Frank Vogel talks to the media frequently during the season, basically every day, but it’s normally about micro topics surrounding whatever is happening with the Lakers that week. His boss, Lakers vice president of basketball operations and general manager Rob Pelinka, talks to the press far less often.
On Friday, both men were made available to talk about the Lakers’ offseason, and the resulting availability was a window into how they see the Lakers’ current situation and the future of the team in the larger picture. Let’s get into a few of the common things that stood out.
They feel like they got better this offseason
Both Pelinka and Vogel were both careful to try and strike a balance with how they talked about this. Their excitement for the upgrades they made in free agency was palpable, but they also just won a championship, and clearly wanted to show deference to the players that aren’t here anymore that helped them get there.
“Other teams always want your players when you win, so there’s always competition to keep your core guys around,” Vogel said. “These are always very, very extremely difficult decisions to make.”
Pelinka, as he is wont to do, made a slightly more colorful analogy. He thanked all the players who left, saying that Rajon Rondo, JaVale McGee, Avery Bradley, Dwight Howard and Danny Green “will be etched in the history of this franchise forever,” and then said he recently finished the TV series “The Queen’s Gambit” on Netflix, and that free agency was fairly similar to the chess on display in that show.
“Free agency is a little bit like playing a game of simultaneous chess with 29 other teams. And they’re all really smart and they have their plans and their boards, and they’re going to make their moves, and we’ve thought out our various chess moves that we can make, and you never know exactly how the game is going to be played out,” Pelinka said.
The way it played out for the Lakers is with (on paper) clear upgrades. Montrezl Harrell and Dennis Schröder will give the team more scoring punch, while Marc Gasol and Wesley Matthews seem primed to mostly replace Howard, McGee and Green. Vogel and Pelinka obviously weren’t so explicit about saying so, but reading between the lines — and seeing Vogel’s ear-to-ear smile while discussing their new additions — it’s easy to see that they’re psyched that a team that just ran roughshod all over their postseason opponents is primed to be even better.
“I think we made some changes but largely have our core back and I’m excited about that. Each guy that is coming in here to be a Laker brings something that has me very excited about how that’s going to help this year’s team hopefully (make us) even better than we were last year,” Vogel said.
In other words: He knows the most important players are back — more on that in a bit — and feels like the team can be better. For a coach that plays things as close to the vest as Vogel to even admit as much before a game is even played is a signal he really believes it to be true.
They know repeating will be hard
The Lakers might feel like they’re better, but they also know the road back up the mountain won’t be easy.
“One of the hardest things to do in all of sports is defending a title, and I think in talking with the 15 players that are on our roster, everybody recognizes just how difficult it is to summit twice in a row. It’s a whole separate set of challenges, it’s very different than winning the title after 10 years, which is what we experienced last year,” Pelinka said.
“The bullseye is going to be bigger than it was last year, and our guys played longer than everybody else did last year, and have a shorter offseason,” Vogel added. “This is going to be a more difficult run for us than last year’s season was, even though last season was very challenging as well.”
Still, both Vogel and Pelinka think this group is as ready for the challenge as they reasonably could be because of the hard-edged personality they brought last year, an edge they think their free agent additions will only augment.
“I think we’ve got a lot of really passionate guys, and a lot of really high-IQ basketball players, so I don’t think there is going to be any lack of energy and intensity. I kind of felt it in the building with our individual workouts,” Pelinka said, specifically adding that Harrell is so intense that it feels like all of the lights in the building get brighter when he enters as a result of the sheer force of his personality.
“He’s a terror and a beast to play against. The energy he brings, it’s palpable in the building already,” Pelinka said. “The electricity in the building just spikes.”
That’s good news, because Vogel thinks the same mentality the Lakers brought last year is something they’ll have to do again as they try to repeat.
“I think the disposition, the edginess, chip on your shoulder are going to be necessary for competing in the regular season and setting a tone for who we’re going to be and what our identity is going to look like,” Vogel said. “The identity of what and who we were last season has got to be repeated. The defensive mindset, that’s got to be the first message on day one of camp. And togetherness, sharing the basketball and selflessness. Those two things were pillars for us last year, and that will have to be the same for this year.
“I think we picked that up and adapted that identity right away last year. We must do the same again. This is part of the formula for us to win a championship is being a team that on a daily basis plays harder than our opponent every night, and plays more physical. The guys that we’ve brought in here are nasty dudes,” Vogel continued. “When you look at Marc’s physicality, and Trezz, and Dennis at the guard position carries a nasty disposition, Wes Matthews, these guys are all nasty, physical dudes that have that sort of edge to them, (so) I think they’ll embrace it right away, and obviously the group that’s returning knows the value in what we created last year, and hopefully we’ll establish that early on.”
A defining characteristic of the Lakers' identity last season was that they cared and brought it every single night. Can that continue during an expedited regular season that starts just two months after they won the title?— NBA INSIDER HARRISON FAIGEN (@hmfaigen) December 5, 2020
Frank Vogel thinks so. pic.twitter.com/XJNYHzowdw
“I think this team is excited to play,” Pelinka added. “Guys understand the gravity around that and just how big of a challenge that is, and I think they’re up for that, excited to take on that challenge and really just excited to get to work.”
They’re excited for internal competition and depth
Part of what will provide the chippiness that Vogel and Pelinka agree is necessary will be the competition for roles and minutes on an incredibly deep team. Some might be worried about the locker room dynamics things like Schröder saying he expects to start despite that decision not being made yet could create, but Vogel says that such self-belief is one of the things that most excites him about Schröder.
