El Segundo — Earlier this offseason, Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka were sitting on couches around the coffee table in Jeanie Buss’ office at the Los Angeles Lakers practice facility. The triumvirate in charge of rebuilding the team were batting around ideas as they frequently do, when Buss raised a question for the two men she had tasked with running the Lakers’ basketball operations department: What do they think is the “defining trait” of their current crop of players?
It was an easy answer for Pelinka and Johnson, who were looking for one thing as they overhauled the Lakers’ roster in free agency — competitiveness.
“The gene of being a competitive individual is something that gets multiplied, almost like compounded interest when you have competitive guys in the gym. So it’s not 2+2+2=6, it’s 2x2x2=8,” Pelinka said. “It has this effect of just growing exponentially.”
In their first media availability together since the controlled demolition and reconstruction they completed on the roster in free agency, Pelinka and Johnson said they’ve seen exactly the competitive fire they were hoping for during offseason scrimmages in their practice facility.
They described LeBron James going right at Kyle Kuzma to hit a game-winning shot during one pickup game, and how in another JaVale McGee swatted Kuzma’s shot and took the sophomore forward to task for not just dunking on him. They raved about how Rajon Rondo refused to play on the same pickup team as James to make the games more competitive. They see the fire in which they can forge a championship contender.
“I mean they are going HARD,” Johnson said, putting emphasis on the final word. “It’s physical, it’s tough, there’s trash talking, it’s just a lot of fun. And also, a lot of teaching at the same time... A lot of that is going on that didn’t happen before, so it’s really great to see these young guys getting a chance to learn from champions.”
In Pelinka’s mind, that’s the only way to build a champion, which he described as only he can: With a complicated analogy of a kitten learning to become a lion that has to be readnto be believed.
”I think of this story, I don’t know if it’s an ancient tale of old of this young kitten that’s running around in the jungle, and it sees a bobcat and it says ‘Oh, it’s a bigger cat, it must be a lion.’ So it starts mimicking the bobcat and thinks it’s become the king of the jungle.
“A year later, along comes a male lion and the little cat says ‘Oh my gosh, I didn’t realize that’s what a lion’s roar was until I saw and heard it, so now I know how to become a lion.’
“Well, in terms of player development I think there’s no better way to do that then by exposing our young core to today’s greatest player, that is today’s hardest-working player too. Then they see what it takes to be great. It’s one thing to hear stories, it’s one thing to watch tape, but it’s another thing to be in the gym every day with LeBron in particular, and guys like Rondo who have won championships and won at a high level,” Pelinka said.
The Lakers’ kittens are going to have to grow up fast, and Rondo and James aren’t the only lions they’ll be learning from. The Lakers also brought in quite the cast of characters over the summer, ranging from zany (McGee and Michael Beasley) to fiery (Rondo and Lance Stephenson).
Lakers head coach Luke Walton has said that he’s not worried about managing the deep but potentially volatile bunch, and Johnson isn’t concerned about them either.
“No, no concerns. And we love that they all are different individuals and that they bring something different to the table. We needed some grittiness and we needed some toughness. We needed somebody to come and be upset that somebody had a defensive lapse or that somebody got by them. We love everything that everybody brings to the table and we’ve been seeing it out here every single day.
“So some guys had different things happen in their past, but so what? Rondo is still a champion and you saw what he did for New Orleans last season, so we’re happy to have him. Lance played excellent basketball last season for his team, so we’re excited to have him because he’s been great out here. “
Pelinka said he and Johnson have studied basketball’s past, seen how championship contenders like Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls have had eccentric characters like Dennis Rodman who had checkered pasts before being known as winners.
“We don’t care about what has happened in the past, all we care about is what happens when you put on that purple and gold. They know what they need to do. They know how to act as a professional. I want to see Lance shake it up,” Johnson said, punctuating his statement by imitating a dancing celebration Stephenson has done after making threes.
“If I was concerned I wouldn’t have signed them. I’m excited to have each and every one of them, trust me,” Johnson said.
“Not only are we not concerned, but it was purposeful,” added Pelinka.
The Lakers aren’t just drawing on the NBA’s colorful basketball history to build their team this season, though. They’re drawing on their own franchise’s, and Johnson’s specifically.
”Michael Cooper made me better. I was going against the best defensive player in basketball every day. It made me better. Our practices were competitive when I played, so that made us compete every single night for 82 games. That’s what we’re looking for from this team.”
If the Lakers’ offseason pickup runs they’ve been watching are anything to go off of, Johnson and Pelinka might have found what they’re seeking.
You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.