Something expensive but tasteful, I'm thinking. Perhaps a watch or a Tiffany vase? While we're at it, let's include the Utah Jazz in our largesse, and not just because they beat the Miami Heat last night. It was Utah's fondness for Bell this past offseason, and Raja's willingness to take their money and move to Salt Lake City, that changed the blueprint for the Lakers' bench in 2010-11. From the Lakers' perspective, Plan B has worked out way better than Plan A ever would have done, and Bell and the Utah front office deserve our thanks for helping us into this happy accident.
Rewind to the middle of last July. Having signed Steve Blake to a deal worth $4 million a year, the Lakers had about $1.8 million of their mid-level exception left to spend, and they were determined to add depth at the wing positions. To that end, they identified the then-33-year-old Bell as their quarry of choice. Raja had played only six games the season before because of an injured wrist, but he was drawing interest on the market from capped-out contenders shopping for a cheap veteran swingman. He planned to be in Los Angeles on July 14th to attend the ESPYs, and the Lakers used the occasion of his visit to schedule a sit-down between him and Kobe Bryant so that Kobe could pitch him on joining the champs.
The meeting never took place. That's because on the 14th, the Jazz dropped an offer on Raja (for three years and about $10 million) considerably larger than anything the Lakers could put on the table. Not unreasonably, he called off the meeting with Kobe and signed his name on Utah's dotted line. I don't think at the time any of us were driven to tears by this. I mean, it's just Raja Bell. On the other hand, none of us then suspected how beautifully the series of events he set in motion would ultimately play out for the purple and gold.
In mid-July, it wasn't clear that Matt Barnes was on the Lakers' radar. He was in talks with teams that had real cap space, and he was seeking more money than the Lakers could offer. It seemed he'd found it when, on the 19th, he announced he would sign a two-year, $10 million contract with the Toronto Raptors. Less than a day later, though, the deal had fallen apart. Toronto had already used most of their MLE money on Linas Kleiza (Ed. note: What? Linas Kleiza?) and thus didn't have the cap room to add Barnes on the announced terms without burning through the trade exception they picked up in the Bosh-to-Miami deal, which they weren't interested in doing. Long story short: news of the deal had leaked prematurely, before the people involved had bothered to sharpen their pencils and work out the salary-cap mechanics. How mortifying.
In this fashion Barnes landed back on the open market, and Laker GM Mitch Kupchak wasted no time taking advantage. On July 22nd, the Lakers reaached an agreement to spend the remainder of their MLE on a two-year deal for Barnes. A couple weeks later, still needing to shore up the shooting-guard position, they signed another two-year deal to bring Shannon Brown back into the fold. The Lakers' new depth chart was set.
Had the Lakers signed Raja Bell, they might have elected not to re-sign Shannon, thinking that the shooting-guard pozishe was well-enough stocked. They definitely would not have signed Barnes, since they wouldn't have had the cap room to do so. Stop to think for a second how different this Lakers team would look. Your shudders of terror are understandable.
In the Lake Show's 8-0 start to the season, Barnes and Brown have been two of the brightest performers. Barnes has brought pep, defense and rebounding to the second unit. Coming into last night's game against Minnesota, he was in the top five in the league in offensive rebounding rate. He looks like a perfect fit for what the Lakers need in a backup three.
As for Shannon, his game this season is almost unrecognizable. Though he shot poorly last night, on the year he's been a deadly offensive performer. For the first time since he arrived in Lakerdom he looks like he's fully in control of his considerable physical gifts. The cringe factor in his game is gone, and even if he regresses a bit from his blazing start, which is likely, he's still a good bet to remain a very solid backup to Kobe.
And what's Raja been up to in Utah? Nothing especially good. He's starting and playing 28 minutes a night, but on offense he's a total nonentity. He has nearly as many turnovers as assists and his effective field-goal percentage is barely 40. His contract runs through the 2012-13 season and he already looks like a spent force. Utah straight up took a bullet for us.
In that sense, Kupchak got lucky this summer. He was lucky that Utah overvalued Bell and that Toronto burned a station-wagonful of cash on Kleiza. But he was smart enough to course-correct when the opportunity presented itself. Signing Barnes and Blake look like masterstrokes, as does bringing back Shannon when none of us were sure we really wanted his Laker career to resume.
When the Jazz visit Staples on the 26th of this month, I hope no one bothers to boo Raja Bell. Let's give him a polite round of applause and wish him well in his future endeavors. Sometimes the best free-agent signings are the ones you don't make.
Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore.