THE DAY BEFORE the Los Angeles Lakers’ final preseason game, a few dozen children at the Pechanga Resort Casino in Temecula, California, were granted exclusive practice access, a rarity for a franchise that normally doesn’t even allow reporters and news cameras in the gym until the group has already dispersed for individual free throw shooting.
As the sponsored team appearance wound down, it was hard to miss the commotion caused when Lakers big man Anthony Davis, with his sneakers slung over his shoulder like Santa’s toy sack, made his way to the group of kids as he walked off the court.
“AD! Anthony! Can I get your signature?! I got my Sharpie!”
What wasn’t as noticeable was Christian Wood and Jaxson Hayes flanking behind Davis, themselves looking a little like siblings waiting for their big brother.
Without Davis insisting that vice president of basketball operations and general manager Rob Pelinka and the Lakers’ the front office find more post players to surround him as he plays out the $186 million contract extension he signed this summer, Wood and Hayes might not be in L.A.
But, unless Davis can help indoctrinate the two free agent acquisitions to the point Lakers coach Darvin Ham trusts them at center, he could end up back at the 5 again, a position he has pushed back against since his very first day with the Lakers.
Seeing the trio of big men together was a common occurrence during training camp. Davis, fondly recalling the camaraderie — and interior effectiveness — that he shared with JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard during the 2019-20 championship season, has intentionally tried to recreate that dynamic with Wood and Hayes.
“I just try to be that leader,” Davis told ESPN. “Guys come over, sometimes we watch football … bring the family, whatever. … Just trying to do things like that just to show to the guys, like, ‘I’m here for y’all. Whatever y’all need. My house is always open.’
In a way, the Lakers’ approach this season is a failsafe setup.
Davis wants to play less center, so preparing Wood and Hayes to play minutes there will allow AD more time at power forward.
Wood and Hayes, both inked to veterans minimum deals, want to take advantage of the Lakers’ platform and up their market value — and need playing time to do so.
The Lakers want to win while also fostering their recent reputation that players can get paid after showing out in L.A. — Malik Monk and Dennis Schroder being the latest examples of that. As a luxury tax team limited by the new collective bargaining agreement, the Lakers need players on one-year deals to find success around their core to sustain their winning window.
If Wood and Hayes see consistent minutes at center because of their productivity — and not because of Davis’ absence because of an injury — everybody gets what they want.
Not to mention perhaps the most prescient reason to carry three centers in a league where small-ball, switchable and positionless basketball has become the default style of play. If the Lakers are going to reach their championship goal this season, they will likely have to overcome one, if not two, of the best big men in basketball along the way: Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets, Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks and Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers, who have combined to win five of the past six MVP awards and two of the past three Finals MVP distinctions.
“Trying to stay as close as possible,” Davis said of his plans for Wood and Hayes this season. “Just reminiscing on how close we were, the things we did in ’20 when we won.”
THE CONCESSION BY Ham to limit Davis’ minutes at center as the coach begins his second year on the Lakers’ sideline is a significant one, the first thing that needed to happen to prove the organization is truly a willing collaborator with its stars. The Lakers acted on Davis’ offseason input, landing two-year deals with both Hayes, in July, and Wood, in September. (Each has a player option for the second year.)
“I don’t get caught up in it,” Ham told ESPN when asked about the continuing back and forth between Davis and the team’s decision-makers about his preferred position. “I know what he means about wanting to have his skill set be diversified on the floor. I get that part, and we are on the same page.”
It’s not that Davis will abandon the position. He has still started at center in every game he has played this season, because he’s still by far the Lakers’ best option there. But L.A. has already closed some games with Davis and Wood sharing the court, showing their commitment to Davis’ vision.
Davis played almost exclusively at center last season while helping lead the Lakers to the Western Conference finals, posting career bests in rebounds (12.5 per game) and field goal percentage (56.3%) to go with 25.9 points and 2.0 blocks per night.
But L.A. was swept by the eventual-champion Nuggets, led by one of the most skilled bigs in league history in Jokic. While Davis recorded elite averages of 26.8 points and 14 rebounds per game in the series, Jokic ran roughshod on L.A.’s fifth-ranked playoff defense, posting 27.8 points, 14.5 rebounds and 11.8 assists per game.
