In our continuing series of handing out grades for everyone who wore a Laker jersey this season, we now come to Theo Ratliff. Much like the last player in this series, Joe Smith, Ratliff has also enjoyed quite the team-hopping tour as a player in the NBA, having now played for 9 different teams in 11 different stints as a player. And while Joe Smith's career may have seen him as being vastly overpriced to his various teams in terms of the NBA draft, Ratliff's career has instead seen him as having been vastly overpriced to his various teams in the more conventional (and all too common, in the NBA) way of salary. To illustrate just how overpriced Ratliff was for much of his career, Ratliff is at this point maybe most famous for the nickname various sportswriters gave him a few years ago: "Theo Ratliff's expiring contract". This was due to the fact that despite coming off a multi-year contract that was already paying him over $10 million a year while averaging about 8 points and 7 rebounds per game, in 2004 the Portland Blazers decided to give him a three year contract extension worth $35 million, or about $11.7 million per season.
If you're scratching your head as to how a player who never once averaged even 13 points or 8.5 rebounds per game for any season in the league (and who was also frequently injured) was able to bilk that kind of cash out of so many NBA front offices, it's for two reasons. First, the man was Mutombo-esque in his ability to block shots, leading the league in blocks per game in the 2000-2001, 2002-2003 and in 2003-2004 seasons, while also finishing in the top 4 in that category in 4 other seasons. The second reason is because most NBA owners are so foolishly stupid about how they spend their money on their players that we're on the verge of them having to lock the players out so they can try to get a grip on their own wild overspending.
After signing that huge contract extension in Portland in 2004, Ratliff quickly began finding himself packaged in trades and shipped away, having now played with 6 teams since that contract was signed. In fact, despite having (barely) played for the Lakers this season, Ratliff's biggest impact on the Lakers in his career was that he was a significant piece traded away in deals that brought in key players to teams that faced the Lakers in the Finals not once, not twice but three times. In 2001 Ratliff was having a great year with the Allen Iverson/Larry Brown Sixers until Ratliff got hurt, and this prompted the Sixers to trade Ratliff to Atlanta for Dikembe Mutombo, who went on to get absolutely manhandled by Shaq and the Lakers in the 2001 NBA Finals. In 2004 Ratliff was then traded from Atlanta along with Shareef Abdur-Rahim to Portland in exchange for Rasheed Wallace, who a few days later was shipped off to the Detroit team that went on to beat the Lakers in the 2004 NBA Finals. Then after being traded in 2006 from Portland to Boston, Ratliff's big expiring contract was packaged along with Al Jefferson to Minnesota in exchange for Kevin Garnett, who went on to help Boston beat the Lakers in the 2008 NBA Finals.
Ratliff's huge contract finally expired shortly after that, and while the Lakers spent the next two years winning championships, Theo played on veteran minimum contracts for the Sixers (again), the Spurs and the Bobcats, until last summer he caught Mitch Kupchak's eye and signed with the Lakers. Ratliff's signing with the Lakers was largely an afterthought, and was more done for insurance just in case of injury to either Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum or Lamar Odom. At the time of the signing Bynum was expected to be fully recovered from off-season surgery by the time the season started, so the minutes we all expected (and hoped) be seeing Ratliff play were supposed to be nothing more than those of the garbage variety.
As we all know, however, Drew's recovery time from his knee surgery was far, far longer than anyone anticipated, and as a result Ratliff found himself counted on to play serious, key rotation minutes backing up Pau and Lamar in the frontcourt (along with rookie Derrick Caracter). It turns out ol' Theo was not up to the challenge, as he himself suffered a knee injury just 8 games into the season that effectively was the end of Ratliff's contributions to the team. Ratliff did play in three more games, going for two minutes apiece in the late March blowout game against Dallas and the second to last game of the year against the Spurs, and also logging one minute of playing time in the playoff opener loss to the Hornets; but I'm sure when the Lakers signed Ratliff they were hoping for more than 5 minutes of total playing time from November 10th on.
What most people (myself included) see as Ratliff's big mark on the team this year was the negative impact all the extra minutes he was signed to help soak up had on Pau Gasol's season. Gasol came roaring out of the gate this year, and was getting some early season MVP talk while the Lakers began the year going 8-0 while Ratliff was there to absorb the minutes Bynum's absence created. Once Ratliff got hurt Gasol was able to keep his production high for another week or two, but after that all the extra minutes really began to take a toll on him, and by the end of November Gasol was regularly scoring 16 points or less per game. It's probably mainly a coincidence that the Lakers were undefeated through those 8 games that Ratliff was healthy in to start the year, but I don't think it's going too far to say that Ratliff's absence combined with Drew's prolonged recovery left the frontcourt stretched too thin, and that then led to the first four-game losing streak the Lakers had suffered since singing Pau Gasol.
When the Lakers signed Theo Ratliff it was just as insurance, to be a player to fill in the gaps in case of injury. Unfortunately for us Ratliff failed in even this small task, and his final grade reflects this: D-