A day after the Lakers lost in the Conference Finals to the eventual champion Denver Nuggets, Rob Pelinka sat in front of the assembled media and spoke highly of — and with a general excitement — about the team and roster he reshaped at the trade deadline. The group did not accomplish what their ultimate goal was, but the level they did reach and the resiliency they showed to get as far as they did was admirable. And it was clear Rob, and the rest of the organization’s leadership by extension, was proud of what they did accomplish.
In looking forward to the offseason and his general plans towards building the 2023-24 Lakers, then, Pelinka was predictably (and understandably) bullish on building on the success this group of players achieved rather than turn the roster over as he had in so many of the offseasons prior. In response to a direct question about continuity and keeping (at least part of) this roster together, Pelinka did not hold back on how maintaining continuity could catapult this group forward.
“Keeping that continuity is going to be very important,” Pelinka said. “We ultimately got knocked out by a team that has great continuity. They’ve got a group of players that have been together for several seasons, and it shows in the way they play. That’s a high priority for us. We feel like we have a special group of players in the locker room who enjoy playing together. Darvin enjoys coaching them. We know there is more growth and improvement in that group, especially if we get a training camp together, so I’d say it’s a high priority to keep our core players together.”
As someone who has been somewhat frustrated with the yearly churn of players and (what has felt like a) constant shifting of supporting talent around LeBron James and Anthony Davis over the years, Pelinka’s comments were encouraging. Finding a group of players who can grow together and build the type of shared habits required of winning at the highest level is an important step that, I think, has been somewhat taken for granted in the aftermath of the 2019-20 campaign that saw a brand new roster mostly built in a single offseason go on to win the championship.
Needless to say, then, I’m looking forward to seeing a healthy portion of this group return and serve as the foundation for a roster that, hopefully, can take the next steps needed to go further in the playoffs than this team did.
That said, while continuity is important and I’m a major advocate for that approach — particularly when you already have a good roster as the Lakers do — it is important for Rob and the rest of the organization’s leaders to look at this group with a critical eye and understand that the steps taken to get the team to this place are a great start, but there is still much work to do.
In any given offseason, there are countless variables and considerations to take into account when determining the best path to build out a team you believe can win at the highest levels. From the draft to free agency to potential trades, the different opportunities available are countless. Pelinka, who himself has noted his penchant for having multiple plans and courses of action to account for the many different possibilities presented to build a team, must keep an open mind and ensure he’s not cutting any avenues off due to the potential for complications or because those paths will be harder to navigate.
For example, with the draft rapidly approaching, will the Lakers explore draft night deals? And not only of one or both of their picks that night, but ones that might include Malik Beasley and/or Mo Bamba? Their contract statuses for next season are controlled by the team and, thus, can be guaranteed/picked up in ways where they are trade eligible. Will they be willing to take on money in trades before free agency opens, even though it might impact their plans for how their July signings would ideally go?
Will he be willing be hard-capped by bringing in a player via sign-and-trade, using the non-taxpayer MLE, or using the bi-annual exception? While most teams, if at all possible (sorry, Warriors and Clippers), will try to avoid the second spending apron established in the new collective bargaining agreement like the plague, will Pelinka feel comfortable spending above that line in the short-term — understanding that there will be potential to make deals into the season that allow him to slip underneath it?
In the aftermath of the trade for Russell Westbrook, there was wide reporting — some of it coming directly from involved parties — of DeMar DeRozan’s interest in coming to the Lakers, even to the point that he believed a deal was done. A key impediment to that deal was that, because it would have been a sign and trade with the Spurs, the Lakers would have been hard capped after the trade. Whether this was the deal breaker or not, the resulting financial rigidity clearly played a part in not making that trade — and instead the team moved on to alternatives (both the Russ trade that was done and the rumored Kings deal for Buddy Hield) that had no such consequences of being hard capped.
Fast forwarding back to today, I am not reporting that Pelinka and/or the leadership of the Lakers want to avoid the hard cap, or that they see the 2nd apron as a financial barrier too burdensome to cross. But, I do believe this is true for most teams as the penalties and limitations that come from them are difficult to navigate, which inherently makes the job of the top basketball decision maker harder.
And I think my ultimate point is that while I understand taking this tack, I’m also hoping options like these are not removed off the table entirely, simply because they are more complicated paths to navigate — or because the consequences of those sorts of limitations make the front office’s life harder.
Rob Pelinka ensured his team could make wonderful strides this past year with several in-season trades; trades that put the Lakers back on the path towards contention. As the offseason begins, however, there is more work to do. And while the same group from this past season certainly can (and should) improve with more time together, and continuity should be valued, it cannot be valued above all else. The series against the Nuggets and their subsequent Finals matchup with the Heat was not just about the continuity of two teams, but about the superiority and playoff readiness of those rosters.
And the path to get the Lakers to that level mustn’t close off any avenues at this stage of team building.
You can follow Darius on Twitter at @forumbluegold.