Los Angeles Lakers: Don’t overreact about Montrezl Harrell’s defense

Dec 28, 2020; Los Angeles, California, USA; Portland Trail Blazers center Enes Kanter (11) is defended by Los Angeles Lakers forward Montrezl Harrell (15) in the first quarter at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 28, 2020; Los Angeles, California, USA; Portland Trail Blazers center Enes Kanter (11) is defended by Los Angeles Lakers forward Montrezl Harrell (15) in the first quarter at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports /

Montrezl Harrell was exposed defensively in the Los Angeles Lakers’ loss to the Portland Trail Blazers.

The Los Angeles Lakers had their first back-to-back of the year, splitting the two games after losing the second leg to the Portland Trail Blazers on Monday. The Lakers played a competitive game and led heading into the fourth quarter and squandered the lead down the stretch.

There is one reason that Laker fans have been (rightfully) pointing towards for the reason of this loss: Montrezl Harrell. Harrell has been great offensively and on the glass for the Lakers this season but for the first time all year, his defense was really exposed down the stretch.

Portland attacked Harrell in the pick and roll down the stretch. Damian Lillard and Jusuf Nurkic were picking on Harrell, so much to the point that he was benched for Kyle Kuzma even though the game was essentially out of reach.

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This is undoubtedly bad and I cannot fool anyone and say that it wasn’t. That would be insulting to the people that come to Lake Show Life for their Lakers coverage. However, I do think we should refrain from overreacting about Harrell’s defense because of this bad stretch, as there are multiple factors involved.

Factor 1: Damian Lillard and Jusuf Nurkic are good

There are a lot of players that get exposed by Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers. That is why they are one of the most exciting teams to watch in the league and having a healthy Jusuf Nurkic is massive for this team. Remember: Nurkic did not play in the NBA Playoffs.

Nurkic ranked in the 60th percentile in pick and roll efficiency as the pick and roll man two seasons ago (he was hurt last season) while Damian Lillard is one of the best in the league in the pick and roll. He ranked in the 95.5 percentile last season with a 51.7% usage rate. Everyone ahead of him percentile-wise) had no higher than a 28.9% usage rate.

So yes, while Trezz was really bad, this was also Portland doing what they do best. Dame is arguably the best pick and roll point guard in the league and as far as Portland is concerned, this was about Dame and Nurkic succeeding more so than Trezz failing.

Factor 2: Frank Vogel is testing rotations/assignments

Again, I am not going to sit here and pretend that Montrezl Harrell is an elite defensive player. However, it is clear that Frank Vogel is going to be experimenting a lot with this roster and its rotations, especially early on in the season.

I don’t love the idea of Harrell defending the pick and roll but it is good to see if it works now rather than in the summer. We very well could see Marc Gasol and Anthony Davis closing out games when it matters, or we could even see Markieff Morris, who is better in pick and roll defense.

It was bad, but it was almost bad by design. Throw him out there, see if he can succeed in this situation while Anthony Davis is on the court. Remember how bad the Los Angeles Lakers’ perimeter defense looked at times last season? The team adjusted and figured it out when games really mattered and smothered teams in the NBA Playoffs.

Factor 3: Montrezl Harrell did not have the right pieces around him and as mismanaged down the stretch

Personally, I would play Marc Gasol with Montrezl Harrell if they want to try Harrell in this defensive capacity. While it does not make sense to end games without Anthony Davis on the floor, I would like to see Gasol and Harrell at least share the court this season, as thus far, they have not.

Gasol has an extremely high level of defensive IQ and gives Harrell that traditional center he needs to mask some of his defensive deficiencies.

Obviously, Portland was targeting Harrell and we can’t simply say that AD or Gasol should be the pick and roll defender, as that is not how it works, but I do think that the team is much better off having that traditional rim protector next to Harrell to protect against these pick and rolls.

Yes, Anthony Davis can protect the rim, but having the seven-footer near the basket is a completely different dynamic.

Plus, Harrell was very obviously gassed and mismanaged in this game. Harrell was out there for over 15 straight minutes in a really competitive game. That is the one knock against how Vogel handled the situation. If they want to see how he plays in a closing lineup then sit him down for 4-5 minutes in the fourth quarter to make sure he is fresh.

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The Los Angeles Lakers will be fine and Montrezl Harrell is not going to be this detrimental piece to the team’s defense. There are learning curves that will happen and this is part of the process.