It was a stark contrast to the 2020 West finals in the Orlando, Florida, bubble, when Davis outdueled the two-time MVP with 31.2 points to Jokic’s 21.8 points and the Lakers won in five games.
There’s no mistaking Jokic’s improvement over the past several years, and Davis’ first year in L.A. still stands out as his most complete since joining the Lakers. But something else changed between 2020 and 2023: L.A.’s roster construction.
With Davis, McGee and Howard together, the Lakers led the league in blocks per game and were seventh in field goal percentage allowed at the rim, according to Second Spectrum tracking.
In three seasons since, with Davis suffering major injuries and the Lakers cycling through centers Marc Gasol, Montrezl Harrell, Damian Jones (twice), Andre Drummond, Howard again, DeAndre Jordan, Wenyen Gabriel, Thomas Bryant, Mo Bamba and Tristan Thompson, L.A. has ranked ninth in blocks per game and 23rd, 28th and 17th, respectively, in rim protection, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
Considering Davis, Hayes and Wood’s preexisting ties, maybe they’ll be the right three to turn those numbers around.
DAVIS’ FINAL GAME for the New Orleans Pelicans happened to be Wood’s first.
It was March 24, 2019, and both big men were at career crossroads. Davis was two months removed from requesting a trade and initially being pulled from the lineup for nine games before awkwardly suiting back up for the team that had drafted him No. 1 when no deal was struck by the deadline. Wood was signed off waivers with eight games remaining in the regular season, with the Pelicans taking a flyer on the undrafted big man out of UNLV who had cycled through three NBA teams in three years.
“I’ve always been a big fan of AD,” the 28-year-old Wood told ESPN about the 30-year-old Davis. “Even before I got to New Orleans, I was always watching his game. I always thought we had similarities in our game.
“So, when we met each other, I was instantly like, ‘Let’s play one-on-one.’ Let’s do this, let’s do that. ‘Where can I learn from you?’ Where can I get better at?'”
Wood and Davis remain close five years later. “Who, ‘Twin’?” Davis asked, interrupting an interview with Wood. “This is Twin right here.”
While their dynamic is playful — they are often seen prodding each other over who is the better shooter — Davis assumes a disciplinary role, too. During L.A.’s second preseason game last month against the Brooklyn Nets in Las Vegas, Davis didn’t like the effort he was seeing from Wood.
“I got on him in Vegas,” Davis said. “I was telling him just, ‘You use this time to catch a rhythm. We’re not going through the motions.’
“And he didn’t take it personal, he just took it with him like, ‘All right, cool.’ And he scored like eight straight [points] after that. So I’m just trying to see what motivates him, what pushes him.
“I’m telling him if you want to take your game to the next level, get that contract that you want, this is [the consistency needed] every day.”
Hayes was acquired from the Atlanta Hawks by the Pelicans on draft night in 2019 by trading the No. 4 pick the Lakers sent to New Orleans as part of the package to get Davis. When Hayes arrived to the Pelicans, he was learning the ropes by being asked to play inside the way Davis had for the franchise.
“We still had Alvin [Gentry], who was Ant’s coach,” Hayes told ESPN. “So we still ran all the same stuff pretty much. So they just would show me a lot of Ant film so I could just go out and try to emulate that and be that for us my rookie year.”
Davis has taken Hayes under his wing, too.
“He’s an exceptional talent,” Davis said of Hayes. “Very athletic. Can protect the rim. Runs the floor, he plays hard. He listens. He wants to get better. And that’s all you can ask for.
“He’s constantly asking me questions. And I get on him as well. Like, ‘Running back in transition, your job is to clean up the entire paint. Nobody should ever score in the paint.'”
And Ham has introduced a new offense this season that could allow all three big men to thrive, often with two of them sharing the floor — a system that just so happened to be used when the Lakers had those three big men who were all impactful in 2020.
ONE WEEK INTO the season, facing an LA Clippers team that came into the night riding an 11-game game winning streak against its city rival, it wasn’t the Lakers’ new “five out” offense that was troubling them.
