Sitting with Maxwell Lewis and Jalen Hood-Schifino to his left in the center of the team’s El Segundo facility, Pelinka praised the duo’s character, their respect for the Lakers’ history and the team’s stars, and their short- and long-term potential.
“Super exciting day for us to try and introduce Jalen and Maxwell,” he said at the start of his comments. “Really, it’s the culmination of a lot of work by our scouting staff and by our front office to identify the top talent in the draft. … And came out of it with two players that we had ranked high in our first round.”
It’s what you do when you select players in the draft — you fly them into town, you say nice things about them and you pose for photos.
On Friday, Pelinka will preside over a more important event for the Lakers — the start of free agency — but from the sounds of things, it too is shaping up more as a formality than it ever has since the team added LeBron James in 2018.
Since then the roster has been in severe churn, first through a trade for Anthony Davis and later in an attempt to create another maximum-salary slot. The following summer, changes were made as the team tried to add talent in the hopes of repeating as champions.
After injuries derailed that plan, the Lakers pushed all-in for Russell Westbrook and a slew of veterans on one-year deals. And last summer, after considering multiple options with Westbrook, the team rebuilt itself around younger, higher-upside role players while bringing in a first-time head coach in Darvin Ham.
But after Pelinka changed the roster again — this time at the NBA trade deadline — the Lakers settled into a rhythm. And, as he has since the offseason began, Pelinka continued to say he wanted to recapture that.
“We’re at the doorstep of free agency,” Pelinka said Tuesday. “And we’ve been pretty clear since our last game with the success of making it to the Western Conference finals, we want to try our hardest to keep this core of guys together and also improve around the edges and on the margins to not only get back to where we were last year but hopefully take the next step and get into the NBA Finals.”
Pelinka called the roster — which featured major contributions from restricted free agents Austin Reaves and Rui Hachimura and unrestricted free agents D’Angelo Russell and Dennis Schroder — “proof of concept.”
“We saw defensively what we were able to do to finish the season out and I think defense and rebounding wins championships,” Pelinka said. “That’s the core of Darvin’s system and our identity. We want to lean into that. I think if there are ways that we can improve the roster, of course we are going to do that.”
Should the Lakers retain Reaves, Hachimura and Russell — the three highest-paid pending free agents the Lakers can exceed the salary cap to keep — the team would have to make decisions in regard to what comes next. Would the Lakers try to cut salary so they could have access to the full mid-level exception? That decision would give them a hard cap to operate under this season. Another option would be to go over the salary cap and use the taxpayer exception. The Lakers could also try to cook up a deal with Malik Beasley’s expiring contract, should they pick up the club option, and Mo Bamba’s non-guaranteed deal.
Generally speaking, Pelinka said next season, ideally, would look like the Lakers from last season.
You’d expect the public statements to be something like that — but that’s been the background noise connected to the team. Most NBA insiders expect the Lakers to focus in house when it comes to free agency. Re-signing Reaves and Hachimura are viewed as virtual locks, with the Lakers expected to do what it takes to keep them should they get offer sheets from other teams. And while Russell’s unrestricted free agency is viewed differently, NBA insiders generally believe that, at worst, his re-signing with the Lakers is likely.
“We’re going to try our best to match players with players that Coach wants to coach and that work in his system and I think that’s guys that play tough-minded basketball, that play defense, that play the game the right way and hold themselves accountable but fit within a team structure,” Pelinka said when asked about the team’s targets. “Don’t put themselves first, put other guys first, and that’s got to be our identity and it will be our identity. And I think when rosters really work, is when they reflect the personality of the head coach and those are archetypes and the things that we are for on July 1.”
Beasley’s and Bamba’s situations will be sorted out next, with the Lakers still working through scenarios. One scenario that won’t happen, according to people with knowledge of the situation not authorized to speak publicly, is Bamba’s guarantee date won’t change. That’ll still be Thursday, when the Lakers also have to make a decision on Beasley’s team option.
Following that, the pathway for the Lakers’ next steps has been publicly scripted.
“We say it all the time, but we have one singular goal, it’s to add the 18th banner and that’s our focus,” Pelinka said. “So, heading into the next couple of days, we’re going to do all we can to maximize that opportunity. And, yeah, [other] teams are going to be aggressive. There’s a lot of parity in the league right now and everyone smells an opportunity to chase a championship.
“But we’re going to try our best to stay in that pack or ahead of that pack.”
And it seems they believe building with the players that got them to the Western Conference finals last season is the best bet.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.