.4 points and 7.5 rebounds per game and lineups featuring both him and LeBron are holding opponents to under 104 points per 100 possessions . His energy and aggression have been key to the Lakers not having to always sacrifice size in order to play fast.
With that said, McGee has been LA's only reliable centre option. In the most basic sense, Chandler helps by doubling the number of seven-footers Luke Walton can rely on in close, important games; but his arrival signifies much more than that. While Chandler won't single-handedly change the Lakers' fortunes, his addition will benefit players up and down the roster.
Defence has long been Chandler's forte and that is the side of the ball he'll most directly help the Lakers. As mentioned, McGee has been solid defensively, but Chandler represents a fare more traditional defensive anchor.
In certain regular season - and potentially playoff - matchups, Chandler's stability will be far more reliable than McGee's more explosive, risk-accepting style of rim protection. In part due to his aggression, McGee has had a significantly higher foul rate over the past handful of seasons. As a result, there will be games where he's unavailable with foul trouble and Chandler becomes the main centre option.
Thanks in large part to McGee, the Lakers were the seventh-best shot-blocking team in the league through ten games. McGee himself averages over three blocks per game, but he also has the habit of chasing highlight rejections over reliable defence. Too often McGee will concede open shots after biting on a pump-fake or leaving his man to go for an ill-advised block attempt.
As a result, the Lakers concede the 15th-highest field goal percentage within six feet (61.8 percent) and the seventh-highest percentage from 2-point range overall (53.7 percent). In the time he's on the floor, Chandler will help gradually lower those numbers.
When they do force misses, the Lakers have struggled to end possessions after one attempt, allowing the third-most offensive rebounds and ninth-most second-chance points per game. Over the past five seasons, Chandler has averaged 9.3 defensive rebounds per 36 minutes - compared to McGee's 6.8 - and will help limit those second chances.
While Chandler doesn't fit the ideal fast-pace style the Lakers have opted for this season, his rebounding will help them play quickly in another way. If the Lakers can rely on Chandler to grab a defensive rebound and quickly find an outlet to start the break, then two or three other Lakers can start running without worrying about allowing second-chance opportunities. While McGee is a far better rim-runner at this point in his career, the extra chances Chandler creates by starting the break will outweigh his stylistic differences.
Every minute the Lakers can play fast with a traditional centre on the court is a minute that saves LeBron's energy for the end of games. LeBron has played 22 percent of his minutes at centre this season and is on pace to destroy his previous season-high of nine percent in 2012-13. Those lineups are as explosive and dynamic offensively as we imagined, but they struggle to hold up defensively for more than a couple minutes at a time. They're not designed to, but the lack of centre depth has forced Walton to play those lineups earlier and more often than he'd prefer.
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Like the Warriors' fabled Death Lineup of old, those small lineups are best utilized in key moments in close fourth quarters. Playing centre is far more draining for LeBron than playing either forward spot, and forcing him to play minutes at the five early in the game will limit his effectiveness down the stretch.
That is part of the reason Los Angeles has struggled in fourth quarters to start the season. They've gone 3-3 in games decided by five or fewer points, but their defensive rating jumps from 111.6 to 114.0 in fourth quarters. While Chandler may not always play towards the end of these close games, his ability to save LeBron's centre minutes for when they truly matter will make a huge difference in close games and in playoff seeding down the road.