We know that Rob Pelinka can often sound like an old philosopher with his penchant for speaking through proverbs, but who knew he’d lean on Heraclitus’ aphorism of “The only constant in life is change” in his approach to roster construction.
In the four offseasons since Pelinka became a member of the Lakers’ front office (first working under Magic Johnson and now as the team’s top basketball decision maker) the Lakers have never brought back more than eight players who closed the season on the previous roster.
(As an aside, the fewest they’ve ever returned is three, which was last offseason, but I digress.)
Said another way, in an NBA where rosters are capped at 15 (and 17 if in you include 2-way deals), a Pelinka-run Lakers team is very likely to have roughly 50% of their team be brand new players who weren’t on the team the season before. To put it in even more stark terms, it was less than two calendar years ago that the Lakers won the NBA championship and now, after only two offseasons since claiming that title, only LeBron James and Anthony Davis remain from that team.
This degree of turnover is not ideal for a variety of reasons, but chief among them is the simple idea of how continuity helps create cohesion, which in turn helps foster the type of togetherness that title teams almost always possess. And in an NBA that is as talented as ever, it can often be these types of intangible traits that differentiate teams at the top from each other and create the margins that separate contenders from champions.
Which brings me back to this season’s Lakers and the need to conjure continuity and harvest chemistry from another group of mostly brand new players. Of the players who logged a single regular season minute for the Lakers last season (sorry Kendrick Nunn), only five are currently scheduled to return (LeBron, AD, Russ, Austin Reaves, and Wenyen Gabriel) — and that number could decrease depending on what happens with Russell Westbrook. Luckily for the Lakers, there is a pathway to accomplishing this and they only need to look back to that title-winning team as a guide.
The 2019-20 Lakers only returned six players from the previous season: LeBron, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Alex Caruso, Kyle Kuzma, Rajon Rondo, and JaVale McGee. The rest of the squad was brand new, reshaped after the trade for Anthony Davis gutted the rest of the team and created the need to fill out half a roster’s worth of players. In filling out that team — both in the free agency and then later via the buyout market — the there are clues as to what traits are important, particularly when balanced with the players who did return.
First and foremost, it’s important to acknowledge how meaningful LeBron is when dealing with these types of circumstances. His stature in the league already commands respect, but his specific brand of leadership that combines a positive and fun approach mixed with blunt accountability give his teams a massive head start in bringing a group together. Add this to his elite skill level and natural feel for the game and you have the right ingredients to build the type of foundation that can foster cohesiveness.
After LeBron, though, if the hope is to be able to build cohesion where there isn’t any naturally, I’d argue the next trait you need from the players that fill out the team is a “feel” for how to play (aka general basketball IQ). Offensively, there’s a number of things I look for in a player, but the basics are what I refer to as the holy trinity of feel: Do you know when to cut and how to space the floor? Do you know how and when to screen? Do you make the right reads as a passer?
If you can answer yes to these things, you’re well positioned to thrive on any high-level basketball team, but particularly one built around star players like LeBron and AD; players who both not only draw so much attention from defenses, but understand how to make plays for their teammates when that attention turns to pressure via collapsing defenders, extra pressure, and set rotations.
On the title-winning team, there were several players who could be described as possessing these traits (Caruso, Danny Green, and Rondo chief among them) and when examining the roster as it stands today, I see some real potential in a handful of others. In Austin Reaves, Troy Brown Jr., Juan Toscano-Anderson, and Patrick Beverley, I see four players who all have the requisite understanding of how to play the game and, in the case of Reaves, Toscano-Anderson, and Beverley, a true feel for how to function off of star players (I have high hopes for Brown in this area too, but need to see more before I’m convinced).
I trust that these players are (most of the time) going to make the simple play off of instinct rather than force the action when something is not there, that they’ll slip into the cracks of the defenses on a smart cut when their man starts to drift towards LeBron or AD, and that they’ll make the connective swing pass when the ball gets kicked to them and the defense is rushing at them in full rotation. I know that they’ll (again, mostly) lock in on the gameplan, play to their strengths, and bring more things to the table than they take off it.
Further, I believe that all four of these players will compete defensively, which is the other part of the equation that will be needed when trying to build chemistry and togetherness. In particular, this is where I think the swap of Talen Horton-Tucker for Beverley will be most felt and why, regardless of how one views the trade as a pure talent play, Pat Bev’s commitment to playing high-level defense individually and at the team level will be a true tone setter that helps the club set a foundation for what it will be on that end of the floor.
Do the Lakers need more of these players? Some reinforcements couldn’t hurt, for sure.
But, in looking at the group they do have, headlined by what is still arguably the NBA’s top duo in LeBron and AD, who are flanked by a quartet of two-way contributors around the perimeter, a guy like Nunn (who didn’t play last season but has a nice skill set on both sides of the floor), and energetic bigs who will play hard and make hustle plays, I think the team has several of the right ingredients to create the type of chemistry that could bely their newness as teammates.
And that is the exact type of change the team needs coming off their disappointing last season.