The Lakers allowed 61 points and were trailing by 13 after one half, and the Clippers were pounding them in the paint and hounding them on the boards.
Worse still, Ham played LeBron James nearly 20 minutes through the first two quarters, eating into the guidelines he and the medical staff established to try to keep the 21-year veteran as fresh as possible come the postseason.
Still trailing by double digits midway through the third and looking for a spark, Ham subbed in Wood for James. A minute later, Ham swapped in Hayes for Cam Reddish.
Once the two bigs joined Davis on the court, the supersized group — Austin Reaves and Max Christie were the other two players in the lineup — wreaked havoc on the Clips.
“The size messes everyone up defensively because it’s just way more arms everywhere, more people in the way,” Hayes told ESPN. “I really like that group just because of size. But I mean, that’s coming from me as a big. If you ask a guard, they probably don’t like that group as much.”
The Clippers guards certainly couldn’t have appreciated it. The Lakers outscored the Clippers by 15 and outrebounded them by 10 in the quarter.
After several sequences featuring contested shots, when Paul George or Kawhi Leonard would use a pump fake to elude Hayes or Wood, only to have Davis as the next obstacle — the big mens’ defensive imprint tightened the game, which the Lakers would eventually win in overtime.
Christian Wood’s putback slam seals Lakers’ OT win over Clippers
Christian Wood swoops in for a big putback dunk to put the game out of reach in the final moments.
The offense showed signs of clicking, too.
The offense doesn’t just refer to whomever is playing the 5 being spaced out on the perimeter, but all five players on the court. The goal is to have wing players sprint to the corners at the start of offensive possessions, drawing defensive attention, which in turn gives more space to operate the offense from the top of the key when a trailing big man — in the Lakers’ case, Davis — orchestrates the action.
With the Clippers’ lead down to four points with a tick under two minutes remaining in the third quarter, Reaves dribbled up the left wing while Davis, at the top of the key, motioned to Wood to evacuate the left corner.
Wood curled through the lane and spotted up on the right wing beyond the 3-point line, while Davis dove toward the hoop after setting a slip screen for Reaves. The movement made Wood’s defender, P.J. Tucker, turn his head toward Davis for a split second, creating just enough time for Reaves to find Wood with a pass beyond the arc that he stepped into, launching a 3 to bring the Lakers within one and prompting the Clippers to call timeout as the Crypto.com Arena crowd erupted.
Davis controlled the action without even touching the ball. And plenty more options materialize when he does.
“With more than capable 3-point shooters on both sides,” Ham said, “[Davis] can go weak side, strong side or just have [his four teammates] occupy the defense while he goes and tries to bring down his own man.”
Besides saving Davis’ body from the wear and tear that would accompany an offense that requires him to plant himself near the lane and constantly fight for post-up positioning, five out appeals to the eight-time All-Star’s cerebral side.
“His versatility on both sides of the ball will definitely be explored,” Ham said. “There’ll be times where he’s like a [point guard] because he is initiating our offense from the trail position. We got sets where he’s the initiator with the ball in his hand.”
Injuries to Davis (left hip spasms) and Hayes (left ankle sprain) on L.A.’s 1-3 road trip have kept Ham from getting to the three-big lineup more. Early injuries have thrown much of the Lakers’ plans out of whack, with Gabe Vincent (left knee swelling) and Jarred Vanderbilt (left heel bursitis) both continuing to miss time. And James is now dealing with a left calf injury that caused him to miss L.A.’s game against the Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday.
Whatever temporary scramble is necessary to try to keep the team above water doesn’t mean the Lakers are abandoning their big-picture approach. They’re not “throwing the baby out with the bath water,” as Ham likes to say.
And if adding centers to the roster was a way to placate Davis, relying on an equal-opportunity playmaking offense like five out is a way to protect James, too. The more others are relied on to shoulder the offensive responsibilities, the less stress will be on the 38-year old to carry them.
Because, if the Lakers can keep James healthy, he’s someone teams like Denver and Milwaukee can’t claim: an all-time great with 10 Finals runs under his belt to propel the playoff push.
It’s the Lakers’ big plan this season. Starting with three big men.