El SEGUNDO, Calif. — Kyle Kuzma got the biggest laugh Friday’s Lakers Media Day by doing his best impression of his general manager when asked about the team’s goals this season.
“Just make the playoffs. That’s the first step, can’t talk about nothing else because this organization hasn’t been to the playoffs in years,” Kuzma said. “So I think that’s the goal. From there you take it day by day. You lay the brick, eventually you get a house.
“That was my Rob Pelinka metaphor, everybody,” Kuzma said, pausing for laughs. “It’s pretty damn good.”
Kuzma may have been playful in parodying the speaking style of Pelinka, but his point echoed throughout Media Day. The one common thread through management and players was that this is a team that cannot afford to skip steps en route to its eventual goal.
The Lakers may be one of the title favorites in a wide-open NBA landscape, and they acknowledge the level of expectations that comes with their talent level. Like Kuzma said, a title is a big jump from where the Lakers have been in recent years, and winning in June is merely the endgame of a season-long process that is just beginning. This is a very new team that is coming together for its first practice Saturday, and they can’t afford to look ahead until they get their ducks in a row now.
New head coach Frank Vogel put it best. “We have the ability to achieve the ultimate prize,” Vogel said. “Our focus will not be on that. Our focus will be on the moment.”
The Lakers were guilty of assuming success too early last season. The signing of LeBron James jumpstarted the franchise into thinking it was back among the upper echelon of the Western Conference, in spite of sporting a five-year playoff drought and mostly featuring players too young to rent a car. The dual aims of developing young talent and contending for the postseason never quite coalesced last year.
This year, the Lakers are trying to streamline their goals. They shipped out the majority of their young players (five 2017 and 2018 draft picks departed Los Angeles in the Anthony Davis trade) for Davis, and restocked the roster with seasoned veterans, prioritizing the present over the future. But even though they shortcut their rebuilding timeline to get to this point, the Lakers are still far from being a championship contender. All the experience in the world won’t mean anything if the disparate pieces can’t mold into a cohesive team.
Kuzma set his goal at making the playoffs. Pelinka and Vogel aren’t even looking that far ahead.
“Coach made it very, very clear in the film room just now that success for us is a great two-day practice tomorrow, that we optimize that practice, that we take this thing one day at a time and we lock into the process,” Pelinka said. “We’re not going to jump to June. We’re going to jump to tomorrow and make sure that we start the season off with two great practices.”
The level of organizational synergy was readily apparent when James repeated the same message during his time at the podium.
“We have to try to maximize each and every day, and that starts with tomorrow, our first day at practice, our first day of training camp and how we get better,” James said. “It’s going to be a process for us. We ultimately know what we our goal wants to become, but we can’t shortcut the process.
“If we come in every day, learn from our coaching staff, learn from each other and get to know one another — we have a new team, I know we have a few returning guys but I know we have a few guys that weren’t a part of the team last year — so chemistry, camaraderie and togetherness, and how fast we can become a team by not shortcutting the process is going to be our goal.”
The Lakers only have six holdovers from last year’s roster. Part of building a title team means building chemistry. The first step in that endeavor was a players-only minicamp in Vegas, an undertaking co-led by Davis and James.
Jared Dudley made it clear that the workouts in Vegas weren’t on the same level as what the team was already doing at the practice facility beforehand, but getting everyone together in one place to eat meals and talk helped team bonding, especially in a setting separate from coaches and members of the front office.
As for continuing to develop chemistry over the course of the season, the next step will likely come during the team’s preseason trip to China.
“For us, I think China is a big thing.” Dudley said. “During that 16-hour flight, you’re playing cards, you’re hanging out, you’re getting to know people, we’ve got a family picnic coming up here. I think you’ve got to like each other to play at a high level, and I think everyone knows the championship aspirations here.”
People around the NBA might disagree on likability being a necessary ingredient for a championship team, but there’s no denying the Lakers have a ton of players that James and Davis specifically like.
Quinn Cook got to know James when he played for the Canton Charge in the G League, and James made the effort to hype Cook throughout that year. Danny Green started his career in Cleveland as well alongside James. Rajon Rondo and DeMarcus Cousins were favorite teammates of Davis in New Orleans, and Rondo’s influence helped bring Avery Bradley into the fold.
Adjusting to nine new players will admittedly require a learning curve, but at least the Lakers have some familiarity to lean on during that journey. Rondo and JaVale McGee also believe that having six players on the other side of 30 gives the team a little built-in experience to ease that transition. The Lakers may not have the same upside as they did when they had a roster bursting with first-round draft picks, but in place of that, they have some stability and clarity.
“I think it was a positive change, no offense to the younger players that left, but it’s definitely positive; everyone knows their role and is comfortable in their role,” JaVale McGee said. “I feel like Rob did a good job, before signing players, to tell them exactly what they needed to do, what our goal was, and what we needed them to focus on.”
Even the younger players who lack that veteran institutional knowledge still have an understanding of the work it takes to become a successful NBA player. Cook, Alex Caruso, and Troy Daniels all spent meaningful time in the G League before making the NBA, and that gives them a deeper appreciation of what it means to take steps towards achieving an ultimate goal.
“Everything in those two years just kind of built up to this point,” Caruso said about being on a two-way contract since 2017. “Anybody who watched the end of last year versus the end of the first year could tell I was more comfortable. I knew I was just moving at a quicker pace, like I understood the game better, and it was just experience.”
Caruso is better is for having gone through those lumps, just like Cook learned from his opportunity playing in Santa Cruz, and Green was humbled by his detour in the G League. They’re all better for having gone through that process, and they’ve come out on the other side as superior players.
Even Jason Kidd has realized that his coaching journey didn’t go through the requisite progression for him to be a successful head coach at this time in his career.
“I love the fact that when I interviewed [Kidd], the discussion was along the lines of he felt like when he went from being a player to a head coach, he skipped steps; in terms of learning what the process is like being an assistant coach and the work that goes in and learning what the foundation is to coaching at this level,” Vogel said.
Clearly, there’s an understanding throughout the organization that there is a way to achieve success, and it takes time. After some missteps a year ago, the Lakers are preaching that there is more work in building a team. A roster doesn’t immediately come together. Championship teams are not born overnight.
For one day at least, the Lakers are employing measured expectations. We’ll see how long that lasts.