Montrezl Harrell's success or failure as a Laker will come down to Anthony Davis
Montrezl Harrell is why the Clippers didn't meet the Lakers in the Western Conference finals in Orlando. It's an assessment as blunt as it is bleak for the newest Laker, but the numbers are ironclad. In the final three games between the Clippers and Nuggets, Los Angeles outscored Denver by two points in the 87 minutes Harrell spent on the bench... and got outscored by 36 points in the 57 minutes he spent on the floor. The Clippers allowed 123.1 points per 100 possessions during those minutes, almost nine points worse than the bottom-dwelling Cleveland Cavaliers over the course of the season. Nikola Jokic abused Harrell. The offensive production that made him Sixth Man of the Year disappeared. Doc Rivers refused to bench him, and one of the greatest comebacks in NBA history was the result.
It's not an entirely fair or predictive measure of Harrell's worth as a basketball player. He was grieving the death of his grandmother. He left the Disney bubble to be with his family, and unsurprisingly returned out of shape. Those aren't replicable conditions. Harrell should be back to something resembling his regular-season form in December, and he's playing for a contract next season. But those playoff concerns didn't emerge out of thin air. Harrell is an unspectacular defender in the best of times. At 6-8, he's too small for the top centers in basketball, but not fleet enough of foot to keep up with stretchier power forwards. The Clippers, stuffed to the brim with one-dimensional wings, had no recourse. They jammed him into a somewhat traditional center role and hoped for the best. Needless to say, that's not what they got.
It paints Harrell's production as empty calories. His contract is based on regular-season numbers. That's not exactly nothing to an older Laker team staving off the effects of a condensed schedule and shortened offseason, and it probably played into their thinking in signing Harrell in the first place. But in the grand scheme of things, regular-season games are immaterial to a defending champion. The Lakers are theoretically building to beat the sort of teams that just embarrassed Harrell in the postseason. The Clippers were nervous enough about his function in those matchups that they let him walk for nothing. The Lakers are now burdened with those flaws, and they paid a hefty price for that privilege.
Consider the contract that Dwight Howard didn't sign with the Lakers. For the minimum, Howard provides a reasonable facsimile of Harrell's pick-and-roll brilliance. He played eight fewer minutes per game and still averaged more rebounds. He's a demonstrably better defender, and the intangible benefit of Harrell's energy was something Howard provided in spades last year. Jokic slaughtered Harrell in the playoffs. Howard handled him easily enough to make Batman jokes from the bench. The Lakers are paying Harrell more than three times as much as they seemingly chose not to pay Howard.
The opportunity cost baked into that choice is severe. The Lakers had one tool to use for a major free-agent addition this offseason: the non-taxpayer mid-level exception, which ultimately went to Harrell. Had the Lakers kept Howard at the minimum instead, it could have been used to fill more pressing holes. They remain woefully short on shooting. Targets like Serge Ibaka or Aron Baynes would have provided it at center, and they would have come with fewer defensive concerns. These are dealbreakers for normal teams.
The Lakers are not a normal team, and that's what motivated this move. They're aware of Harrell's blemishes and betting they have a workaround named Anthony Davis.
It's simple logic. Davis is a functionally flawless player. There is no front-court role he can't theoretically occupy, at least when necessary. He is perhaps the greatest pick-and-roll finisher in NBA history, but he also just posted Kevin Durant-caliber perimeter shooting numbers across an entire postseason. He defended Jokic in one playoff series and Jimmy Butler in the next. Harrell's primary function is going to be scoring when Davis sits. That's all well and good until Davis stops sitting in the playoffs. The Lakers didn't pay Harrell $9 million to play nine minutes per game in the Western Conference finals. The deal makes sense only if the two can share the floor for meaningful stretches in June and July.
The playoffs are unkind to flawed players, as Harrell well knows. But Davis is so flawless that external flaws can scarcely exist in his presence. Jokic may have humiliated Harrell, but would JaMychal Green? There's only so much damage a poor defender can do when Davis is waiting behind him to clean up his mess. Harrell won't space the floor. In theory, he won't have to. Davis is among the most effective spacers on the Laker roster so long as he even sniffs his postseason percentages. Davis protects Harrell from having to play center on defense. He allows Harrell to play his most dangerous version of center on offense.
It's a somewhat redundant fit, but a potentially lethal one. Harrell formed arguably the NBA's best pick-and-roll partnership with Lou Williams over the past two seasons, winning Sixth Man of the Year thanks to his union with another Sixth Man of the Year. Now he's upgrading to an MVP. LeBron James is a pretty generous dance partner. Davis can attest to that himself. The James-Davis pick-and-roll was Frank Vogel's finishing move in the playoffs. Now it's an item on the menu. Davis will hang out behind the arc as the James-Harrell combination decimates compromised defenses. Davis might even run point on a few such plays himself. The Pelicans toyed with the idea when they added DeMarcus Cousins.
That's the sort of creativity the Lakers need to deploy with Harrell, and it's one of the great failures of the 2019-20 Clippers. He is not a traditional center, but roster limitations forced the Clippers to dress him up like one. His truer designation would be something closer to an athlete, a ball of energy and skill that is so unique that it almost has to function as a luxury. Ask him to protect the rim like a 7-footer and he's going to fail. The Denver series proved that.
But if that box is already checked by Davis, the Lakers are left with the enviable challenge of creatively weaponizing that hustle. It is, in essence, a swing on talent. Harrell has it in higher quantities than the seemingly simpler fits that were available to them. The Lakers think that 72 games is long enough to figure out how to use it, and they might not be wrong. There are almost always ways to benefit from athletic defenders willing to expend enough effort. Harrell's flashed some improved offensive diversity last season. He can dribble. He has a floater. He isn't just a dunker. He's a budding 26-year-old now surrounded by a championship infrastructure and teammates that can protect him well enough to grow into whatever the idealized version of him ultimately becomes.
In the meantime, Vogel gets the bench production he lacked a year ago and the freedom to stagger his stars as he sees fit. If, for instance, he wants Davis and James to play all of their minutes together, that becomes a feasible decision with Harrell and Dennis Schroder to carry the bench offense. He gets an obvious offensive fit with LeBron and a workable one with Davis. He gets minutes. Maybe 15. Maybe 30.
Either outcome helps. Based on that opportunity cost, only the latter makes this signing a success. That's no guarantee. It probably isn't even a likelihood. On a normal team, it might not even be a possibility. But the ecosystem Anthony Davis creates is inviting to unique talents like Harrell's. At his best, he does the job of two positions at the same time, freeing Harrell up to do his thing in a way that exposes his team to fewer of the downsides typical lineups would incur. Harrell is a poor defender. He's a poor shooter. But Davis isn't. That's what made them feel comfortable firing their lone free-agent bullet on such a flawed player. It's why this risky signing might just work. But it's a big ask. If Davis is anything less than the perfect big man he was in the playoffs, Harrell will be exposed to the same postseason bullying that sent him to the Lakers in the first place.