The Lakers had a relatively easy march to the 2020 NBA title. It may not have felt that way in the moment, as the team went down in each of the first two series and had difficult stretches in the conference finals and NBA Finals, but looking back, the Lakers weren’t significantly challenged. They ended the season as a convincing champion.
There might have been an inclination to run it back after a dominant playoff run, but the Lakers don’t see things that way. General manager Rob Pelinka made it clear in his media availability on Thursday that the organization is still significantly interested in improving the roster, and that the Lakers will not allow the danger of complacency to creep in. In a related turn of events, he waived Quinn Cook 10 minutes after the call was over.
Pelinka’s philosophy is clear: Winning one title doesn’t mean the Lakers are assured of another one, and they have to put in the work to maintain their status as favorites heading into the 2020-21 season.
The first step in that roster improvement was adding Dennis Schröder to the team’s backcourt rotation. Pelinka noted that the Lakers wanted someone who would fit within their defensive ethos — much like Danny Green did — while also providing a necessary upgrade as a creator. Schröder may be more recognized for his offense after averaging at least 18 points per game in three of the last four seasons, but he came into the league with a defensive reputation. Like many of his new Laker teammates, Schröder is incredibly long, with a 6’8 wingspan allowing him to be active in the passing lanes despite being relatively small.
Schröder has also been a bit of an antagonist in his NBA career. It might not even be a stretch to call him an outright instigator, because he’s been known to mix it up. Schröder got in Anthony Davis’ face during the regular season last year, and he was involved in multiple scuffles in OKC’s first-round playoff series against the Rockets. He plays with a certain edge, another quality that fits right in with the Lakers.
“I think one of the core identities of our team is I felt like we played incredibly tough, competitive, gritty, defensive-focused basketball, and you know that’s really at the core of how Dennis plays,” Pelinka said Thursday. “In canvassing and doing research around a player like him, it comes back that Dennis is a player that other teams hate to play against, but his teammates love to play with because he has that kind of nasty tenacity and grit, and that’s really at the center of how we play.”
Another key Schröder trait that Pelinka highlighted was his youth. Schröder is only 27. The Lakers certainly want to repeat as champions, but they’re interested in remaining “nimble”, as Pelinka put it. They want to keep their window open as long as possible.
“I do think keeping our ability to add great young players to our core to the future is something that makes a lot of sense, because we don’t just look at this as a one or two year window,” Pelinka said. “We want to stay competitive for the long term, and make decisions that allow us to do just that, and not just shoot all of our bullets to try to defend for one year. We want to be in a position of being sustainable contenders. We’ll operate the cap in a way to be to be smart and thoughtful around that.”
That’s why the Schröder trade isn’t the last move the Lakers plan on making this offseason. Pelinka said the Lakers would like to keep as much of their core as possible, considering their chemistry was the reason they were able to withstand the “Lord of the Flies experiences” they had in the bubble, but they will always look for ways to improve or address needs.
The condensed offseason has expedited the timeline to address those needs — free agency begins on Friday, and Pelinka didn’t even know which cap exceptions the Lakers would have because he was still waiting on players to make their option decisions (JaVale McGee made his shortly after Pelinka hung up, and Avery Bradley’s came not long after that). Those time constraints have made it challenging for Pelinka to pursue his other interests; he had to crowdsource opinions on the new Barack Obama memoir during the media Zoom because he hasn’t yet had the opportunity to dig into it. Unfortunately for him, neither had any of us. He said to text him if we got a chance to read and let him know what we think, though.
But despite the short turnaround before next season, the front office doesn’t feel unprepared. The Lakers have been gearing up free agency for months, just waiting on the NBA to announce the dates. However, they do have to constantly update their plans because of the ever-changing landscape of the NBA.
“I think we try to stay as fluid to a process as we can and not sort of pinning ourselves with binary decisions like that was our bold move or that wasn’t, just staying fluid because you know how this business is,” Pelinka said. “The NBA seems to turn over every couple days with opportunities. One trade sets off a chain reaction where all of a sudden, others could become available, so I would say that we try to stay fluid to that, really not putting ourselves in a corner.”
One way the shortened schedule will affect the Lakers’ planning is in their approach with LeBron James. James appears to defy age and there is no one in the better at maintaining his body, but Pelinka said there’s a “balancing act” for how hard James can go during the offseason and regular season while still being able to peak in the playoffs.
Those decisions about when to rest or not will mostly come down to James, who has already joked about cherry-picking for the first month of the season, but both parties have the big picture in mind. The Lakers don’t feel the need to improve a regular-season team — they want to improve as a championship contender. That might mean pacing a little more than usual, and certainly more than last season, as James and the rest of the Lakers ramp up.
That’s probably why Pelinka and the front office had to set a goal of upgrading the roster this offseason. Had they let the same team come back and laze through the regular season, they may not have been able to harness that same competitive spirit as in the 2020 postseason run after months of having the switch flipped off. But little tweaks like bringing in Schröder can give the Lakers the necessary jolt they need during the regular season while still keeping the team fresh for the playoffs. It’s a delicate needle to thread, but Pelinka and his crew have embraced the challenge.
“I think we’ll just stay kind of methodical in our approach and trying to get better,” he said. “Our ultimate goal for the 2020-21 season is of course to defend the title, and we want to put in the work.”