As he walked excitedly around the entrance tunnel, Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka saw all the reasons that explained the franchise’s dramatic turnaround.
LeBron James headed toward the locker room after delaying Father Time once again. Anthony Davis trailed closely behind while Pelinka walked and talked with the Lakers’ star after excelling on both ends of the floor. And moments later, Pelinka embraced two key players he acquired before the trade deadline, including a valued wing (Rui Hachimura) and a dynamic playmaker (D’Angelo Russell).
Given the setting, it would have seemed understandable if Pelinka felt vindicated. He had faced criticism last season for the team’s faulty roster that contributed to a missed playoff appearance. He experienced more pressure after declining to trade Russell Westbrook before the 2022-23 season started. But with the Lakers laboring in 13th place in the Western Conference before the trade deadline, the team’s new acquisitions played a key role in ensuring the team returned to the Western Conference Finals for the first time in three years.
“I didn’t expect this,” Russell conceded. “I didn’t think this. So I’d be wrong and lying if I told you that I did.”
Not only did Russell share his candor with reporters that he did not envision the seventh-seeded Lakers would visit the top-seeded Denver Nuggets in the West Finals beginning on Tuesday (5:30 pm PT, ESPN). He acknowledged his skepticism with Pelinka. After all, the Lakers had ranked so far below in the standings before the trade deadline. They had no training camp and minimal practice time to integrate the new players. And with James and Davis nursing overlapping injuries for the previous two seasons, the Lakers hardly had any assurances their two stars could finally avoid the trainer’s room for the second half of the 2022-23 campaign.
James reported feeling much more optimistic. That might explain why he had clamored for the front office to make moves for the past year, including the 2022 trade deadline and the following offseason. James had reiterated that message when he signed an extension before the 2022-23 season started and leading into the 2023 trade deadline.
“If we ever had an opportunity to upgrade our roster and put some more balance around myself and AD, James said, “I felt like we could make a run.”
Consider it done. First, the Lakers dealt an injury-riddled perimeter player (Kendrick Nunn) and three second-round picks to Washington for an intriguing young wing player (Hachimura). Then, the Lakers traded Westbrook, Juan Toscano-Anderson, Damian Jones and a 2027 first-round pick to Utah while acquiring from Minnesota a proven playmaker (Russell), shooter (Malik Beasley) and rebounder (Jarred Vanderbilt). Lastly, the Lakers sent an inconsistent perimeter player (Patrick Beverley) to Orlando for an additional rim protector (Mo Bamba).
The results followed. Following the trade deadline, the Lakers finished with the NBA’s third-best record (18-9), second-best defensive rating (110.8) and 18th in 3-point shooting (36.1%). That marks a drastic improvement from the Lakers’ performances before the trade deadline. Then, they ranked 13th in the Western Conference (25-31), 20th in defensive rating (114.3) and 26th in 3-point shooting (30.9%).
No doubt, the Lakers’ improvement partly has to do with Davis recovering from a right foot injury that sidelined him for 24 games before the trade deadline, including 21 to treat his injured right foot. But consider that James missed 13 consecutive games to treat a right foot injury almost 2 ½ weeks after the trade deadline (Feb. 28-March 24). Yet, the Lakers finished with an 8-6 record during that stretch because of both how well Davis and the Lakers’ new pieces complemented each other.
Therefore, the Lakers’ fortunes have not just rested on how healthy and dominant James and Davis can be. It has also depended on the Lakers making full use of their supporting cast.
“We fly as high as they allow us to, but the extra fuel that allows us to maintain a certain altitude are our rotation players and other guys,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “They’ve all been great. I wouldn’t signal anyone out. They all have their moments.”
Ham conceded the Lakers don’t have a definitive third star. Instead, he observed various players serve that role “by committee.” Yet, Ham argued “that’s a blessing, actually.” Ideally, Russell would fill that void more consistently considering his salary and All-Star history. But Ham views the dynamic through a more positive lens for a simple reason.
The Lakers experienced turbulence with Westbrook through two different coach staffs (Frank Vogel, Ham) amid expectations that he could become the team’s third star. Westbrook struggled playing with and without James and Davis amid overlapping injuries. Westbrook showed inconsistency with embracing and adapting to his new role. And the Lakers lacked enough roster depth to absorb injuries to James and Davis as well as to accentuate Westbrook’s strengths and to mitigate his weaknesses.
The Lakers addressed those issues with the trade deadline moves. Not only did the Lakers experience addition-by-subtraction with dealing Westbrook. They finally had a deep roster that did not just depend on James and Davis covering up the team’s blemishes.
“He got snubbed for that GM award he was supposed to get,” Russell said of Pelinka. “For him to sacrifice the pieces he made to kind of get the right group of guys? They came with that energy. They were a bunch of guys that were selfless, too. Nobody expected or wanted anything. We worked for it all. We had a tad bit of chemistry in there, too. It made everything out there that much easier.”
That enabled the Lakers to have a composite character to represent the team’s third option.
Sometimes that role belonged to Russell, whose scoring and playmaking potential both opened up the floor for James and Davis with better spacing. When Russell has misfired with his shots, the Lakers have leaned on other options from both the team’s other trade deadline additions and incumbent role players. Hachimura scored at least 20 points in three playoff games. Austin Reaves did the same thing in four playoff appearances. And despite limited playing time following the trade deadline and early in the playoffs, Lonnie Walker IV scored all of his 15 points in the fourth quarter of the Lakers’ comeback win over the Golden State Warriors in Game 4 of their second-round series.
“If we go out and play a good brand of basketball, make the extra pass, get good looks, especially in the first half, then later in the game, third, fourth quarter, they’ll do what they do,” Reaves said of the Lakers’ role players. “But it’s all about how we attack the game and trust one another.”
The same dynamic has played out on defense. Plenty of that post-season success points to Davis, who has held opponents to a 39.4% clip when he contests the shots and has ranked first in defensive rebounds (11.7) and blocks per game (3.3). But the Lakers have had other defensive reinforcements. Warriors guard Stephen Curry shot only 5-for-12 from the field (41.7%) when Vanderbilt defended him in a combined 13 minutes through six playoff games. Both Curry (40.5%) and Klay Thompson (16.7%) also shot inefficiently when Lakers guard Dennis Schroder defended both players in the second round.
“We are deep, to say the least. We have a lot of firepower offensively. We have some great defenders,” Walker said. “The fact that we meshed and had chemistry this quick and we’re doing so well in the playoffs really speaks for itself. We have a lot of players that can put the ball in the hoop and play the right way. So, we’re going to just keep doing what we’re doing.”
Will that be enough for the Lakers to win their 18th NBA championship in franchise history and first since doing so in the campus bubble three years ago? The Lakers first have to advance past the Nuggets, which features a two-time MVP (Nikola Jokic), a respected coach (Michael Malone) and a deep roster filled with continuity.
Unlike when the Lakers made some trade deadline moves three months ago while at the bottom of the standings, at least Russell can share some optimism with Pelinka about the team’s trajectory.
“Once we got out there, you could tell guys liked each other and wanted to play for each other,” Russell said. “It was just contagious.”
Mark Medina covers the NBA for The Sporting Tribune. Follow him on Twitter and on Instagram.