As Kobe Bryant reminded reporters countless times during the 2010 playoffs, defense wins championships. Assuming that maxim holds true, the Los Angeles Lakers got a leg up Thursday on winning their third consecutive title by locking up Matt Barnes and Theo Ratliff, two free agents known for their veteran savvy and defensive grit.
Earlier this week, Barnes, 30, appeared headed to the Toronto Raptors before a prospective two-year, $9 million deal fell apart — the deal appeared so close he even prematurely announced it on Twitter.
The Cavaliers were also interested in Barnes and offered a similar deal for $7 million, but in the end he opted to chase a ring instead of dollars, signing with the Lakers for nearly half as much as the Cavs were offering. The Los Angeles Times reports Barnes will earn $1.77 million this year, with a player option for nearly $2 million in 2011-12.
It’s the second summer in a row that Barnes has signed with an NBA Finalist; he joined the Orlando Magic last summer but opted out of the final year of his contract to test free agency. In 81 games for the Magic, Barnes averaged 8.8 points and 5.5 rebounds in 25.9 minutes.
Barnes has bounced around the league his entire career, but the California native always seems to find his way back home — after playing his college ball at UCLA, he opened his career with the Los Angeles Clippers and briefly played for the Sacramento Kings before truly making a name for himself during his two-year stint with the Golden State Warriors from 2006-08.
A scrappy defender, Barnes has earned a reputation for refusing to back down to anyone, despite his journeyman status — his feisty attitude has resulted in previous altercations with (and begrudging respect from) new teammates Kobe Bryant and Lamar Odom.
“He tries to play physical, but him bumping me and Kenyon Martin bumping me are two different things,” Bryant said of Barnes following an early March meeting with the Magic. “You have to be competitive. I enjoy it. I hate playing against guys who just roll over.”
Once again, Barnes announced his new deal on Twitter:
Its official I AM A LOS ANGLES LAKER. I wanna thank u for all ur patients and understanding. This is a dream come true!!! Good lookn Kobe
As for Ratliff, his presence gives the Lakers yet another lanky defender to man the post — not to mention a bit more insurance in case Andrew Bynum’s persistent injury problems linger. Bynum, scheduled to undergo surgery on July 28, was extremely inconsistent in the playoffs as he played through torn cartilage in his right knee. He’s expected to be at full strength by the start of the season — “Supposedly he’ll be 100 percent by training camp,” Lakers spokesman John Black told the LA Times — but he’s averaged just 50 regular-season games over each of the past three years.
Of course, Ratliff, 37, has averaged just 40.3 games himself the past three years, but he remains an elite shot-blocking presence. Even though his 2.7 blocks per 36 minutes last year was among the lowest of his career, it still ranked 13th among NBA players last season. Provided he’s not asked to play more than spot minutes — and with a one-year, $1.35 million contract, there’s no reason to think he will — Ratliff should continue to do what he does best while chasing his first championship ring.
In 16.5 minutes last year split between the San Antonio Spurs and Charlotte Bobcats, Ratliff averaged 3.6 points, 3.2 rebounds and 1.2 blocks. The Lakers will be his ninth team in 16 years, including his seventh in the last six. In a conference that still includes Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, Yao Ming and Nene, the Lakers can’t have too many low-post defenders.
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