PORTLAND, Ore. — The two biggest surprises during what has been a tumultuous start to LeBron James’ first season in Los Angeles have been JaVale McGee’s productivity on the defensive end and the glaring lack of rim protection the Lakers have without him on the floor.
Through 10 games, the 4-6 Lakers are giving up 5.7 more points per 100 possessions to opponents when McGee is on the bench than when he’s on the court. The rest of their center corps — namely Ivica Zubac and rookie Jonathan Williams — haven’t been able to match his impact.
That’s why it made all the sense in the world when news broke over the weekend that the team was planning to add veteran center Tyson Chandler once his buyout from the Phoenix Suns was completed. The 36-year-old Chandler is well past his prime in his 18th year in the league, but if he has anything left, he can only help a Lakers squad that needs reinforcements in the worst way.
Before the signing became official on Tuesday, most of the team steered clear of the subject, because talking about players who are not officially on the roster is a tricky area. The rules for tampering are not as strict for players as they are for coaches or executives, but most players acted like they hadn’t heard the news when asked.
James, however, doesn’t need to play by such rules and spoke glowingly of the possible future addition of Chandler.
“We love the fact that we’re going to get another veteran,” James said after the Lakers’ win in Portland on Saturday. “A guy who plays hard, a guy who’s very smart and another champion to add to the champions that we have in this system here today so and it adds depth in our frontcourt. Which we have had trouble with at times.”
James knows Chandler well. As teammates, the pair won a gold medal for the United States at the 2012 Olympics. As foes, Chandler played a key role on the Dallas Mavericks team that beat James and the Miami Heat in the 2011 NBA Finals. The following year, as a member of the Knicks, Chandler won Defensive Player of the Year. Of course, that was a different time in the NBA — traditional big men have been de-emphasized in favor of smaller, more versatile frontcourt players who can shoot from the outside and guard multiple positions.
Still, one needs only to look at McGee’s effectiveness for the Lakers to see that rim protection is still valuable. Before the game in Portland, James called McGee a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, and doubled down on that assessment after the win.
“He is in the conversation right now,” James said. “We’ve seen a few times where he just made up for mistakes tonight, where he was able to meet [Damian Lillard] and C.J. [McCollum] and guys at the rim and get the blocked shots. So he was huge for us.”
McGee’s has been limited in attempts to play extended stretches throughout his career. He’s averaging 26.2 minutes per game this year with the Lakers, his most since his Washington Wizards days at the start of his career. With Chandler in the fold, the Lakers will only need a stopgap for the minutes McGee can’t play.
Chandler hasn’t played consistently in three-plus years with the Suns, mostly due to the franchise’s desire to tank and play younger players. When he has played, his production hasn’t dipped much — his per-36 minute numbers in Phoenix are about in line with what they were during his peak years in New Orleans, Dallas, and New York. It may say more about the Lakers’ current frontcourt situation than it does about Chandler’s own effectiveness that he will help, but he will help.
Chandler won’t be the difference between these Lakers contending and not — they have far bigger problems that one 36-year-old bought out free agent can’t solve — but they have addressed one of their most glaring early needs with a proven veteran who will be a positive presence in the locker room and may have something still to contribute on the court, too. At the very least he’s a calming voice for a team that’s been far from calm in the early goings this season.