First, they grabbed a former lottery pick for a pittance of a price, even when considering his pending restricted free agent status. This continued the trend of the Lakers looking at “second draft” candidates — i.e. players who have a certain pedigree as a former lottery/first round pick, but haven’t necessarily played to expectations in their young career.
Second, they took a strong step towards rebalancing their roster by added a complementary front court player to play next to LeBron James and Anthony Davis, either individually or as partner while the other player sat. When the Lakers season began back with training camp back in September, nearly two-thirds of their roster was backcourt players. Swapping one of those players for a 6’8” power wing who could play anywhere in the front court and slide right into the rotation helped address those early roster shortcomings.
And third, they gave themselves an opportunity to get a talented player in-house and determine if he could be a part of their future — both with and without one or more of their star players. Until you actually see a player up close, day after day, you never quite know about their work habits, their mental approach to the game, or how their general demeanor fits not only into your current group but as a stable force with any potential group moving forward.
How was their season?
It would be difficult to frame Rui’s half season in Los Angeles as anything other than an unbridled success. Yes, there were up’s and down’s and an oscillating of his role during his time with the team, but in the Lakers final game of the season, in the Western Conference Finals, Rui had become such and integral part of the team’s success that Coach Darvin Ham determined he should not only start the game, but play 42 minutes.
And, ultimately, that playoff success is what define’s Rui’s time with the team and is what should inform their thought process around his free agency this summer.
Don’t get me wrong, Rui had a fine regular season with the Lakers. In 33 games, he started nine games and averaged 9.6 points and 4.7 rebounds in 22.4 minutes per game. Per 36 minutes, these numbers were within range of his career averages, and he showed off pretty much the exact skill set you’d expect if you’d seen him play throughout his career — a mix of mid-range jumpers and post ups in the half court, and a real ability to fill the lane and finish at the rim in transition.
In the playoffs, however, Rui showed off an ability to effectively impact the game in ways that show he can have a true postseason impact for a team with hopes to play for a championship. While his playoff averages — 12.2 points and 3.6 rebounds in 24.3 minutes a game — don’t exactly jump off the page, his ability to play off of the Lakers star players and be a release valve who could made defenses pay for the attention they sent towards LeBron and AD belied those statistical averages.
Against the Memphis Grizzlies, Rui canned open three pointers and was able to get into and score out of the post as the defense simply didn’t have enough size or resources to devote to him and the Lakers superstar duo. Rui’s ability to make them pay and play credible defense ensured his impact and helped drive his team’s win.
Of course, it wasn’t all roses, and Rui’s status as an every matchup contributor was tested as the playoffs went on.
Against the Warriors, their small-ball approach and guard heavy rotation saw Rui’s role diminish as his defensive effectiveness waned. And while he could still score in the post and in the midrange out of isolations, his inability to stay attached defensively both in isolation vs. Steph Curry on switches or more broadly in the blender of the Warriors screen and player movement heavy offensive attack meant more time watching than playing by the time that series concluded.
And then against Denver, he regained his footing as a key contributor, though with less consistency offensively and while having a much more difficult defensive ask as a primary defensive option vs. Nikola Jokic. Overall, though, he proved that he could be a high level rotation player for a team that made a deep playoff run and those types of players aren’t the easiest to find.
Should the Lakers bring them back?
Absolutely yes, the Lakers should bring him back. This can be complicated by his status as a restricted free agent and the potential for him to chase (and find) a large offer sheet that the Lakers would then have to match. But, in the choice between letting him walk for nothing or paying him what the market says he’s worth, the latter is the better option.
Further, as Rob Pelinka noted in his exit interview availability with the media, finding continuity with a core of young players who the team can grow with is very important. Rui, still only 25 years old, is the exact sort of player those statements apply to. As the playoffs showed, there remains some untapped potential for Rui to access on both sides of the floor — where continued growth as a shooter and versatile defender is exactly what every playoff team would want from a player of his size.
And while it’s understood players like this do not come cheaply, I would imagine the market factors of him being a restricted free agent, the reports of the Lakers being aggressive in wanting to bring him back (and the potential impacts that has on his market), and his general comfort level in Los Angeles and desire to return as well, it’s a no-brainer that the Lakers do all they can to ensure he’s a Laker next season and beyond.
Will he return?
I’d predict that he is; there are too many factors that point in that direction. Whether it’s his fit with the team’s best players, being able to control whether he stays or goes due to their matching rights on his contract, or his own want to stay and play in Los Angeles and for the Lakers, this feels like a partnership that is destined to continue.
Could things go the other direction? Sure. All it takes is one massive offer that goes beyond what the Lakers would want to pay for them to second guess. And, as there is in any negotiation, there is always room for communications to break down and/or for hard feelings to develop that impact both parties’ stance on wanting their marriage to continue.
But, I don’t see things going down either of those path’s with Rui. The Lakers seem genuinely happy with how he played (how could they not be?) and see the potential for further improvement with him as both a short and long term fit. At the most baseline level, that should allow for Rui to be back next season and building on what was a successful run for him and the team after he came on board.
You can follow Darius on Twitter at @forumbluegold.