NBA free agency: Have the Lakers improved their title chances?

Where does the Los Angeles Lakers' NBA title defense stand after a busy first few hours of free agency?

The 2019-20 NBA champions haven't rested on their laurels this offseason, making an aggressive trade before the start of free agency for guard Dennis Schroder and then adding a pair of marquee free agents on Friday: guard Wesley Matthews and center Montrezl Harrell.

Have the Lakers upgraded on the roster that brought home the 17th championship in the franchise's history? And what does losing Harrell mean for the crosstown rival LA Clippers? Let's update the top of the Western Conference.

Lakers upgrade their bench units

Last year, the Lakers' reserves earned a combined one vote for the Sixth Man Award: a third-place vote for Dwight Howard, who is now departing to join the Philadelphia 76ers. In the past week, the Lakers have now acquired the two leading vote-getters: winner Harrell and runner-up Schroder. Suddenly, L.A.'s second unit looks like a formidable force.

I'm particularly intrigued by how much shot creation the Lakers have added. Last season, Kyle Kuzma was the only regular reserve with a usage rate greater than league average (20%). For the most part, Lakers coach Frank Vogel built his bench lineups with role players around either Anthony Davis or LeBron James, at least one of whom was on the court nearly all the time. The Lakers played just 367 minutes all regular season with neither Davis nor James on the court, per my analysis of lineup data from NBA Advanced Stats.

Now, Vogel can base no-star lineups on the ability of Schroder, Kuzma and Harrell to create their own offense. I do wish Schroder were a little more adept in the pick-and-roll, where he rated below average for a point guard last season. Pick-and-rolls with Schroder handling the ball averaged .92 points per chance according to Second Spectrum tracking, worse than the league-wide mark of .95 points per chance.

Playing with Harrell should help. An argument could be made that Harrell was the best roll man in pick-and-roll in the NBA in 2019-20. Nobody in the league screened more often with as much efficiency as Harrell. The Clippers' 1.04 points per chance with Harrell as the screener ranked seventh among players who set at least 500 ball screens, per Second Spectrum, and Harrell's total screens (1,689) were 11th most in the league.

I wonder to what extent the Lakers' moves to add shot creation were a response to the short turnaround before opening night on Dec. 22. Since LeBron didn't get his usual offseason to rest and recover, it seems reasonable to expect he'll play fewer games this season after suiting up for 67 of the team's 73 regular-season games in 2019-20. The Lakers also can't count on James and Davis -- who still has to re-sign as an unrestricted free agent, by the way, though that's surely a formality -- staying as healthy as they did last season.

I'm also curious whether the Lakers upgrading the second unit makes Kuzma the odd man out. Since Kuzma has struggled to make 3s since his out-of-nowhere shooting as a rookie, much of his value comes from shot creation. If Schroder and Harrell provide that, there's no longer the same need for Kuzma, who's eligible for an extension through Dec. 29 and would otherwise be a restricted free agent next summer. Now may be the time for the Lakers to cash in Kuzma's trade value.

Questions remain about starting lineup

The downside of using the non-taxpayer midlevel exception to sign Harrell is that it hard-caps the Lakers at the luxury-tax apron, $6.3 million greater than the tax line. Including a max salary for Davis, that gives the Lakers about $18 million to fill out the final five or six spots on the roster. (Note that because the hard cap cannot be exceeded no matter what, the $2 million worth of unlikely incentives in Dennis Schroder's contract count against it.) And that's where things get a little tricky in terms of re-signing shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, a starter for the Lakers throughout the postseason.

Assuming the Lakers keep 14 players and all the other ones make the veteran's minimum, the very most they can offer Caldwell-Pope as a starting salary is about $12.7 million. In a market that's already been frothier than expected, we'll see whether that's sufficient to bring him back. If not, the Lakers would probably have to redouble their efforts to re-sign Avery Bradley, who declined a $5.0 million player option earlier in the week. Since the Lakers have already used their exception money, Bradley and Caldwell-Pope are the two remaining players they can offer appreciably more than the minimum in free agency.

By agreeing to sign Wesley Matthews for the $3.6 million biannual exception, the Lakers presumably replaced Green in the starting lineup. Matthews is a similar 3-and-D role player, albeit not as accomplished defensively as Green and a less accurate 3-point shooter historically (38% career beyond the arc to 40% for Green; they were both at 40% last season). If Bradley and Caldwell-Pope both depart, that would leave another spot unfilled, perhaps to promote Alex Caruso.

There are also questions about how the Lakers start and finish games at center. JaVale McGee started all 68 games he played during the regular season and the first eight of the playoffs but scarcely saw any action after being replaced by Howard during the Western Conference finals. He did not play at all in the NBA Finals.

Depending what happens with Markieff Morris, a key postseason contributor to whom the Lakers can offer a maximum of $2.8 million (120% of his minimum salary) using non-Bird rights, Vogel might not have as many options to replace McGee in the playoffs next season. The Lakers will probably be counting on Harrell to finish games, something he didn't often do for the Clippers in the 2020 postseason while out of shape after missing all of the seeding games to mourn the death of his grandmother.

All told, I think the Lakers have improved their regular-season roster dramatically. The questions about their starting and finishing lineups make playoff improvement a bit more uncertain.

Can Clippers use full midlevel?

Surely, the Lakers didn't mind that signing Harrell also took the Sixth Man Award winner away from their biggest rivals in the West. Though we never got the anticipated conference finals matchup between the two Staples Center co-tenants because the Clippers were knocked off by the Denver Nuggets, the Lakers still must consider the Clippers the most formidable foe they might face in the 2020 playoffs.

Replacing Harrell could be tricky for the Clippers for some of the same reasons the Lakers are now limited. Having agreed to a four-year, $64 million deal with forward Marcus Morris, the Clippers still must attempt to re-sign backup big JaMychal Green, who declined a $5 million player option.

Making similar assumptions to those for the Lakers (14 players under contract), the most the Clippers could afford to pay Green while using the full $9.3 million non-taxpayer midlevel exception and staying legal is about $4.3 million -- less than he just turned down. If they want to re-sign Green, the Clippers will probably have to instead use the smaller $5.7 million taxpayer version of the midlevel exception to replace Harrell. That should still yield a quality player given the depth of options at center.