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As Contenders Scurry to Keep Up, the Lakers Have Gotten Even Better

Days after trading for Dennis Schröder, the champs added Montrezl Harrell and Wes Matthews

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

All of the trades, draft picks, and free-agent signings happening around the NBA this week matter, but in the grand scheme of things, they don’t matter as much as the fact that the Los Angeles Lakers just got better. Way better. A month after winning the NBA Finals, the Lakers have traded for point guard Dennis Schröder, who finished second in Sixth Man of the Year voting with the Thunder; and signed center Montrezl Harrell, who won Sixth Man of the Year with the Clippers, and veteran wing Wesley Matthews, who was an integral role player from the Bucks. All the Lakers lost in order to upgrade across the roster was Danny Green, the 28th pick in the draft (Jaden McDaniels), and Dwight Howard.

For all the understandable criticisms of Harrell for his performance in the bubble, and for the reports about his chemistry issues with the Clippers last season, it wasn’t too long ago that executives around the league thought Harrell could net between $15 to $20 million annually. He was integral to the Clippers, as their late-game center who brought energetic defense and explosive rim-runs that often revived lethargic Clippers stretches, all while scoring 18.6 points per game and grabbing 7.1 rebounds. A reported rift with Kawhi Leonard may have led to the Clippers moving on from Harrell, according to The Athletic, but the other team in Los Angeles just got him for two years at only $19 million total, with a player option for the second year. With the Lakers, Harrell will get a shot at a championship, revenge against the Clippers, and a chance to rehab his value. He’s about to play his most motivated basketball ever.

Harrell feasted in the pick-and-roll with Lou Williams and Kawhi; now he’s about to get Schröder and LeBron feeding him the ball. LeBron is obviously one of the greatest playmakers in the history of basketball, and Schröder isn’t too shabby either. The 27-year-old new addition throws on-target lobs to his rim-runners, and looks most comfortable passing in transition. But he’s also capable of generating his own shot, as the Thunder frequently utilized him in go-to scoring spots in big-game minutes. Last season was also by far Schröder’s best defensively now that he’s matured.

Schröder is a clear upgrade over Rajon Rondo. Of course, Rondo was terrific in Orlando, but there was a reason why Lakers fans detested him during the past two regular seasons; Rondo played aloof defense, and didn’t make up for it with his playmaking. Schröder is a far superior player who’s a more impactful scorer and defender, which will make the Lakers that much tougher to stop and score against.

Matthews will bring defense to Los Angeles, too. He was slightly better than Green on both ends of court last season, and the difference in salary for next season is massive: Matthews is expected to sign for the $3.6 million bi-annual exception, while Green is due over $15 million. Altogether, Los Angeles has managed to surround LeBron, the best player in the world, and Anthony Davis, the best big in the league, with more overall talent than they had last season. It’s wild, and yet they might not be done.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is still a free agent and he’s looking for a payday, but money is drying up in free agency. Davis isn’t signing his contract right away, which is a tactic Klutch Sports used with LeBron in Cleveland to get other clients paid. Perhaps that’s the plan with Caldwell-Pope. Or maybe the Lakers work out a sign-and-trade to a different team. In January, I reported that the Lakers had trade talks with the Kings, who offered Nemanja Bjelica and a pick to the Lakers for Kyle Kuzma, and Los Angeles countered by asking for Bogdan Bogdanovic. L.A.’s pursuit hasn’t stopped. On Friday, The Athletic’s Sam Amick and Eric Nehm reported that the Lakers are pursuing a sign-and-trade for Bogdanovic, who’s sign-and-trade deal to the Bucks fell apart. League sources confirmed the report: The Lakers are indeed pursuing Bogdanovic, though the Hawks are considered the favorites.

The Kings may not have wanted to trade Bogdanovic to the Lakers before the deadline, but now they don’t have much of a choice. The alternative is losing him to the Hawks (or another team with cap space such as the Knicks), to an offer sheet that’s more than they’d like to spend, multiple league sources say. Of course, the Kings could match any offer sheet he receives. But they just drafted a guard in Tyrese Haliburton, gave $163 million to De’Aaron Fox, and still have a disgruntled Buddy Hield. Maybe, just maybe, the Kings would be better off taking KCP and Kuzma even if it means helping their interstate rivals get better.

If the Lakers get Bogdanovic, it’d only further bolster their team with a shotmaker with a knack for clutch moments. He won countless championships playing overseas before entering the NBA, and he’s even authored a number of gamewinners in Sacramento, including one against the Lakers.

As for the other contenders in the West? Most of them have either made marginal improvements or lost key players—like the Nuggets did with Jerami Grant signing in Detroit. Only the Mavericks have gotten significantly better. The Warriors, who were expected to re-enter the championship chase, lost Klay Thompson to a torn Achilles. Perhaps most notably, the rival Clippers have swapped Landry Shamet for Luke Kennard and re-signed Marcus Morris for $64 million over four seasons, but lost Harrell and JaMychal Green. There are still many moves to be made before teams arrive at training camp on December 1, but the Lakers are already outpacing their competition.

For years, LeBron’s teams were seeking veterans on minimum contracts and castaways to complete their rosters, and he’d bring them to the Finals. The Lakers are doing something much different by making big moves to acquire young, impactful players. The journey to this season’s Finals could be a long one, given the quick turnaround from last postseason, but at this rate, it looks like the Lakers have made the right moves to get LeBron back there again with a chance to win his fifth.