If one were to sum up Montrezl Harrell’s Sixth Man of the Year campaign last year with one lasting image, it would be of the undersized center nearly tearing down the rim on a dunk, using his momentum to violently swing through like a malfunctioning clock pendulum towards the baseline, landing and screaming in an attempt to inject his Clippers teammates with some energy.
And the common narrative around the Clippers’ bench’s — and Harrell’s individual — success last season was that he and Lou Williams were in a state of symbiosis in the pick and roll, tearing reserve units apart with their synergy. The numbers bore out that success, as of players to finish pick and rolls as the roll man more than 180 times last season, Harrell tied with John Collins of the Atlanta Hawks the second-best efficiency of any player, scoring 1.31 points per play. The only player to score more out of such sets was Jarrett Allen (1.37). Williams assisted Harrell 137 times, with no other Clipper clearing 50 assists to Harrell.
This season, however, things have been a little different. If it seems like the Lakers are using Harrell in a dissimilar way to the Clippers, it’s because they are. He’s only gotten to finish out of pick and rolls 17 times so far this season, which isn’t even in the top 100 most-used players as the roll man in such sets, according to NBA.com.
Head coach Frank Vogel wants to change that. Before the team’s game against the Boston Celtics on Saturday, he was asked if he would ever look to use Harrell more in pick and rolls given his past success, and he laughed at the serendipitous timing of the question.
“Did you sit in on my staff meeting this morning?” Vogel said. “Yeah, we talked about that. We feel like we’re not giving him the ball in the pick and roll game enough, so that’s something that we’ll continue to look at. We’re posting him a ton, we’ve been getting him touches that way most nights.”
To Vogel’s point, the Lakers have posted up Harrell 60 times this season. That is tied with his former teammate Kawhi Leonard for the 13th most post-up attempts in the entire NBA, but Harrell’s efficiency hasn’t been great in that set. While Leonard (1.03) and Harrell’s current teammates Anthony Davis and LeBron James (1.01) are all clearing the one point per play threshold, Harrell is averaging 0.9 points per play on post-ups. Among the 18 players to post up more than 40 times this season, that’s the seventh-worst efficiency. Basically, Harrell has been mediocre on a play that isn’t usually very efficient for anyone but stars.
Vogel didn’t cite that metric while talking about Harrell’s usage, but it’s likely he is more than aware of it (and other stats that the public doesn’t have access too). He says that moving forward, the team is trying to get Harrell the ball more where he had so much success last year.
“He’s a dynamic roller. The more we can get him the ball in that situation the better, and that’s something we’re looking at,” Vogel said.
When the Lakers have gotten Harrell the ball on the roll this season, he’s actually been more efficient than last year, scoring 1.53 points per play. By my eye-test count, the Lakers only used Harrell as the roll man once against the Celtics (he scored), but it was on his first shot of the game, which can sometimes indicate something the team wants to emphasize, even if they mostly went away from it and Harrell did the rest of his damage against Boston in other ways.
Couple reasons for this: 1) His shot frequency has been altered a bit. Only 64% of his shots have come at the rim this season (another career low), while 35% of his looks are coming from midrange (a career high by nearly 10%).— Alex Regla (@AlexmRegla) February 1, 2021
To add context to this, the Lakers only have a 15.2% frequency when it comes to pick and roll ball-handler possessions this season (26th) and because of this, only 5.3% roll man frequency as a team (22nd).— Alex Regla (@AlexmRegla) February 1, 2021
One strategy to get Harrell going a bit more might also be to keep Talen Horton-Tucker in the rotation. The sophomore clearly keeps an eye out for his Klutch teammate, as the only person to assist Harrell more than Horton-Tucker (13 times) this season is LeBron (17). And while it wasn’t out of pick and rolls, Horton-Tucker found Harrell in the middle of the defense twice for both of his assists on Saturday, the latest sign of their solid chemistry.
But whatever means the Lakers take to make Harrell’s life easier, it’s clear that getting Harrell more possessions where he isn’t just having to create a bucket for himself would make him more efficient. However, as we saw last year — and at times during this one — Vogel likes to use the regular season as a time to let guys test the limits of their skills and work on stuff they need for the postseason. That opportunity to stretch his game and showcase other talents is also something Harrell, who will be a free agent again this summer, clearly desired in joining the purple and gold.
All that noted, Vogel’s comments on Saturday are just the latest sign that he knows where guys are best slotted when it really matters. When the Lakers need to win, Harrell will get the ball more on his way to the rim. The team will just be hoping more dunks will follow.