As the dust settles around the offseason, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone that doesn’t think the Los Angeles Lakers improved their talent pool coming off their 17th NBA championship. Still, their moves to rebuild a roster around LeBron James and Anthony Davis come with their own fair share of questions and controversy and until we see the new team play and win together, it’s impossible to say whether they truly are better than they were last year.
No move was as controversial as the signing of Montrezl Harrell, using the team’s full midlevel exception to give the big man a two-year deal worth about $19 million. Harrell is coming off a season in which he won Sixth Man of the Year, yet was blamed (perhaps rightfully so) for the LA Clippers blowing a 3-1 lead to the Denver Nuggets in the second round of the playoffs.
The Clippers seemingly had more issues than what went on on the basketball court. The locker room never seemed fully intact. Injuries and load management prevented them from building on-court chemistry. And large personalities, including Harrell’s, in a situation where the team never fully seemed to be reaching the ceiling many thought they had led to a toxic environment. A single person is not to blame for all this but Harrell, alongside head coach Doc Rivers who seemed to be his most ardent supporter, took the majority of the scapegoating from fans and, seemingly, the organization.
The Lakers will now have to grapple with all those same characteristics. Harrell will not magically turn into a world-class defender or skilled offensive hub. But he remains one of the most explosive bench players in the league, capable of changing games and potentially playoff series with his high energy every time he steps on the floor. It’s up to the Lakers to put him in the positions where he can best succeed and it’s already easy to see how they can do that.
First, Harrell will have his minutes mostly alongside new Lakers’ point guard Dennis Schroder in a remake of his role alongside Lou Williams. Last year, that duo posted an offensive rating of 111.4 points per 100 possessions when on the floor together. The top two sixth men in the league playing alongside each other off the bench means plenty of pick and rolls and Schroder’s shooting ability will do wonders to free up space for Harrell. When it’s not the German point guard handling the ball and throwing up lobs to Trezz, it’ll be LeBron James. That’s all we have to say about the upgrade in Harrell’s situation.
The real challenge will be fitting Harrell in defensively where he struggles with his positioning and his lack of size against bigger centers. The Lakers obviously built their identity around their defense last season and will surely want to replicate that en route to another deep playoff run. Playing Harrell alongside someone like Davis should theoretically help; in fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more perfect frontcourt partner for Harrell than the defensive player of the year candidate. Offensively, AD can play more of a power forward role next to Harrell by spacing the floor and operating out of the perimeter with his guard skills. Defensively, he can take up the center role depending on matchups to protect the weak side and protect the rim.
More than anything, the Lakers will be counting on a motivated Harrell and the strength of their veterans, superstars, and coaches to get the very best out of a supremely talented player without having to rely on him to close games or be a major offensive weapon in every game. Harrell will be out to prove everyone wrong after the narrative around him shifted so significantly in just one year. He will have to rehabilitate his image to increase his value in future free agency periods and you know someone with his personality will be out for blood to prove to the Clippers that they made a mistake letting him go for nothing.
Ultimately, signing Montrezl Harrell is a risk. It’s not a certain home-run and there is potential for negative returns despite the little money that the team has officially invested in him. But there is also a truly high ceiling on what Harrell can provide if the Lakers are able to get the best out of him. After seeing the many incredible performances from the Lakers’ role players in the postseason, I know I’m optimistic that they can.