EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- The Lakers are happy to have additional depth at small forward, signing free agent Matt Barnes to a two-year contract Thursday. Unfortunately, the arrival of Barnes in Los Angeles only highlights serious questions surrounding the health of Luke Walton heading into next season.
Walton was limited to a career-low 29 games during the 2009-10 regular season because of back problems debilitating enough to require surgery. General manager Mitch Kupchak said Friday that Walton will work through the summer to rehabilitate and build strength in his back but acknowledged the prospect of future surgery still exists, and even that Walton could miss the 2010-11 season.
"Absolutely. It's a possibility," Kupchak said. "It's not your run of the mill type back problem. We don't know where it's going to end up. He's a gamer and he loves to play. He wants to be a part of the team, and he'll do whatever it takes to get back on the court. That's a positive, to have the kind of player that's motivated to get well. That's not always the case."
Without Walton available, Kobe Bryant served as the primary backup to Ron Artest at small forward last season. Barnes, a seven-year veteran from UCLA, played 81 games with the Orlando Magic last season, averaging 8.8 points and 5.5 rebounds in 25.9 minutes. Only days before, Barnes was thought to be headed for Toronto, but a sign-and-trade deal with the Magic fell through, again putting him on the market.
"Matt Barnes was not something we planned on weeks ago. Free agency is kind of topsy-turvy for a player sometimes. I'm not quite sure even he knew where he'd end up," Kupchak said. "We felt adding a player like that would give us great insurance at that position. Although he can defend some bigger guards, he's basically a small forward. So we feel fortunate to have added him at the last minute."
Adding Barnes, Kupchak said, doesn't preclude the Lakers from continuing negotiations with free-agent guard Shannon Brown, who averaged a career high 8.1 points per game as a key member of the team's bench.
"We're still talking to Shannon," Kupchak said. "I think there's a good chance that in the next couple of weeks we can have some resolution there with Shannon. I'm optimistic."
Brown's agent, Mark Bartelstein, told ESPNLosAngeles.com's Dave McMenamin on Friday he continues to "work on different concepts" with Kupchak.
Should the Lakers reach an agreement with Brown, there is a strong chance they'd open the season with 14 players on the roster, one more than the team carried last season. The team added point guard Steve Blake earlier this month and veteran center Theo Ratliff on Thursday. Encouraged by the play of second-round draft choices Devin Ebanks and Derrick Caracter in summer league, both are considered strong candidates to make the team.
Kupchak said he's happy with where things stand for the Lakers.
"I think we've added depth, and I think we've addressed our major concern knowing that Jordan [Farmar] probably wouldn't return," Kupchak said. "That left a gaping hole in our backcourt. So to bring in a player like [Blake], that gives us a great degree of comfort in that position. We're pleased. We think we have a balanced roster, with some experience."
Still, there was palpable concern for Walton.
"The most important thing is that Luke make the correct decision for his life, not for basketball," he said. "The aging process of a healthy athlete is difficult enough as it is. So we counsel Luke, and our trainers do, to try to keep the big picture in the forefront of any decision. But like most young players they want to play. Sometimes they don't [listen.]"
Brian Kamenetzky is the co-author of the Land O' Lakers blog for ESPNLosAngeles.com.