When the Lakers assembled their 2019-20 roster, they had a clear philosophy in mind: their team was bigger, faster, stronger, and longer than anyone else, so they would leverage those strengths on the defensive end, and then rely on the singular offensive talents of LeBron James and Anthony Davis to score. Everyone else was simply tasked with guarding their man and then sprinkling in a bit of shooting.
Despite the success of that template in year one, Rob Pelinka made it clear that the Lakers weren’t interested in running it back, and the latest addition to their roster is in diametric opposition to the identity the team constructed last season. The reigning Sixth Man of the Year Montrezl Harrell is officially taking his talents down the halls of Staples Center and shaking up the dynamic of the Lakers in the process. The team confirmed his signing in a press release today.
The Lakers just made the Montrezl Harrell signing official, too: pic.twitter.com/Xjk684B9Ga— Harrison Faigen (@hmfaigen) November 23, 2020
First things first: Harrell is an excellent basketball player, and he is coming to the Lakers on a contract that arguably undersells the value he brought to the Clippers. A disastrous performance in the bubble depressed his market value, but his overall body of work over the last two years as a full-time rotation player suggests that he is worth much more than the mid-level exception the Lakers signed him for. Harrell plays hard, and for extended stretches of consecutive minutes, particularly on the offensive end. He is a pain in the butt for second units to contend with considering the energy he brings every night.
The Lakers also get a little younger with Harrell in tow. The player he is nominally replacing, Dwight Howard, is 34 and was beleaguered by injuries for several seasons — even missing all of last year — before having a clean bill of health in 2019-20. Meanwhile, Harrell is an iron man. Before his grandmother passed away, forcing him to miss all of the seeding games in the bubble, Harrell had missed one game due to illness or injury in his Clipper career, though he was a DNP-CD six times in his first month before the team realized what they had in him. The upcoming regular season will be a grind, and it will benefit the Lakers to have another young, hungry player capable of bringing maximum effort every night.
Harrell attacks the basket, is one of the best offensive rebounders in the league despite his height, and he excels as a roll man. If the Lakers can surround him with even a modicum of spacing, that is a recipe for an instant offensive upgrade in the team’s bench unit. Even defensively, the weaker part of his game, Harrell was a playmaker by providing rim protection in an unorthodox way: taking the second-most charges in the league. He’s continued to improve on that end throughout his career, and though he’ll likely never be a shot-blocker due to his height, he can get better defending on the perimeter due to his lateral quickness.
The drop-off between the top two scorers on the Lakers last season and the third, Kyle Kuzma, was severe. James averaged 25.3 points per game and Kuzma clocked in at only 12.8. Bringing in Harrell — who put up 18.6 points per game despite the presence of Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and Lou Williams — gives the Lakers a bucket-getter. Harrell is someone who has been able to efficiently create his own offense, albeit in a scheme that was tailored for him to do so.
And that’s where the Harrell signing poses a few questions. The Lakers had a system last year in which either James or Davis was the offensive hub in every five-man configuration. The only time one of the two wasn’t on the court was in cases of extreme foul trouble or if either happened to be sitting out that night. Now, the Lakers have introduced in Harrell, who expects to get touches on offense. It’s a new wrinkle for the team’s offense to have another prolific scorer. It will probably ease the burden on James and Davis and make it easier for the Lakers to manufacture points, but it’s a new wrinkle that changes the fundamental set-up of how they play.
Harrell also excels in different actions than the Lakers usually run. He likes to play in the pick-and-roll or isolate in the post. The Lakers didn’t have any pick-and-roll operators at the guard spot, and they weren’t exactly feeding Howard to back his man down in the paint. Harrell also doesn’t have any stretch capability, so he’ll have to play center but without any of the bigger, stronger, or longer advantages that the Lakers had at that spot a year ago.
But it’s defensively where Harrell will really challenge what the Lakers built in their championship run. The Clippers were worse with him on that end of the floor in all three of his seasons, and his effort level can wane there despite his energy never suffering a drop-off on offense. That simply won’t fly under head coach Frank Vogel, and one has to believe that Vogel was consulted before this signing, considering his emphasis on defense above all else. There must be some belief that Harrell’s athleticism, speed, and motor can be harnessed into capable defense if he isn’t asked to anchor a unit like he was with the Clippers. But Harrell hasn’t shown that ability yet, and if the Lakers start hemorrhaging points when he’s on the court, he will be an easy scapegoat.
To be fair, the Lakers also brought in another subpar defender in Schröder this offseason, but his struggles on that end have been mostly waved away in favor of his offensive impact. The reason for that is Schröder is replacing a player who didn’t have a huge defensive responsibility in Rajon Rondo, and the qualities he provides as a scorer and playmaker surpass the median output expected from Rondo.
Harrell, on the other hand, is taking Howard’s role in the rotation, and all Howard did was rebound, dunk the ball, and protect the paint. Harrell can only do one of those things at an above-average level, leaving a hole that the Lakers will have to fill some other way. Harrell obviously provides offensive dynamism that Howard is lacking at this point in his career, but it’s unclear how that scoring skill will complement what the Lakers already have, whereas the impact of a defensive center was already proven.
It’s also become impossible to think about Harrell’s fit with the Lakers without comparing him to Serge Ibaka, who replaced him on his former team at the same contract. Ibaka would have made total stylistic sense on the Lakers, an all-in-one combo of the best attributes of Howard and Markieff Morris. Harrell is a question mark, but also the upside play. He has been more productive in the regular season, and he is younger, so there is room to grow.
The Lakers don’t know yet if Harrell will amplify the strengths of the 2019-20 Lakers, or if he will be an awkward addition to a carefully-crafted ecosystem. They’re betting that the sum total of his prodigious scoring and his athleticism will result in a player who wears opponents down, who forces defenses to shift their attention from James and Davis, and who can move past his horrific bubble performance to show that he is someone the Lakers can count on in the postseason.
This offseason hasn’t been kind to Montrezl Harrell. He knows that he has been tagged as a player who can be schemed out of a playoff series and whose offensive production represents empty calories in the grand scheme of winning a game. The Clippers gave up on him. His free-agency market cratered. That means Harrell has something to prove.
Maybe he doesn’t block shots like Howard or bomb threes like Morris, but he arrives at the Lakers at an inflection point in his career, just like so many of the players the Lakers added last summer. That edge, that willingness to show that he is not what other teams have labeled him to be — that at least fits into this team’s identity. In making this signing, the Lakers have determined that as long as Harrell has that mindset, everything else will figure itself out.