Editor’s note: This is the Friday Sept. 24 edition of the Purple & Bold Lakers newsletter from reporter Kyle Goon. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.
Two years ago, a championship season started in the desert.
Led by LeBron James, the Lakers got together in Las Vegas for a player-led minicamp, a session more about creating elusive chemistry than about any basketball tactics. Players from the 2019-20 roster described it as something that came naturally: They were veterans with the same goals in mind, and off the court, they barely skipped a beat.
That the Lakers are again in Las Vegas should tell you what James and company are looking for, with a largely remade and even older roster. There’s an effort to recreate the lockstep alignment of that title-winning team, if not a quest to recapture it. That’s seen in the offseason workouts, which have been plastered over players’ social media accounts, but more importantly, the evidence of that search is in the fabric of the roster itself – the decisions the Lakers made on who to keep and who to chase.
This season, personality and experience matter to the Lakers as much as basketball fit. And looking at some of the offseason decisions the front office has made, maybe those factors matter even more.
“The guiding word for us was ‘mindset,’” general manager Rob Pelinka said Thursday. “What is the mindset of a player coming in here to be on this Lakers roster? And there is a really firm belief in each of these guys, and their ability to have the right mindset where there are those characteristics of ‘Hey, this isn’t all about me. This is about getting the 18th title.’”
Critics of the Lakers’ offseason have fussed over the age of the roster: The Lakers average at least 10 years in the league, and the team has more players born in the 1980s (nine) than any other team in the league. But experience became something the Lakers value more after last season, when their role players looked disconnected and overmatched in the first round of the playoffs after Anthony Davis was shelved by injury.
The season was a hard one: Several people from the 2020-21 team said it was a more difficult slog than being sequestered three months in the NBA Bubble. Injuries made the second half of the season an uphill battle, straining chemistry issues between teammates, coaches and staff. By June, the Lakers’ final two blowout losses to Phoenix were a measurement not only of how banged up the team was, but of the bonds that had fractured – or maybe never formed in the first place.
It’s extremely telling that many of the team’s celebrated acquisitions from last season are now gone: Dennis Schröder, who declined to entertain deep discussions of an extension and later came to regret it; Montrezl Harrell, who faded down the stretch and was evidently disgruntled with his diminished role in the playoffs; Andre Drummond, who was seen as a buyout market coup but was removed from the rotation by Game 6. They failed to find their niche on the court, but just as critically, they never ingrained themselves into the fabric of the locker room. It might be best understood, not as personal shortcomings, but a team failure.
It could be that the Lakers – beset by injuries, COVID-19 restrictions and other strangeness of last season – never really had a chance to build chemistry. The front office felt that it never got to see what the roster could be. But even so, the Lakers weren’t excited enough about that team to run it back.
Contrast that roster philosophy with what the Lakers have done in recent months. In trading for Russell Westbrook, the front office gave James another superstar with whom he was eager to play. Their friendship goes back years, and they were known to socialize in the bubble before the Lakers eliminated Westbrook’s Rockets. James and Westbrook have signaled just how tight they are, posting pictures from multiple workouts together this summer. While on-court fit remains a question, there’s no doubt that they see eye-to-eye in a number of important ways.
Around the stars, the Lakers have worked to assemble vets they know will be solid in the locker room: While Carmelo Anthony and Trevor Ariza will not be the players they once were, they come in knowing their roles and the goals of the team well. Wayne Ellington and Kent Bazemore will be jockeying with each other for minutes, but whoever comes out on the short end of that position battle is unlikely to let that discontent fester.
The Dwight Howard and Rajon Rondo acquisitions are examples of the Lakers very literally trying to recreate the past: Though Howard’s cornball humor can cause eyes to roll, he has a buoyancy and energy that was missed last season, and Rondo’s understanding of the game has earned him an undying reverence among the coaching staff. While both are getting on in years, the returning players and staff from the title team were delighted to get both back.
Perhaps the most demonstrative case of personality over basketball fit is the decision the Lakers made to bring in DeAndre Jordan instead of returning Marc Gasol. While Gasol told reporters in the summer that he planned to return, multiple sources told Southern California News Group that he wasn’t sure he’d be willing to play another NBA season as early as the Lakers’ playoff exit. Gasol entertained doubt well into the offseason, at which point the Lakers decided to go with Jordan, saving money off their luxury tax and ensuring they’d bring in a veteran who was definitely motivated to try to win a ring.
On paper, Jordan does not fit the Lakers as well as Gasol does. The coaching staff expected Davis would play more center during the regular season this year, but Jordan’s addition signals a return to the two-big formations of the 2019-20 season, as Pelinka confirmed on Thursday. Even with two bigs, Gasol’s 3-point shooting and capable (if not agile) defense was a better basketball arrangement to create space for Davis than Jordan’s rim-running and shot-blocking skillset (which has diminished in recent years). A person in the Lakers organization acknowledged that Gasol would be useful piece for the upcoming season, but also told SCNG: “We need guys that are fully bought in.”
And that’s the rub: When training camp officially opens next week, the Lakers want full alignment. They want a gym full of players who not only are rowing in the same direction, but believe in the direction they’re rowing in. It can be argued that opting for Westbrook, getting older and cutting bait with some of the younger talent is a gamble – but in this gamble, self-belief matters.
“You can just feel it,” Pelinka said. “It’s a very, very serious group of players that are very locked into what they want to accomplish. And I think some of the players are in a stage in their career where, I mean, Melo said it publicly and said it really well the other day, like, ‘Hey, I almost felt like maybe I was gonna walk away from the game without really having a chance for a championship. But now I do. And I’m not going to hold that lightly. I’m going to embrace that. And I’m going to make the most of it.’”
Whether or not you, as a fan or observer, buy in to the Lakers is somewhat immaterial. This offseason, the franchise determined what’s most important is that the Lakers buy into themselves.
– Kyle Goon
Editor’s note: Thanks for reading the Purple & Bold Lakers newsletter from reporter Kyle Goon. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.