Rarely do you hear NBA general managers use the terms “championship road” and “young core” to describe the same strategy.
After a flurry of moves at the deadline, a 24-hour period that shipped out five players and brought in five new ones, Lakers GM Rob Pelinka said he thought the Lakers got better, but also touted the roster’s younger, fresher feel. Including Rui Hachimura acquired from the Wizards last month, the team has added what Pelinka called “five core players” who are 26 or younger.
Does that add up to a contender, especially for a team that sat in 13th place entering the weekend? Maybe not. But the Lakers’ pivot to youth may be less about this season – with the team’s playoff hopes fading – and more about the future.
Pelinka spoke to the media Saturday morning for more than 20 minutes about the team’s active deadline, including sending out former MVP Russell Westbrook in what he acknowledged was a failed bid to compete for a championship. Many basketball observers gave Pelinka solid marks at the deadline for adding shooting, defense and clearing Westbrook’s $47 million set to expire this summer for one protected first-round draft pick. The Lakers were able to retain their 2029 pick, as well as coveted young players Austin Reaves and Max Christie.
But while Pelinka said coach Darvin Ham was “excited” to coach his remade roster down the stretch, the difficulty of what the Lakers are trying to accomplish this season isn’t lost on anyone. Adding to the issues, 38-year-old LeBron James was ruled out Saturday morning with what the team called left ankle soreness, his second consecutive missed game. Pelinka confirmed Ham’s Thursday comment that James had gotten imaging on his foot, but said, “we’re grateful that things came back clean and good.”
With James’ uncertainty adding to the challenges of blending the roster together, Pelinka’s comments about the Lakers’ future stood out even more than how the deals help the Lakers in the present. Pelinka called the 26 remaining games (including the Lakers’ Saturday game at Golden State) as “data points” the franchise can use to make decisions this summer.
“I think it really is an exciting time, I think, for Laker Nation,” Pelinka said. “Just to think about the fact that we have these five young players, 26 and younger, that you can see how even those five guys fit really well around our captains of LeBron and Anthony Davis. So not only does it set us up for hopefully a productive run now … it gives us a core to look at going into next year that is very exciting.”
One of the new faces is a familiar one: The most high-profile acquisition was D’Angelo Russell, the Minnesota Timberwolves guard who was the 2015 No. 2 overall pick of the Lakers. Pelinka was a part of the front office that traded him to Brooklyn in 2017.
But aside from Russell’s All-Star season in 2019, his scoring and playmaking production (17.9 ppg, 6.2 apg) and career-best shooting efficiency (39.1% 3FG, 54.6 % eFG), Pelinka said he and Russell talked about how much the soon-to-be-27-year old has grown in his years since he was dealt.
“I think both Magic (Johnson) and I were both really intrigued early with the incredible talent that D’Angelo had, and now you have a mix of the talent, the shooting, the playmaking, IQ, plus the growth he’s been able to gather as a player and I think it makes him really ideally suited,” Pelinka said. “We do see him not just as a player that’s a short-term rental.”
The biggest name the Lakers were known to be involved with was Brooklyn’s Kyrie Irving, a talented player who has also been a lightning rod for controversy and missed more than half of the possible games in his Brooklyn stint in part due to his personal views. The Lakers reportedly offered two first-round picks for Irving, but the Nets dealt the 30-year-old to Dallas.
Pelinka declined to talk about any particular player under contract with another team, in observance of NBA tampering rules, but used a housing metaphor when asked about Irving.
“Doing trades is a little bit like the L.A. house market in that you can’t buy houses that aren’t listed, and ultimately sellers will determine if they want to sell a house or not, and which buyers get them,” he said. “But the last thing you want to do in the housing market is overpay, or spend all your effort and energy trying to buy a house that someone doesn’t want to sell.”
Pelinka commented on the gifts of the other new acquisitions besides Russell. Big man Mo Bamba’s wingspan can “change the geometry of the floor,” Pelinka said, and he noted his spacing as a player who shot over 38% last season and this season on 3-pointers. He called Malik Beasley “one of the the more elite snipers in the game” with solid efficiency on high volume who can affect defenses with his gravity.
Pelinka praised Jarred Vanderbilt for his ability to guard and switch multiple positions, adding, “his effort every night, every possession, is incredibly compelling.” He called Davon Reed a “high-character” 3-and-D wing who can develop.
Perhaps tellingly, the Lakers also have the flexibility to move on from just about all of these young pieces this summer if they wish. Russell and Hachimura will be free agents; Beasley has a team option; Reed and Bamba have non-guaranteed deals next season. Vanderbilt has one more year left on his deal, but is widely considered a bargain at under $5 million next season and could be a tradeable contract.
“If you really study the contracts of these five players, we very intentionally planned these moves to provide optionality in July,” Pelinka said. “Some of these players have team options or team-controlled years on their contract, which, again, gives us the ability to see how these last 26 regular-season games and how potential postseason games go. And then we can go into this offseason with a higher collection of data points, and sort of a real-time analysis of how the pieces fit and make decisions for the future.”
If the Lakers decide to create cap space this summer instead of move forward with their new, younger pieces, their experience with Westbrook should give them some caution to look for the right third star – if not eschew a third star altogether. While Pelinka said the franchise would look back with the players they traded away “with respect” for their tenure, there’s little denying that Westbrook’s season-and-a-half with the Lakers was a largely unhappy time: The team was just 58-79 with Westbrook on the roster.
Pelinka owned that the Lakers fell short of their championship expectations when they got Westbrook in 2021 for a number of role players and a first-round pick – a generous understatement – but also did not lay the team’s struggles at Westbrook’s feet.
“You have to then look to pivot if something is not working to correct it; I think this trade deadline, there was an opportunity there,” he said. “I think it’s really unfair to put the last year and a half, or whatever period of time that is, on one player. I think the whole roster has to come together and fit. And part of sports sometimes is if things aren’t working, you have to fix them.”
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The Lakers will learn in the coming two months if their course correction will be enough to put them in the mix this season. But this season might be mattering less and less, if Pelinka’s words are anything to go by.
Pelinka referenced a preseason promise he made to use any and all resources available to help James “get to the end” and build a frontrunner. But when asked if the Lakers are now a contending-level team, he was much more modest about where they stand.
“I think our biggest focus right now is looking at the next game and trying to come together as a group and get a win,” he said. “I think the only way you can accomplish something great is if you look at it moment to moment. And we play the Warriors tonight and I know Darvin and his staff is working really hard now and the players are working really hard now and that’s our focus is sort of one game at a time.”