Why Lakers believe continuity, youth can fuel title run

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
The Lakers don’t appear inclined to chase a third star once free agency begins on Friday.

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. – The Lakers have the same mission statement.

“We have one singular goal – that’s to add the 18th banner,” said Rob Pelinka, the Lakers’ vice president of basketball operations and general manager, on Tuesday at the Lakers’ practice facility. “That’s our focus. At the end of the next couple of days, we’re going to do all that we can to maximize that opportunity.”

After advancing to the Western Conference Finals for the first time in three years, the Lakers will likely fulfill that mission statement much differently for a franchise that always thrived on star power.

Unlike in past seasons, the Lakers don’t appear inclined to chase a third star once free agency begins on Friday (3 pm PT). Instead, the Lakers plan to build around LeBron James and Anthony Davis by retaining two restricted free agents (Austin Reaves, Rui Hachimura) and staying flexible with several others (D’Angelo Russell, Lonnie Walker IV, Dennis Schroder, Troy Brown Jr.).

“We want to try our hardest to keep this core of guys together and also improve around the edges and around the margins,” Pelinka said, “not only to get back to where we were last year, but hopefully take the next step and get in the NBA Finals.”

Unlike in past seasons, the Lakers actually had high-level draft picks. Instead of packaging those selections together in a pre-draft trade, the Lakers used them on a young prospect. The Lakers selected Jalen Hood-Schifino with the No. 17 pick amid intrigue with his perimeter defense and playmaking. The Lakers traded their No. 47 pick and cash to Denver for their 40th selection The Lakers then used that on Pepperdine sophomore forward Maxwell Lewis, who impressed the Lakers with his outside shooting and perimeter defense.

Technically, the Lakers could trade them in future deals. But Pelinka cited Nuggets rookie guard Christian Braun as an example of a young rotation player contributing to an NBA championship team. Why can’t the same thing happen with Hood-Schifino and Lewis under Lakers coach Darvin Ham?

“The league is full of young players that can surprise even in the playoffs. The team that beat us – Denver had a guy that came out of the draft last year that was in their rotation,” Pelinka said. “So, I don’t want to put a limit on what either of these guys can do either for coach Ham and the team. They’re going to start with the foundation of work. If they earn minutes in our rotation, that’s because they put in the work to do it. I do think guys can be impactful in this league, even young players.”

Pelinka spoke those words at the Lakers’ introductory press conference for Hood-Schifino and Lewis, and the purpose went beyond extolling praise on their recent draft picks. Pelinka’s analysis also provided reasoning for the Lakers’ philosophy with their roster construction .

For the past week, other teams have followed the conventional route in hopes to deny the Nuggets’ chances to defend their NBA championship.

After losing in the second round of the playoffs, the Phoenix Suns acquired an All-Star guard (Bradley Beal) from the Washington Wizards for an aging point guard (Chris Paul), a role player (Landry Shamet) and various draft picks. The Suns are banking on their top-heavy talent (Kevin Durant, Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton) will offset their lack of depth.

After the Golden State Warriors failed to defend their NBA title, they dealt an intriguing and inconsistent young player (Jordan Poole), Ryan Rollins and various draft picks to Washington for Paul. The Warriors made this move for two reasons. They want to shed salary in hopes to retain Green as a free agent. They also wanted an established player that shares the Warriors’ old-school habits and appears amenable to a reduced role in hopes of preserving his health and enhancing his chances to win his first NBA title.

The Celtics acquired a versatile center from Washington (Kristaps Porzingis) in hopes of adding more offensive chemistry between their two stars (Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown). It came at the expense of sending their emotional point guard to Memphis (Marcus Smart), who will bring instant toughness and playmaking on the court and keep Ja Morant accountable off-the-court.

Normally, the Lakers are involved with splashy off-signing deals that produce fireworks over 4th of July weekend. This summer, however, the Lakers might make moves that only make crickets chirp.

“If there are ways to improve the roster, of course, we’re going to do that,” Pelinka said. “I think probably less focus with what is ‘Team X’ and ‘Team Y’ are doing and more focus on how can we optimize us.”

