LeBron James’ 1st Start at Center Is the Beginning of the King’s Final Chapter

Desperate to halt a five-game skid, the Los Angeles Lakers took a calculated risk in starting LeBron James at center. James, who turns 37 years old on Thursday, made the most of his first-ever start at the 5, leading LA to a much-needed win over the Houston Rockets.

While some consider LeBron’s debut at center to be nothing more than another lineup permutation by the Purple and Gold, there’s reason to think this is more than a one-off deal. Perhaps Tuesday night was the start of the King’s final chapter in his illustrious, Hall of Fame-bound career.

LeBron James secured a triple-double in his first start at center

The 2021-22 Lakers are no strangers to shuffling the lineup. Through 34 games, LA used 18 different starting lineups in what has been an uneven campaign. On Tuesday, acting head coach David Fizdale made it 19, opening the game with a lineup of Russell Westbrook, Avery Bradley, Malik Monk, Stanley Johnson, and James.

To very little surprise, LeBron had no issue acclimating to his new position. The 19-year veteran scored 13 points in the first quarter, which included a pair of 3-pointers. He served as more of a facilitator in the next frame, dishing out three assists to go with five points and three rebounds. The third quarter was more extreme, as James made up for having zero points with four assists in a little over seven minutes. But the King took over in the fourth, scoring 14 points with six rebounds and three more assists.

All in all, the Lakers’ superstar finished the 132-123 win with 32 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists, and a pair of blocks. He shot 11-of-19 from the field, hitting three triples and going 7-of-9 from the charity stripe. It was James’ fifth consecutive game with 30 or more points and 13th this season, tying him for the NBA lead. Keep in mind, the Akron native has only suited up for 23 of LA’s 35 contests.

“I’ve taken pride over the course of my career in being able to play five positions,” James told The Athletic after the game. “Or at least know all five positions. Knowing the commands. Knowing if I’m guarding a big, what is the coverage. If I’m guarding a small, what’s the coverage. … So, tonight called for our team and called for me to start at center, and I just tried to be in a hell of a lot of plays.”

The Los Angeles Lakers could keep rolling with LeBron at the 5

On the surface, it actually makes sense that LeBron drew a start at the 5. All-Star teammate Anthony Davis will be sidelined for several more weeks with a knee sprain. Dwight Howard is easing his way back into the rotation after a brief period in health and safety protocols. And DeAndre Jordan has simply failed to be a productive player in his first season with the Lakers.

Those factors were enough for Fizdale to make the decision, as he told ESPN.

“LeBron’s plus-minus at the 5 is so ridiculous right now,” Fizdale said after LA’s win. “To have guys out with COVID and stuff like that, I just took a gamble and said, ‘You know, I think that tonight’s the night to start him at 5.'”

However, who’s to say Fizdale’s gamble doesn’t turn into LA’s regular lineup moving forward? Davis’ absence, coupled with the overall ineffectiveness of the two actual centers, gives James a real shot to stick at the position moving forward. Considering his debut start resulted in a 32-point triple-double, it’s not as if he isn’t equipped to handle it.

For what it’s worth, this wasn’t LeBron’s first time ever playing the 5. Just this year, head coach Frank Vogel deployed his star at center to close out an overtime win over the Indiana Pacers on November 24. In the five-minute OT period, the King scored eight points and hit another two 3-pointers.

A move to the paint could be where James finishes his Hall of Fame career

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Despite a 6-foot-9, 250 lb. build, James has spent far more time on the wing or as the primary ball-handler than down low. But Tuesday shared a glimpse of what LeBron’s future could be headed toward.

Even if it’s hard to believe by watching him on a nightly basis, the King is on the verge of turning 37 years old. While his numbers suggest no immediate signs of slowing down, his quickness and athleticism are slowly but surely going to fade. However, the strength that truly separates LeBron from the rest of the league won’t be going away. And that strength will keep LeBron relevant longer than most players who reach his age.

As James gets older, we will see his largest transformation yet. Before you know it, the future Hall of Famer will go from a fast, high-flying athlete to a matchup nightmare in the post. His size will allow him to go head-to-head against true centers. But his passing ability and basketball IQ will endure no matter what position he’s playing.

The smart money is on LeBron eventually becoming more of a post player as his career winds down. But Tuesday was a perfect example of why even if that happens, he won’t change his game too much.

“I just told the team … ‘I don’t think you guys realize what this guy just did,'” Fizdale said per ESPN. “‘He just played the 5 for four quarters and dominated at the position and played it while playing point guard, while playing [forward], he just … Ah, my gosh, this guy is unbelievable.'”

All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.