It’s a testament to the stability of the Los Angeles Clippers that the biggest questions moving forward center on the team’s seventh man, Montrezl Harrell. After outplaying his role, his contract, and every bench big in the NBA en route to becoming just the fifth player in history to average more than 16 points a game on at least 61 percent shooting, Harrell has established himself as being worthy of more.
Aside from the health of the superstar duo of Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, Harrell’s role may be the most important factor in a potential title run for the Clippers. Can he close games and provide enough value while being off the ball? Can his high-energy act continue to thrive, even if it’s on a decreased diet of touches? Will he look super weird without his ninja headband? Harrell never faced much scrutiny as a reserve on a plucky 8-seed, but everything is changing around him, and he might want to change too.
Unlike most franchises that clear the decks in the hunt for a superstar, the Clippers front office worked hard to retain and reward the key pieces of the ragtag group that stole two games from the Golden State Warriors in the opening round of the playoffs. Patrick Beverley finally received the payday he had been grinding for (three years, $40 million), while Lou Williams had the final year (2020-21) of his contract fully guaranteed. Both decisions were made before Leonard had agreed to sign on the dotted line.
Harrell didn’t receive a new deal; he signed a two-year, $12 million contract as a restricted free agent in the 2018 offseason. With his contract set to expire after this season, Harrell might be the best unrestricted free-agent big man available in the shallow 2020 free-agent class—and as a result, priced out of Los Angeles moving forward. But the Clippers could still reap the benefits of the situation in the interim, because even though Harrell deserves a bigger role, it might be in everyone’s best interest that he doesn’t get it.
While remaining in a reserve role doesn’t seem ideal for his checkbook, Harrell should be able to spread his wings more on this season’s second unit—which may decide how much money any team is willing to invest in him, if all else stays equal. With Leonard and George soaking up so many possessions with the starters, Harrell can toy with adding 3-point range and perhaps even handle the ball more in transition without it feeling like he’s stealing away efficiency. In lieu of the long-term financial security some of his teammates received this offseason, Harrell could at least enjoy more offensive freedom and the chance to dispel the idea that he’s “just” an energy big.
On a team of known entities, where even the younger players like Landry Shamet and Ivica Zubac have cookie-cutter roles, Harrell seems like the only player capable of busting out of his. He’s the most talented big the Clippers have and would feast on defenses being drawn elsewhere, but breaking up the well-worn pick-and-roll chemistry he has with sixth man Lou Williams will most likely keep him away from a starting spot. Zubac offers a bigger body and a little more rim protection, and JaMychal Green and Moe Harkless can space the floor and switch on to guards more effectively, which makes them easier to fit into certain lineup combinations that would be clunky with Harrell. You can understand why Doc Rivers would be hesitant to move his 25-year-old center out of the role he’s been so effective in, especially as the team tries to maintain some level of continuity while adding two superstars to the mix.
Although George and Leonard wouldn’t have made it to Los Angeles without each other, neither might have made it at all had the Clippers not established a culture centered on something other than ping-pong balls. Harrell was integral to that process and has proved capable of buoying the offense on nights the starters don’t have it and burying opposing teams on the nights that they do. Still, with most of the Clippers’ potential trade assets sitting in Sam Presti’s cupboard after they ponied up for George, it might not be out of the question that L.A. cashes out on what was essentially found money in Harrell, especially if the front office is convinced that he’ll be gone in free agency and can upgrade by moving him.
Harrell is an imperfect player who plays his role perfectly, but his uncertain future with the Clippers is the lone wild card for a team that seemingly has the answer for everything else.
D.J. Foster is a writer and high school basketball coach in Oceanside, California.