LOS ANGELES — As they labored through the final game of their season that featured both turbulence and rejuvenation, the Lakers could see two players enjoying their courtside view and teasing them with their presence.
Kyrie Irving and Trae Young attended the Lakers’ loss to the Denver Nuggets in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals. Technically, they visited Crypto.com Arena to watch a playoff basketball game. Symbolically, though, they commanded attention as the Lakers’ possible off-season acquisitions.
A day later, the Lakers clearly outlined their priorities without needing to name those specific players or even come close toward breaking any tampering rules. Rob Pelinka, the Lakers’ vice president of basketball operations and general manager, called it a “high priority” for the franchise to retain most of the team’s current roster.
“Keeping that continuity is going to be very important,” Pelinka said. “We ultimately got knocked out by a team that has great continuity. They’ve got a group of players that have been together for several seasons, and it shows with the way they play.”
The Lakers also showed the value of continuity with the way they played leading into the Western Conference Finals.
They sputtered to a 2-10 start, while Anthony Davis struggled to stay healthy and Russell Westbrook struggled to find a successful fit. While LeBron James continued to delay Father Time, the Lakers’ lack of depth led to them to plummet to the 13th place in the Western Conference standings Any talk of contending for NBA title for the second time in four years seemed laughable. Any hope of avoiding a second consecutive missed playoff appearance appeared iffy, too.
Then the Lakers dramatically turned around their team with key developments. They dealt an injury-riddled guard (Kendrick Nunn) and two second-round picks to Washington for a two-way wing player (Rui Hachimura). They traded Westbrook in a three-team deal that improved their playmaking (D’Angelo Russell), interior defense (Jarred Vanderbilt) and shooting (Malik Beasley). The Lakers parted ways with an inconsistent two-way player (Patrick Beverley) for more rim protection (Mo Bamba). Meanwhile, Davis finally became consistently healthy and dominant.
In related news, the Lakers then finished with the NBA’s third-best record to ensure a spot in the NBA’s play-in tournament as a seventh seed (18-9). With Davis improving his health and the team having more defensive reinforcements, the Lakers finished with the NBA’s second-best defensive rating (110.8). Even without James missing 13 games to heal a right foot injury, the Lakers’ offensive balance, shooting and spacing improved dramatically for them to absorb his absence. That then led to the Lakers unseating two other NBA title contenders in the playoffs (Memphis, Golden State).
The Lakers eventually maxed out once they faced the Nuggets. James looked so exhausted that he struggled with attacking the basket and shooting from deep. Davis’ offensive and defensive dominance hardly became enough to mitigate Nikola Jokic’s triple-double performances. Some role players became dependable (Austin Reaves, Lonnie Walker IV, Dennis Schroder) Hachimura). Some role players didn’t (Russell, Vanderbilt). Some fell out of the rotation entirely because of poor play (Malik Beasley) or injuries (Bamba).
Therefore, Pelinka left things open-ended on how the Lakers will handle this year’s NBA draft on June 22 with their No. 17 and No. 47 picks, their pending restricted free agents (Reaves, Hachimura), their unrestricted free agents (Russell, Schroder, Walker), $16.9 million team option (Beasley) and non-guaranteed deals (Vanderbilt, Bamba).
“We’re not going to rest on our laurels,” Pelinka said. “If there are opportunities to get even better, whether it’s through the draft or whether it’s through trades or free agency, we’re always looking to improve. But we have a core that is highly successful. That’s a good starting point.”
It’s at least a good starting point for the Lakers to prioritize these moves. The Lakers have to retain Reaves and Hachimura because of their value, upside and ability to match any outside offer. The Lakers should re-sign Russell at a manageable price either to further develop him or to facilitate a sign-and-trade. And the Lakers should absolutely say no to any temptation with signing Irving as a free agent or acquiring Young from the Atlanta Hawks.
It remains up for speculation that James suggested he might retire simply to exert pressure on the Lakers to acquire Irving, Young or any other star. Those around him contend James simply felt frustrated with the Lakers’ playoff exit, exhausted from his 40-point effort in Game 4 and hurt from a right foot injury that may require off-season surgery. Regardless, the Lakers should continue to stick to their original convictions.
They only have to look back on how this past season played out for all parties involved to explain the reasons why.
Irving proved he remains one of the NBA’s best point guards with his scoring and playmaking. He has thrived well under James’ presence and influence during four seasons in Cleveland (2014-18). Oh, if only NBA teams could evaluate Irving on his on-court value alone. The Lakers presumably won’t have to worry about Irving becoming unavailable because of his refusal to adhere to a vaccine mandate or promoting an antisemitic film as he did in his past two seasons in Brooklyn. But a random category always emerges, however, on the Irving absence bingo card. Even if he stays on his best behavior as he did after Brooklyn traded him to Dallas, that time illustrated that an NBA team can’t thrive with Irving if they’re sacrificing all of their depth just to land him.
The same idea applies to Young. Just like Irving, he has the scoring, playmaking and range to bolster the Lakers’ offense. Unlike Irving, Young has proven to be more durable. Though Young will presumably become amenable to James and Davis’ feedback and pecking order, Young has yet to prove he can become a winning player. The Lakers would also have to sacrifice their depth just to land him, too.
Sure, the Lakers may need to be shrewd with how they manage a limited salary cap and explore what marginal moves they can make with their draft picks and role players at the bottom of the rotation. But the Lakers’ success next season doesn’t just rest on James and Davis remaining dominant, while avoiding major injuries. It also hinges on keeping this core roster together.
Consider that the Lakers’ playoff struggles also partly stems indirectly from the consequences of lacking depth to open the season.
James assumed a heavier workload than planned to begin his 20th NBA season because of Westbrook’s struggles and the lack of a proven supporting cast. Though the Lakers dramatically improved after the trade deadline, some of the team’s role players experienced varying inconsistency partly because they didn’t have a full training camp and season to iron out their game.
Should the Lakers retain most of their roster for next season, they arguably would not have the same issues that eventually caught up to them against Denver.
Sure, James will eventually turn 39 in his 21st NBA season with Father Time always lurking to rear its ugly head. Unlike last season, though, James wouldn’t feel compelled to carry the team as he did at the beginning of the 2022-23 season. Even if the Lakers had Irving or Young, it seems inevitable their red flags would emerge and produce more headaches. And should James experience any further injuries, the Lakers would no longer have the depth or continuity to absorb it.
Yes, it might be naïve to think that Russell will become a more consistent player or that any of the team’s role players will become stars. Collectively, though, they would build a stronger identity based off of chemistry. In Russell’s case, the Lakers arguably could develop him enough to increase his market value for deals leading into the trade deadline. With the Lakers’ continuity in place, it seems unlikely they would have to make up so much ground in the standings as they did following last season’s trade deadline. As a result, those dynamics would place an even lesser burden on James’ aging body.
“When you put a group out there that knows the game and everybody wants the same goal, I think you’ll have some success,” Russell said. “But at some point, you’ll see you need those 50 games. You need that training camp. You need that offseason to kind of get over the hump. We didn’t have that. We made it to the Western Conference Finals, so I think the future’s bright.”
The Lakers’ future will only be bright, however, if they stick to their original plan with running things back instead of chasing the stars.