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Season Review: Mo Bamba

The saga of Talen Horton-Tucker’s cap hold could come to a close this summer.

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2023 NBA Playoffs - Los Angeles Lakers v Golden State Warriors Photo by Tyler Ross/NBAE via Getty Images

After a pre-deadline deal brought Mo Bamba to L.A. for Patrick Beverley, who joined the Lakers this offseason in a swap for Talen Horton-Tucker, hopes were high for the Harlem native with a 7’10 wingspan and solid shooting stroke to step in as the team’s sorely needed second big.

Instead, Bamba made it into just his seventh game with the team before suffering a high-ankle sprain that derailed the remainder of his season and postseason. In total, Bamba spent just 88 minutes on the floor for the Lakers (74 outside of garbage time), which was fewer than Matt Ryan, Damian Jones, Juan Toscano-Anderson, and 16 other players this season.

How Was His Season?

On the whole, Bamba’s stint with the Lakers was more of a mixed bag than it may have seemed.

Despite a low motor that seemed to prevent him from consistent playing time, even before his injury in March, Bamba’s sheer size helped keep the Lakers’ defense solid during low-stakes regular season basketball. Since entering the league, Bamba’s defensive rebounding and block rates have hovered around the league’s upper quartile. Due to his sneaky length, Bamba didn’t scare off drivers from getting up attempts, but he did contest almost 40% of shots around the rim while on the floor, according to the B-Ball Index. Even when he failed to actually block shots, his ability to invade attacking players’ comfort zone made finishing at the rim more difficult than it otherwise would have been.

For contrast, think about what it was like to watch one of the Lakers’ more offensively oriented bigs like Thomas Bryant or Carmelo Anthony guard the pick and roll in either of the last two seasons — rim protection is not a given.

In total, with Bamba on the floor, the Lakers’ defense was 4.5 points per 100 possessions better than with him off it, finishing second on the team to none other than Anthony Davis.

Unfortunately for Bamba and the Lakers, his shot didn’t fall like it had in Orlando, limiting the utility of his direct and indirect offensive value via scoring and spacing. Although he continued to hoist at a high volume after shooting over 38% from deep since the start of the 2021-22 campaign, Bamba shot only 31% with the Lakers — the difference between elite and being left alone by the defense.

L.A.’s offense ground to a halt with Bamba in, scoring 11 points per 100 possessions fewer than they did with him off the floor, the worst rating on the team by a wide margin (for reference, one-way contributor Jarred Vanderbilt was a -8.7 on offense during the regular season).

Should the Lakers Bring Him Back?

Now, Bamba’s fit on next year’s team remains as unproven as before his acquisition. With a $10.3 million non-guaranteed contract, the Lakers can opt to move on from Bamba at no cost at any point before June 29 making him an unrestricted free agent. Given his uninspiring second half of the season, Bamba’s market is likely short of what he’d earn if the Lakers decide to keep him around on his current deal — The Athletic’s John Hollinger estimates a pay cut to $5.9 million.

If the Lakers were to waive him and re-sign him on a smaller deal as their backup center, Bamba could provide solid value on a contract of that size. It’s easy to talk yourself into the possibility of Bamba as the prototypical rim-protecting, floor-spacing modern NBA big man.

Regardless of where he ends up, he is more likely to positively regress towards above-average 3-point shooting, which would drastically improve his offensive impact while remaining a credible anchor of a decent defense. This isn’t like asking Juan Toscano-Anderson to repeat his 40% 3-point shooting performance on minuscule volume next to Stephen Curry, or for Russell Westbrook to adhere to a more restrictive shot diet.

All Bamba needs to do to be better next season is make more of the same shots he took this season, which he typically has. Given his discrete strengths as a shooter and rim protector, Bamba is generally a passive boon to whoever he’s playing for, even if his performances lack the zest of a more explosive athlete or fiery competitor.

One of the Lakers’ top priorities this offseason should be to find a credible center to support the team’s defense during Anthony Davis’ absence. But it would be even better if they can find one who can play beside him too (especially given the success of the short-lived Wenyen Gabriel-AD lineups). Bamba, hypothetically speaking, still has that ability in spades.

That being said, Bamba has yet to play any meaningful playoff minutes in his career, being limited to less than a quarter’s worth of forgettable garbage time in this year’s series against Memphis. I am skeptical that even his length could have slowed the avalanche that was Nikola Jokic on his own, even if paired with Davis. Bamba is relatively frail and would have struggled with the physicality of the best offensive player in the world, and maybe with the playoffs in general.

Will He Return?

If the Lakers fail to find a better course of action than running it back, they should consider keeping Mo Bamba. Ideally, they could renegotiate a smaller deal than the one he’s on given his market value, though it might be hard to convince him to return after cutting his pay in half.

However, if the Lakers are going to guarantee his deal before the end of the month, it is more likely that they do so in order to move his mid-sized salary as a chunkable piece for something bigger.

Altogether, there are probably more roads that lead Bamba elsewhere, but a return is not at all out of the question either, nor should it be.

Cooper is a lifelong Laker fan who has also covered the Yankees at SB Nation’s Pinstripe Alley — no, he’s not also a Cowboys fan. You can find him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.

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