LAS VEGAS – Rob Pelinka looked relaxed and spry.
After a frenetic free-agency period that involved both maintaining continuity and upgrading on the margins, the Lakers’ vice president of basketball operations no longer needed to stay glued to his phone.
Yet, Pelinka hardly seemed compelled to run a victory lap after retaining four key free agents (Austin Reaves, Rui Hachimura, D’Angelo Russell, Jarred Vanderbilt), while upgrading their depth in the backcourt (Gabe Vincent), wing (Cam Reddish, Taurean Prince) and center positions (Jaxson Hayes). Not even after Pelinka received criticism two summers ago for acquiring Russell Westbrook at the expense of the Lakers’ depth that eventually contributed to a missed playoff appearance.
“You can’t get caught up in the praise and get a big head. You can’t get caught up in the criticism or you’ll lose your confidence,” Pelinka said on Sunday at the Thomas & Mack Center. “Just stick to the work. I’ve always had that as a guiding principle for the work we’ve done.”
Before his passing 3 ½ years ago, the late Kobe Bryant often stressed to Pelinka (his former agent) that concept ever since taking over the front office (2017). Pelinka followed that approach both during the Lakers’ successes (2020 NBA title, 2023 Western Conference Finals) and failures (three missed playoff appearances in 2018-19, 2022).
After all, the Lakers’ success or failure depend more on the collective health between LeBron James and Anthony Davis than on roster construction. After both nursed right foot injuries that either sidelined them or limited them throughout the 2022-23 season and the playoffs, James and Davis have left Pelinka encouraged with their respective recoveries.
“We feel good about the off-season and the treatment that both AD and LeBron are getting,” Pelinka said. “All the reports have been good around both of those injuries in terms of those guys being able to move past them.”
Pelinka didn’t reveal what treatment Davis received this offseason. But it appears unclear whether Davis’ recent progress will make the Lakers feel comfortable to offer him an extension once he becomes next month. Davis remains under contract through the 2024-25 season, but he has an early-termination clause after the 2023-24 campaign. Pelinka declined to express interest after citing the NBA’s restrictions on speaking about pending contract negotiations, but indirectly expressed interest by praising Davis.
“I couldn’t think any more highly of Anthony Davis as a Laker and as a player,” Pelinka said. “He’s helped deliver a championship to our franchise. He has been an incredible captain and leader. You saw last year how he was willing to play through a hard foot injury to get our team to the Western Conference Finals. We just love having him as part of our team.”
Pelinka stayed just as silent on whether James had any surgery or any other procedures on his right foot. Two months have passed since James raised the possibility of retiring after the Denver Nuggets swept the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals. Yet, Pelinka didn’t share on whether he had any follow-up talks with James. As Pelinka said “we want to let LeBron speak about his plans and his future for himself.”
Nonetheless, those around both James and the Lakers organization expect him to return for his 21st NBA season and complete the remaining two years on his $97 million contract. After refraining from taking an active role in free agency, James also offered implicit endorsements of the Lakers’ off-season moves on his Instagram account.
“That’s just the leader that LeBron is. He knows how to galvanize a group and bring them together,” Pelinka said. “We’re excited that he’s behind that.”
So is Vincent, who also received interest from Miami and Toronto before the Lakers sold him on his value as a shooter and defender to help the Lakers win their 18th NBA title. Neither James nor Davis have reached out to him directly yet, but his eyes lit up when discussing what it will be like to play with the Lakers’ two stars.
“They’re great talents, generational talents. LeBron will one of the best ever to pick up a basketball,” Vincent said. “I’m looking forward to going out there competing alongside him. He’s someone that I watched growing up. Now many people in this league nowadays did with being in this league for so long and being on top for so long. I’m looking forward to competing and trying to get some wins.”
To get some wins, Pelinka deliberately prioritized two variables. He chose maintaining continuity over chasing a third star. He also pursued players that mirrored the identity of Lakers coach Darvin Ham, who cemented an eight-year NBA career (1996-98, 1999-2005) by showcasing defense, rebounding and teamwork.
“You can’t win a championship without a commitment to the defensive end,” Pelinka said. “Obviously after the trade deadline, we were one of the top defending teams in the NBA. We were mindful with all the pieces that we added to have them reflect that culture and that identity.”
Not only could that enhance the Lakers’ depth. It could also give Ham more roster flexibility. Though James and Davis will start definitively, Ham told The Sporting Tribune that he will determine the remaining three starting positions in training camp based on a players’ effort level, team work and defense.
“You go in there and compete. Coach will put the people out there that will help you win games,” Vincent said. “I’m all about winning. I’m going to go in there and compete and put my best foot forward. Coach Ham is going to do what Coach Ham does. Hopefully the Lakers win more games.”
That could partly depend on how well the Lakers complement Davis inside. Hayes became an effective starting and backup center through four seasons with New Orleans with his athleticism and rim protection. That gave the Lakers hope that Hayes could give them a big-man presence with both interior defense and screen setting similar to what Dwight Howard did alongside Davis during the team’s 2020 NBA title run.
Not only did the Lakers evaluate Hayes’ on-court fit. Pelinka said the organization probed about Hayes’ off-court issues. Last year, Hayes was sentenced to three years of probation, 450 hours of community service and a year of weekly domestic violence classes after he pleaded no contest to misdemeanor counts of false imprisonment and resisting an officer following his arrest on July 28, 2021 following a domestic disturbance call.
“We take those things very seriously and we do a full-vetting process,” Pelinka said. “But Jaxson has been very sincere with sort of his apologies around handling that and has moved beyond it to where he has been had a year or two in the NBA playing after it. We felt like it was something he owned and took responsibility for and is going to be a better person on the other side of it.”
The Lakers haven’t fully completed their work. With 13 playerss under contract on a 15-man roster, Pelinka said “we are actively involved in the market to add another big.”
“We don’t want to sign someone that replicates the skills that Jaxson Hayes has. If we can diversify the big position and have different looks, that would be good,” Pelinka said. “The greatest likelihood is we will fill the 14th position before training camp. The 15th one is more open.”