Lakers Lose Out to Clippers on Longtime Center Target

Serge Ibaka, one-time Lakers target, is now a Clipper.

Getty Serge Ibaka, one-time Lakers target, is now a Clipper.

The Clippers strike back. A day after the Lakers’ Staples Center rival saw backup big man Montrezl Harrell leave Clipperdom for the purple-and-gold, the Clippers swiped a big man in whom the Lakers had been long rumored to have an interest—Raptors center Serge Ibaka.

Ibaka, like Harrell, signed a two-year deal beginning at the league’s $9.3 million midlevel exception, worth $19 million total.

It was a mild shock that the Lakers pursued Harrell the way they did. While he is a terrific finisher in the pick-and-roll and averaged 18.6 points per game off the bench for the Clippers—he was Sixth Man of the Year last season—that does not make him much of a fit with the Lakers.

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According to NBA.com/Stats, the Clippers ran pick-and-rolls on 22.6% of their possessions last year, which was fourth in the NBA. Harrell averaged 3.8 points per game in the pick-and-roll, which was 11th in the league. The Lakers ran PNR on 14.7% of their possessions, which was 25th in the NBA. With LeBron James operating as a non-traditional point guard, the Lakers just are not big on pick-and-rolls, but perhaps coach Frank Vogel envisions using Harrell in the play more often with new backup point guard Dennis Schroder.


Montrezl Harrell’s Deficiencies Make Him an Odd Fit for the Lakers

While Harrell can be a very efficient scorer in the paint, he has limitations. For one thing, he cannot stretch the floor, which is what it was presumed the Lakers wanted in a big guy—floor spacing to create room for James and forward Anthony Davis. In five NBA seasons, Harrell has taken just 50 3-pointers and made only five. According to Basketball-Reference.com, Harrell has attempted 91% of his shots in his career from within 10 feet.

Perhaps the Lakers do not intend to play Harrell alongside Davis and James much, which would allow him to work the paint at will. But their midlevel exception was their biggest chunk of money to use in free agency, and it is hard to imagine them spending it all on a guy they won’t use with their two best players.

Harrell also has some defensive deficiencies, which is only natural for a guy who is 6-foot-7 and plays center. Maybe the Lakers have another move in store that will allow Harrell to play more power forward and pair him with a more traditional center. But they have not done so yet and as things stand, Harrell is an odd fit with the rest of this roster.


Serge Ibaka Defends and Shoots the 3-Pointer

The potential good fit was why the Lakers had interest in Ibaka—he is a better defender than Harrell, can play pick-and-roll if needed, and can step out to shoot 3-pointers. Ibaka averaged 15.4 points and 8.1 rebounds for Toronto last season, playing 55 games (27 as a starter). He made 38.5% of his 3-point attempts last season, trying 3.3 per game.

Ibaka is 31 and Harrell is 26, and there is certainly some concern about the potential for Ibaka to break down physically as he ages. Still, it is odd that the Lakers pushed all their chips in on Harrell when they had long been eyeing Ibaka. Certainly, Ibaka’s connection to Clippers star Kawhi Leonard, his teammate in Toronto, played a role in him going to the Clippers.

Earlier this month, one general manager told Heavy.com, “From a personnel standpoint, (Ibaka) is exactly the kind of combo big guy that team (the Lakers) needs. They have had interest in him before and they will again. When he is healthy he is an excellent spot starter at the 5 (center) and the 4 (power forward). He is as good a bench big guy as there is in the league. He was a really credible 3-point threat last year. If he is willing to accept what the Lakers can afford to give him, I know they would want him.”

It was a big move for the Clippers, who had already lost Harrell and JaMychal Green in free agency.

The Lakers could have afforded Ibaka—they simply could have given him the midlevel deal that went to Harrell. Instead, they took a gamble on Harrell’s interior scoring, passing on Ibaka’s better fit.

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