With a stronger bench, Lakers send message they’re serious about winning a third straight NBA title
Matt Barnes was apprehensive when he typed out a text message to his old foe, Kobe Bryant, last summer to gauge whether the Lakers’ superstar was interested in having his antagonist join the team.
Barnes, then a free agent, was unsure how Bryant would respond. After all, the two had a trash-talking, technical foul-filled battle during the Lakers’ loss to the Magic in Orlando last season on national television.
But a text came back from Bryant, assuring Barnes the Lakers were all for his joining a team trying to win a third consecutive NBA championship.
Barnes, three-point specialist Steve Blake and shot-blocking center Theo Ratliff are the veteran newcomers the Lakers hope will boost their bench this season. Second-round draft picks Devin Ebanks and Derrick Caracter are the other new faces on the team.
All of them may get a chance to showcase their skills when the Lakers play exhibition games on Monday against the Minnesota Timberwolves in London and on Thursday against FC Barcelona in Barcelona, Spain.
For Barnes, reaching out to Bryant was the first step before he could sign a two-year, $3.8-million deal with the Lakers.
“I didn’t really know what to expect,” Barnes recalled after practice this week.
He had expected to sign with the Toronto Raptors, but that deal fell through.
“I sent [Kobe] a text and kind of said, ‘What are you guys looking like?’ He hit me back. I wanted to go to the best team in the league and see if we could make that happen and Kobe made that happen.”
Blake played last season for the Portland Trail Blazers and the Clippers, then became a free agent. He’s won championships at every level except the NBA, winning three consecutive Florida state titles in high school in Miami and an NCAA championship at Maryland in 2002.
After the free agent window opened, the Lakers called, asking whether Blake — a 39% career three-point shooter— was interested in being their backup point guard behind Derek Fisher. Blake agreed to a four-year, $16-million deal to play for the Lakers.
“They had just won the championship. To know that the best team in the NBA wants you to be a part of that and they believe that you can help them win it again, it’s a great feeling,” Blake said.
The possibility of being on a championship team also lured Ratliff, who has played 15 seasons in the league but is without a ring.
His informal negotiations with the Lakers began when the NBA Players Assn. held its meeting in Las Vegas in July. Ratliff, vice president of the union, had a conversation with Fisher, the organization’s president.
Fisher told Ratliff, a 6-foot-10, 235-pound center who played for the San Antonio Spurs and Charlotte Bobcats last season, that Bryant liked the idea of having veterans coming off the Lakers bench.
Fisher “was like, ‘You’re a free agent!’ That kind of started the process,” Ratliff recalled. “My agent contacted the [Lakers] and the process went on.” Ratliff, who has averaged 2.4 blocks a game in his career, signed a one-year, $1.3-million deal.
The Lakers’ rookies — Ebanks, a 6-9, 215-pound small forward, and Caracter, a 6-9, 275-pound power forward — impressed the team enough during summer league in Las Vegas to earn two-year, $811,000 contracts, with the first year guaranteed.
The Lakers believe they have added youth, savvy and toughness, especially with Barnes. That toughness was never more evident than it was in March when Barnes and Bryant exchanged elbows, shoves and stare-downs during the Lakers-Magic game.
“It was just two people competing. There were no hard feelings on my end,” Barnes said. Bryant “is one of the best competitors to ever play the game, so you definitely have to match that.”
And that’s one reason why the Lakers feel they have a better bench this season.
Barnes can defend wing players, Blake is expected to knock down three-pointers, Ratliff, 37, will defend in the paint and Ebanks and Caracter can provide energy.
“We feel like last year our bench hit a soft spot sometime in the middle of the season,” Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said. “We had some things that didn’t go quite the way we wanted to go. We feel like this year we would need a little better support.”
The Lakers landed in London on Friday amid a rainstorm and were not to be available to the media until Saturday.
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