So why are the high-profile Lakers suddenly operating like a small-market team?

One reason involves simple math. Even for a team that has a lucrative cable deal, the Lakers have to show discipline with their spending because of new restrictions for teams that go surpass the luxury tax threshold. Don’t be surprised if the Lakers match any offer for Reaves and Hachimura. The Lakers like their growth and can exceed the salary cap because they are restricted free agents. The Lakers will have to be more deliberative on Russell when accounting for his strengths (playmaking), his weaknesses (inconsistent shooting) and his free-agent status (unrestricted).

The other reasons involves circumstances. The Lakers already made their huge off-season acquisitions in 2018 (LeBron James) and in 2019 (Anthony Davis). Despite their mixed durability in the past four seasons, the Lakers remain confident that they can stay relatively healthy and dominant after an offseason full of rest. They have enough perspective on what they can achieve when they have a balanced roster around them (2020 NBA title). They also learned their lesson on when they acquired Russell Westbrook and how that depleted the team’s depth (missed playoffs in 2022).  

That doesn’t mean the Lakers won’t make a trade. Maybe they can execute a sign-and-trade with Russell if he receives an offer out of their price range. Maybe they could package together their recent draft picks with the expiring contracts for Mo Bamba and Malik Beasley. Neither move would likely yield much, though.

“We’re going to try our best to match players with players that coach wants to coach and that work in his system,” Pelinka said. “I think that’s guys that play tough-minded basketball and play defense and play the game the right way and hold themselves accountable that fit within a team structure and don’t put themselves first and put other guys first. That’s got to be our identity. That’s when rosters really work when they reflect the personality of the head coach.”

Rosters also work when they have players fulfill nearly every positional need. That explains why the Lakers looked so dramatically different following last season’s trade deadline. They ranked  No. 1 in defense because Davis had additional help inside (Jarred Vanderbilt) and behind the perimeter (Hachimura).  Their offense hummed with Russell’s superior playmaking, which opened up more space for James, Davis and role players to operate. They finished with the NBA’s third-best record (18-9) amid improved chemistry.

That’s not to say the Lakers looked like a finished product once they faced the Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals. James and Davis looked exhausted. Russell’s shot disappeared. And as Pelinka revealed on Tuesday, he hopes to find additional players that can enhance the team’s defense and rebounding even more.

But imagine this. How much can the Lakers improve with their current group with a full training camp together? How much more refreshed will James and Davis look when they don’t need to exhaust their energy all season just to secure a spot in the Play-In tournament? How much more energetic will the Lakers appear with an injection of youth with their draft picks?

“We have all the faith in the world in these two that they’re going to fall right into place with what we got going on,” Ham said. “As a young player the harder you play, the harder you compete, particularly on the defensive end. Usually those guys are the ones that get the minutes early. The offense will catch up to what they’re doing. But first, they have to establish a competitive tone and obviously buy in to what we’re doing defensively. That’s going to translate into everything else.”

During their rebuilding seasons, the Lakers knew the shortcomings that young players had. It didn’t matter if they had talent. They can’t carry a team on their own. It didn’t matter how many platitudes they spouted about the Lakers’ championship history or detailed how Kobe Bryant inspired them. When Hood-Schifino and Lewis shared their experience, their words carried a different context. They are joining a team about a month removed from appearing in the Western Conference Finals. The Lakers drafted them in hopes they could offer spot minutes on an established team that will give them no other choice but to report to work each day with a diligent work ethic and willingess to offer the intangibles.  

Obviously, those intangibles mean little if James and Davis can’t stay healthy. Even if the Lakers’ star players fulfill their end of the bargain, however, their margin for error would shrink with a diminished supporting cast. So while other teams might load up in hopes to dethrone the Nuggets, the Lakers plan to emulate Denver’s approach with mostly valuing what they already have.

“Teams are going to be aggressive,” Pelinka said. “There is a lot of parity in the league right now. Everyone smells an opportunity to chase a championship. But we’re going to try our best to stay in that pack or ahead of that pack.”

Mark Medina covers the Clippers & Lakers for The Sporting Tribune. Follow him on Twitter and on Instagram.