“I welcome his input on that, and obviously those things are going to play out through camp. He’ll receive strong consideration for that (starting role),” Vogel said, repeating the “strong consideration” line multiple times throughout the 20-plus minutes he spoke. But while he may not be ready to commit to Schröder starting yet, he made it clear he’s a gigantic fan of his game.
“I do know that he’s going to be one of our most important players and a big-minutes player for us,” Vogel said. “I love his edge that he plays with. The demeanor, the nasty competitor side of him is something you hate playing against but love when it’s on your team.
“I’m thrilled about him. He’s one of the fastest guys in the league. We were a great fast-breaking team last year, so I think he’s only going to add to what we do in that regard. I’ve always called him ‘The Speeding Bullet’ when we played against him. Like ‘OK, what are we going to do about The Speeding Bullet? How are we going to slow him down?’ I’m just thrilled to have him,” Vogel continued. “There are probably very few coaches in the league that are bigger fans of his game than I am, and I’m just excited that we were able to have this trade happen and bring him into the Lakers’ purple and gold.”
Vogel demurred on all similar questions about role throughout the day. He knows this team has more guys that can play than there will be minutes available.
“I feel like both (Gasol and Harrell) are obviously starter-level players. Marc having been a starter his whole career, Trezz having been a Sixth Man of the Year type of role, you play starter minutes in the role that he’s played in the past, so both of those guys have that ability,” Vogel said. “But we also know that AD playing the five alongside Markieff Morris won us a championship last year, so there’s basically a lot of different ways we can go with this.”
It’s interesting — and potentially notable — to hear Vogel credit that Morris/Davis frontcourt as the key to their championship, and that could reveal who he sees as their most important pairing at the four and five, but again, he continually emphasized that final decisions about roles won’t be made yet. Just like last year, he’ll adjust throughout the year as necessary.
“We’re gonna see how these guys fit alongside one another. Watching them play together and seeing how the combinations work is the biggest factor in these types of decisions, and we haven’t seen any of that yet,” Vogel said.
Vogel also said that part of his job as he makes these decisions is to have “conversations with these guys and what roles they’re going to be most comfortable in” during training camp, and that those conversations still have to be had.
“I really take pride as a head coach in making sure that I hear the player, whatever player you’re dealing with, and what role is important to them and for me to try and create that role for them. Because if they feel good about their role, they’re going to run through a wall,” Vogel said.
The Lakers created that type of environment last year, and the two keys to doing so are also back with the team, which is both great news and was also a big topic of the day because...
They know LeBron and AD will keep them good for a long, long time
LeBron James and Anthony Davis both committing to the franchise long-term is something that might have had Pelinka and Vogel more excited than anything else they discussed, and for good reason. Vogel called them “the cornerstones of our franchise” and added that “everything is going to be built around them” moving forward. Pelinka, again, was slightly more effusive while discussing what their commitments meant to him.
“I think probably the word ‘trust,’” Pelinka said when asked what came to mind after getting those contracts done. “AD and LeBron share a common quality with us in just being about the work and trusting the work, and I think yesterday when we got the commitment from both of those players, it was a great day that was defined by the trust we’ve built in the relationships with those guys, and just really an exciting day for Lakers Nation and the fans that those two pillars of the franchise will be with us for a long time. It’s a great moment.”
And while some franchises might be concerned about committing so much cap space to a player who will turn 36 this season and be 39 by the time his contract is over, Pelinka knows that James is not a normal player. He thinks he can age as well or better than any star before him.
“The way that LeBron plays is just so rare,” Pelinka said. “LeBron’s game is not at all just built on athleticism. His game is built on IQ, strength, just his size and his experiences, I think that he’s going to continue to — because of those gifts — he’s going to continue to be a dominant player well beyond what maybe the regular or ordinary NBA player would do.
“So it wasn’t even a debate for us, it was something that was very clear, and we think he’s going to be effective and provide extraordinary value for every year he decides to play as a Laker,” Pelinka continued. “What was especially satisfying and exciting about this is that I think now you can see with the legacy he’s establishing as a Laker that his greatness will be defined here, and I’m sure he’ll hang many jerseys someday, but we hope one of those will be a Lakers jersey.”
And whenever James does decide to hang it up, the Lakers have now ensured that they’ll have a special player ready to take over the reins in Davis.
“I think he made an incredible commitment to the franchise by choosing to sign a five-year contract, and part of that was his statement to the rest of the NBA that ‘this is my team,’” Pelinka said. “When you make a statement like that, that is a leadership act. And I think combined with how dominant he was in the bubble, I think he’s arguably one of the most dominant two-way players, just the way that he impacts the game at both ends and how complete he’s become on offense is extraordinary. So I think his act of signing was a big leadership statement right there.”
Between those two players, the Lakers are in a much better spot than they were when Pelinka joined the organization just over three seasons ago, and especially so after his full year being fully empowered after the departure of Magic Johnson. But when he was asked what he’s improved at over that time or where he feels he’s grown, he said that was a better question for his co-workers — and he, as Vogel and the stars also often do, thanked the brain trust of team governor Jeanie Buss and executive director of special projects Linda Rambis specifically — but the main thing that he says has grown is how much he appreciates the position he’s in.
“I’m just grateful to have been a part of this for three years,” Pelinka said. “I think Dr. Buss is part of the core of who we are, and we want to carry forward his vision for this franchise by having great players here, being a contender and a team that works hard and tries to deliver to the fans every ounce of energy we have, and I’m just grateful for the opportunity to work in a place like this.”
After the offseason he just put together, it’s a fair guess that the Lakers are just as grateful to have him.