Entering the offseason, the Los Angeles Lakers appeared to have two primary goals: To trade for Anthony Davis, and sign another star — like Kawhi Leonard — in free agency.
The team managed to go one-for-two on those plans, but from the machinations it took just to get max cap space and all the variables that would have to go right, getting both done was always going to be a serious tightrope walk.
Like the best trapeze artists, though, Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka had a safety net. After getting the trade for Anthony Davis done, the Lakers prepared two different strategies.
“As we started our planning around July 1, we were incredibly excited that we could start with two of the top-five players in the NBA on our roster, and we felt like there were two strategic pathways, and we were confident in either of them,” Pelinka said on a conference call with reporters to discuss the offseason.
“One of the pathways is what I would call the ‘adding a third star path,’ and the alternative pathway would be the ‘building our roster depth’ pathway,” Pelinka continued. “We did a lot of strategic planning around both forks in the road and felt confident in going down either of those. Obviously the way things unfolded we ended up on the roster depth pathway, and we’re very confident and excited about that.”
Pelinka says that the reason the Lakers are so excited about their rapidly executed fallback plan is that they were able to fulfill their goal of “building a roster with versatility that had shooting, that had multiple defenders, players that had high basketball IQ and high character” while still keeping salary cap space open for 2021 so that they can rebuild around Anthony Davis.
Pelinka didn’t allude to this part in any way, but it’s probably worth mentioning that Giannis Antetokounmpo could enter unrestricted free agency in 2021.
Until then, though, the Lakers have a team that was almost entirely locked in over the 24 hours following Kawhi Leonard passing on them to sign with the LA Clippers. Teams can’t come to agreements with so many players so quickly without having laid the groundwork for deals beforehand, and that’s exactly what Pelinka says the Lakers did so they could avoid having to scramble.
“We had been in very close contact with players and their representatives, being prepared for either fork in the road, so once the decision was made by certain star players, we had everything lined up, and I think you can show that everything quickly went into place in terms of our strategic plan for the roster depth route,” Pelinka said. “All of that work was going on simultaneously.”
But just to get the cap space necessary to do that work was a process in and of itself, one that involved the Lakers needing to expand the original framework of the Davis trade. The team was eventually able to do so by convincing Davis to waive his trade kicker and sending Moe Wagner, Isaac Bonga and Jemerrio Jones to the Washington Wizards, but when the situation was still developing, there was some level of disagreement over whether or not the Lakers had understood they would need to expand the trade to get max cap space originally.
The Lakers had already made it clear anonymously that they thought that was “easily the dumbest” story of the summer, but Friday marked the first time Pelinka was asked directly about whether or not he knew from the get go that the Lakers would have to expand the original trade in order to get max cap space.
His five-minute, 700-plus-word answer touched on that, what he thinks of the Lakers’ new roster additions, and everything in between. Here it is in full, lightly edited for clarity:
”There was constant war-gaming about what we could have because there were multiple draft picks in the original iteration of the Pelicans’ draft, and it was very clear from the Pelicans’ front office that they did not want the fourth pick to be encumbered from a timing standpoint. Those picks have values if they’re traded, teams want to draft players, they want to hold press conferences, they want their players to participate in summer league, so that was just a non-starter in our discussions (with New Orleans). But we knew going back two or three months that there were certain players we added to our roster to be in a position where we could create maximum cap flexibility, and we did that. We’re really excited and pleased with how we used that space.
“If you look at the players we were able to add in free agency, just kind of going through guys, I’ll start 1-5, but if you look at our points, Quinn Cook has been an elite catch-and-shoot 3-point shooter. Obviously he’s had playoff moments on a championship contender. He’s high character, we’re really pleased with his ability to catch-and-shoot off of playmakers. Rondo obviously has had incredible success playing with both DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis. They swept Portland when they played together, and those three have proven to have chemistry together. And then keeping Caruso was big for us. He’s a tough-nosed defender that showed an ability to make shots, and retaining him was key.
“At the two, Danny Green is one of the most elite shooters in all the game who won a championship last year. Really excited just about the spacing he’s going to provide playing off of AD and LeBron. Avery Bradley is a tenacious defender. Danny Green was an all-defensive player, Avery Bradley has been and all-defensive player, I think just his ability to make corner threes and defend the perimeter, and also he can play at the one and the two and really guard three positions on the perimeter.
“The last guy on that two position is Troy Daniels who is just an elite, elite shooter for us. and then if you look at other wing players, LeBron I don’t need to cover, but KCP, we love his three-and-D mentality. He finished the season for us really strong last year, and there are some teams that have elite perimeter combinations. If you think about Portland, I guess now Houston, Golden State. To have guys like Avery Bradley, KCP and Danny Green to lock down the perimeter and chase guards off screens, we’re really excited about that defensive versatility that we have for coach Vogel.
“At the big positions we have AD and Kuz, obviously don’t need to say much there, you guys know them. And Jared Dudley as a free agent signing, just a high-IQ player that can hit open shots, he’s a great cutter, he just brings a level of professionalism to the locker room. Just a great teammate, really excited about him. And we feel like JaVale McGee and DeMarcus Cousins are such complimentary bigs.
“In terms of JaVale, just being an elite rim-roller, rim-protector, had a great year for us, just changes the geometry of the defense in the paint. And then DeMarcus Cousins, we just couldn’t be more excited about adding him, a player that can pass from the perimeter, can make threes, is a big body that can bang and score in the low post. And just in our conversations with DeMarcus, he seems more motivated than he’s ever been, I think, coming off last year with having the injury in the playoffs.
“If you didn’t know, we hired Judy Seto, our Director of Sports Performance. Obviously she has a reputation as being one of the very best in the game, and just being able to have her and her team around players like DeMarcus to bring them back to being the best version of themselves, we’re extremely excited about it. So having the cap flexibility and being grateful for Anthony’s sacrifice for the team in waiving his trade kicker and being able to add and use that space to have a deep roster, we’re really, really feeling confident about that.”
Suffice it to say, Pelinka is pretty thrilled with the Lakers’ offseason. Their top plan of signing Leonard may have fallen through, but the team is excited about the contingency they were able to execute, and the rapidness with which they did so should offer at least some hope that this front office is a bit better at planning than their reputation in some circles would suggest.
All quotes obtained firsthand. For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.