With NBA free agency all but wrapped up for the Los Angeles Lakers, who only have one open roster spot left, much has been made of the team building strategy general manager Rob Pelinka and president of basketball operations Magic Johnson have used to construct a roster around LeBron James — mainly it’s (seeming) lack of shooting.
You see, conventional wisdom states that to win with James, a team needs to put four shooters on the court around him in order to maximize the spacing he has to operate and create the offensive firepower to keep up with the Golden State Warriors, who have defeated James in the last two NBA Finals.
However, the problem with that wisdom lies in the premise: It may not be possible to build an offense that can outscore the Warriors, which is why the Lakers very deliberately went a different direction.
“I think to try and play the Warriors at their own game is a trap. No one is going to beat them at their own game,” Pelinka said at his press conference about James and the Laker’s other roster additions. “That’s why we wanted to add these elements of defense and toughness and depth and try to look at areas where we’ll have an advantage.”
Pelinka says that he, James and Johnson have all talked about where the Lakers can create an advantage over one of the greatest teams of all-time, a fast-paced dynamo that boasts one of the best scorers in NBA history in Kevin Durant as well as possibly the best-shooting backcourt of all-time in Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.
All of those players are average to great defenders as well, and that’s without mentioning Draymond Green, a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate who won the award in 2017.
James has tried to take the Warriors down the last two years with teams that were in the top-five in 3-point attempts, and the Cavaliers also beat the Warriors three years ago with such a team, but that was before they signed Durant.
So while some might call the Lakers insane for not going after shooting specialists to put around LeBron, it seems that after two finals losses, the Lakers are of the mind that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.
They, and James, are ready to try something new.
“He wanted this team to be built very differently than the past ones that he played with,” Pelinka said. ”We did not want to go out and sign specialists, like ‘oh, this guy can just shoot.’ We wanted tough, two-way players that could defend with a level of toughness and also make shots.
“The road to the NBA championship has to go through the team that won last year. We all know the guys up north have a special group, but one of the ways to attack what they have is with defensive toughness. I think we saw that in the Houston series with some of the players that Houston has,” Pelinka continued, and he thinks the Lakers have such players now as well.
“KCP is a tough defender and shooter. Josh Hart has proven to be a pitbull of a defender, and a guy that can make shots. Rondo historically has been a tenacious tough guy. We wanted that mentality, and we identified it. Lance Stephenson, he’ll agitate you, he’ll get under you, he’ll cause you to get out of your game. And he can play in the open court and score at the rim.”
Pelinka — and according to him, LeBron — also feel like pairing him with the Lakers’ young core is going to help both sides.
“I really think that the youth is going to be a mutually beneficial thing to him, just to kind of bring joy back to him, being around the young guys and shaping their careers,” Pelinka said. “The influence he’s going to have on making those guys better. We’ve seen that here before with Magic shaping a team, with Kobe shaping a team. Now it’s LeBron’s turn to have a blank canvas to put his imprint on the DNA of this team.”
Pelinka, James and Johnson are also aware that there is no CRISPR available to them to easily rewrite the DNA of this team into a title contender in one year. That type of transformation will take time, time James has given the Lakers with a contract that will keep him in Los Angeles for at least the next three years.
But while winning a championship might not be in the cards in year one, the Lakers know that they have to get started on building a team that can beat the best.
”If your goal is to win a championship, you have to look at the way the champs are assembled and how you can give yourself the best chance to take them down,” Pelinka said. “It’s not the sole focus or the sole goal, but it’s certainly part of the equation.”
The Lakers might not be able to make the additions to complete that equation until 2019, but by adding LeBron, they definitely got a head start on their homework for the next few years, and might just be going against the grain to create a roster that could actually equal exactly what LeBron needs.
All quotes transcribed via Spectrum Sportsnet. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen,