Coming into this off-season the Lakers had a shopping list of needs to fill. It sounds strange to say this about a team that just won its second consecutive championship, but it was true. The team had 6 free agents at every position on its roster that it could potentially lose and while the Lakers have (rightfully so) been considered top heavy in its talent, losing that many players – even from the bottom half of the roster – is something that needs to be addressed and (hopefully) done in a way where the team actually improves. Well, after the Lakers signed Matt Barnes and Theo Ratliff to contracts on Thursday, the Lakers have done just that. At this point, the Lakers have added Steve Blake, Barnes and Ratliff via free agency and drafted Devin Ebanks and Derrek Caracter to replace the departing Jordan Farmar, Adam Morrison, Josh Powell, and DJ Mbenga. When you look at the additions and measure them against the subtractions, I don’t think anyone can argue that the Lakers have upgraded their roster. And while we’ve given you our thoughts on Blake and have explored the games of Ebanks and Caracter, we’ve yet to touch on yesterday’s additions. So, here we go…
Matt Barnes is the marquee add; the player that still had interest on the market from a variety of teams and nearly every contender that is still looking to complete their roster (Miami and Boston especially). This speaks to Barnes’ value as a player and the skill set that he brings to the table. In essence, Matt Barnes is a very similar player to Ron Artest, just less talented overall. That’s not a knock on Barnes as Ron is one of the more talented two way players in the league that possesses an all around game that can thrive in a system like the Lakers run. So, while Barnes may be a step down in talent, he’s still a fine player that will help the Lakers in a variety of ways.
Barnes is a good shooter (last season: 48.7% FG, 57.6 TS%) that has the ability to get hot from beyond the three point arc. He’s a dogged defender that uses his good size and length to body offensive players and effectively contest shots while restricting their movement around the court. Barnes is a capable ball handler and an adequate passer that has a good feel for the game. He’s an excellent rebounder (ranked 2nd among SF in total rebound rate for those playing 20+ minutes) and does have a nose for the ball both off the glass and when loose in the open court. And most of all, Barnes plays hard. He’s a competitor. He rarely takes possessions off and will fight the opposition for the ball and for court space all while furiously trying to do the right thing. Like I said, this guy reminds me a lot of Artest and at the salary that the Lakers signed him for, I think the team has gotten extraordinary value and found a very nice piece to help complete a roster that will once again compete for the NBA championship.
However, there are negatives with Barnes’ play. If he was only the player that I described above, he would have been one of the most sought after (role player type) free agents on July 1st, not a player that signed for a fraction of the mid-level exception on July 22nd. Essentially, Barnes is the ultimate double-edged sword player as nearly every positive trait he exhibits can also be taken a step too far and turned into a potential negative.
As I mentioned, Barnes is a capable shooter and can get hot, but he’s not a consistent player from behind the arc and has shot 32.9% from 3 point range for his career. And despite that low-ish percentage, Barnes has still found a way to average two and a half attempts from that range a game for his career. Two years ago he shot over 4 a game while with the Suns and 4 years ago he took nearly four a game with the Warriors. So, shot selection is a question mark for Matt. I also mentioned that Barnes is a dogged defender that plays hard, but there are times when his effort crosses the line from playing hard and scrappy, to being rough and on the line of dirty. He’s not always been the best at containing his anger and has earned his fair share of technical fouls. I also mentioned Barnes’ ball handling and decision making being solid, but he is a turnover prone player that at times will look to make the complex play rather than the simple one.
None of this is to say that Barnes is a bad player. I like him a great deal and have followed his career pretty closely since his time with the Warriors. It’s just to say that we must all understand the player that has been signed and how he’ll help and where there may be areas of concern. And while I wanted Raja Bell over Barnes when the Lakers were intially looking to add a back up wing, I think Barnes is a great get and that he’ll add a physical toughness and desire to win that every championship team needs when they’re looking to repeat. Barnes will help the Lakers bench a great deal and I can already envision him getting hot in some games and Phil staying with him over Artest if Ron is in a funk on that particular night. Remember, Phil is the master of putting players in position to succeed and with Barnes being a veteran player that is used to playing 20-25 minutes a night, it’s easy to foresee there being nights where it’s Barnes that closes out the game as Ron gets an extended rest.
As for Ratliff, I think the Lakers have done very well for themselves with this signing. However, my opinion on this is shaped by role and expectation. Ratliff is not a difference maker. He’s not a 20 minute a night player that will score in double digits when given extra burn or grab 12 rebounds in 25 minutes of play where Bynum/Pau are out of action or in foul trouble. But, Ratliff is a guy that will exude professionalism and will be ready to play when his number is called. He’ll play smart, tough basketball and will defend the opposing big that he’s asked to mark and do it to the best of his ability. He’ll play to his strengths and that means defending the paint and deferring to his teammates on offense. And for a 4th or 5th big man, this is exactly what the Lakers were looking for. Remember, the Lakers still have the Gasol/Bynum/Odom triumvirate in the front court. If (and I know it’s a big if) all those guys are healthy, there aren’t many minutes available to any other big man on the Lakers roster and I think that’s exactly the way that most fans would have it. So, while I would have loved Kurt Thomas to sign on to play this role, the odds of that seemed to be getting slimmer by the day once all factors are considered. So, really, I’m quite happy with Ratliff. Yes he’s aged. And no, he’s no longer the “plus” athlete roaming the paint that routinely averaged 3 blocks a game in his younger years. But overall, when looking at this signing as the player that we hope can replace Mbenga and play some spot minutes on occasion, I think it’s a very good pick up.
So, we’re now at the point where the Lakers roster is nearly (if not already) complete. After the Lakers ink their two 2nd round draft picks, they’ll have 13 players under contract – which is the same number that the team carried last year. I will say, though, do not discount a return of Shannon Brown. With Walton’s back injury looming and the want to reduce some of Kobe’s workload (he did play nearly 3 more minutes a night this past season than in 2009), bringing back the guard that actually backed up #24 isn’t a far fetched idea. I understand that Sasha or Barnes could fill that role, but those aren’t gurantees especially with Sasha’s tendency to reside in Phil’s doghouse and Barnes’ (aforementioned) turnover issues. We’ll see how this develops, though. In the meantime, it’s time to celebrate again Lakers fans as this team just got better…again. Saying that never gets old either.