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Lakers, Ben McLemore

The one big reason why the Lakers signed Ben McLemore

Midway through the Los Angeles Lakersinspired performance over the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday, the team announced the signing of Ben McLemore to a rest-of-season contract.

McLemore, who was bought out by the Houston Rockets on Saturday, will fill the team’s final roster spot. He’s the second buyout addition for the defending champions, who stood pat at the trade deadline before tapping Andre Drummond to be the new starting center.

McLemore’s $455,000 deal keeps L.A. just below the hard cap, but it likely solidifies the roster for the homestretch — unless they waive someone in favor of a third buyout (not likely).

A toenail (or lack thereof) has limited Drummond to 14 minutes so far in purple-and-gold. On Thursday, both recent pickups should be available when the Lakers face the Miami Heat — the second of a five-game East Coast swing — assuming McLemore passes COVID-19 protocols.

Vogel couldn’t discuss McLemore in his pre-game remarks Tuesday, as the signing wasn’t formalized. Instead, he said this:

“If we’re going to add a player, we’re going to add somebody that has a skill set that we need,” Vogel said. “We want to add as many weapons as we can, and then use the next however many games are left throughout the season to get all of our players sharp for the playoffs. So that would be the mindset: to have all our weapons in rhythm, comfortable in our system, ready to go, so that in any given playoff series if that player’s skill set is needed, they’re ready to go. And that will be planned.”

McLemore is not precisely a 3-and-D wing, as they were reportedly seeking (who isn’t?), but he’s close enough.

Some Lakers fans may have wanted the bigger Otto Porter Jr., the familiar Avery Bradley, or even the semi-retired Kyle Korver. Who knows the true plausibility of those options. Regardless, McLemore is a logical addition from a basketball standpoint, and perhaps inevitable from a representation standpoint.

More than anything else, the Lakers are bringing aboard McLemore to improve their three-point shooting, which has been their most glaring weakness since late January (and for most of last season).

Ironically, McLemore’s signing was announced on a night when the Lakers didn’t resemble a cold-shooting squad. L.A.’s ensemble caught fire at Amalie Arena; eight players combined to sink 18 threes, and seven made more than one. The Lakers opened 7-of-8 from deep and drained 13-of-21 as they built an insurmountable first-half lead. It’s almost as if the Lakers’ wings don’t want to see their roles diminished by a newcomer.

After the Lakers thumped the Raptors, Vogel was allowed to acknowledge the signing of the former no. 7 overall pick.

“Ben instantly elevates our ability to knock down 3s on the backside when double-teams come and we can play the drive-and-kick game that the modern NBA is made on,” he said. “So we’re thrilled about his addition and looking forward to getting him into some minutes and into our program.”

The performance vs. the Raptors, while encouraging, is an aberration. By any metric, the Lakers have been well below-average from deep for two months. L.A. ranks 24th in 3-point percentage, with only two rotation pieces, Alex Caruso and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, shooting over 39 percent.

The Lakers have shot 33.4% from three over their past 10 games — a bottom-five figure. With McLemore, they have another sharpshooter in their bag of arrows.

The 28-year old made 40% of threes in the two seasons prior to 2020-21. For his eight-year career, McLemore is a 36.3% three-point shooting threat, slightly above-average during his tenure.

But the Lakers don’t just need to make more threes, they need to take more, too, and without hesitation. McLemore has, on average, attempted 10.3 triples per 36 minutes over the past two seasons. Granted, he played for the Moreyball Rockets, but he lets it fly with less inhibition than anybody on the Lakers. In fact, McLemore has a tendency to force too many step-backs and off-the-dribble threes.

McLemore is also a shrewd cutter, which should fit right in with how the Lakers move around the court. The 2013 draftee offers sneaky above-the-rim athleticism (he’s a former Dunk Contest participant), which the Lakers mostly lack from the wing (no offense to the Bald Eagle).

On the other hand, he’s not a creator inside the arc, and he doesn’t set up teammates with passing. For his career, he’s averaged a single dime per game.

In truth, McLemore may not be a better player than any of the Lakers rotation wings, especially on defense. If he can catch fire from deep often enough, though, he’ll earn a role. Fortunately, he should receive more open looks than ever within the Lakers’ drive-and-kick offense.

 

More importantly — and the reason I argued for his acquisition on multiple occasions — McLemore seems to play up (or down) to his surroundings. Like Drummond, he’s spent most of his career mired on uninspired lottery teams, including this season, when he fell out of the rotation for the tanking Rockets.

In 2019-20, though, he shined in his one chance to be a vital contributor to a playoff team.

“Hopefully, he gets an opportunity with another team where he gets to play,” Rockets head coach Stephen Silas said on Sunday. “And maybe it’s a playoff team and he gets to make five or six 3s in a playoff game. That would be awesome for him.”

McLemore is only 6’3 but with a 6’7 wingspan. He’s not an especially good defender (his metrics are unfavorable, particularly this season), but he can hold his own against three positions when deeply engaged. In fact, it was his two-way effort in the Lakers’ second-round matchup with the Rockets that put him on Rob Pelinka’s radar. (Well — that and a certain agent, who now reps six Lakers.)

In 11 playoff games in the bubble, McLemore shot 38.9% from deep on 3.3 attempts per game. Against L.A., he was 6-for-12 in Games 4 and 5.

“He’s a guy that we had to know where he was at all times in that Houston series because he’s such an elite shooter,” Vogel said. “And Ben instantly elevates our ability to knock down 3s on the backside when double teams come and we can play the drive-and-kick game that the modern NBA is made on. So we’re thrilled about his addition and looking forward to getting him into some minutes and into our program.”

Like Drummond, McLemore should be emboldened by joining a winning culture and the opportunity to affect a championship race ahead of free agency.

It’s hard to envision him encroaching on Horton-Tucker or Caruso’s minutes, and Caldwell-Pope and Matthews are more reliable defenders. For now, though, the Lakers are happy to add more talent and shooting, especially while the stars remain out.

“We’re trying to win a championship up here and so as much firepower as we can get, as many weapons as we can get, we’re going to try to get,” Vogel said.