The Lakers’ defense of their 2020 NBA title fell well short of expectations. And because of that, GM Rob Pelinka is looking to retool the roster.
In his exit interview following the Lakers’ season, Pelinka discussed the vision that he and owner Jeanie Buss have for the Lakers. Their focus? To “smartly build” a championship-caliber roster.
“Jeanie and the ownership group has empowered the front office to do one thing and that’s to smartly build a roster to win championships,” Pelinka said. “That’s been the hallmark of this team since Dr. Buss acquired it, and continues to be today. Clearly, all 30 NBA teams are confined by a salary cap, so we’ve got to be really smart with how we put all the puzzle pieces together, but there is only one goal, and it’s doing it smartly to have a championship-caliber team.
“I think next year, of course, hopefully with all of our fans being able to come back and be a part of the building, we owe them the work to start the process of retooling and having a championship-caliber team that can do special things next year, and that’s the driving passion and there’s alignment there between Jeanie, the front office, the coaches and our players that that will always be the goal.”
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This certainly seems like a good approach for the Lakers to take. They don’t have to get overly aggressive in their pursuit of another title. After all, they still have LeBron James and Anthony Davis on their squad. James missed 27 games and Davis missed 36 during the 72-game season, which ended with the Lakers at 42-30 and seeded No. 7 in the West.
The Lakers have an opportunity to reshape the roster around James and Davis. The Lakers have only five players on the team with guaranteed contracts for the 2021-22 season: James, Davis, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma and Marc Gasol. Montrezl Harrell has a player option worth just under $10 million while Alfonzo McKinnie’s $1.9 million contract is non-guaranteed.
That leaves the Lakers with a lot of potential roster spots and thus, a lot of opportunities to bring in new veterans to fit around James and Davis as they look to mesh better than the 2020-21 squad did.
That said, Pelinka sounds comfortable trying to bring back at least some of the “core group of players” that the Lakers have.
“In terms of free agency, again, we feel like we have a core group of players that can do special things,” Pelinka said. “And I’m convinced that, again, without some of the unforeseen circumstances this year, the challenges that we had to face, that we’d be a championship-caliber team, so the goal is to try and keep that core group together.
“And, of course, with players like Talen Horton-Tucker, and Alex Caruso, and Kyle Kuzma — players that you draft or bring into your two-way system and groom and develop — there’s a level of pride in that, and what the Lakers have been able to do with those players to grow them. So of course our intentions would be to keep our core together, and to have a championship team.”
The Lakers could bring back players like Horton-Tucker and Caruso to keep some continuity while shoring up areas of weakness with outside help. That may be the smartest way for Pelinka to build the team, especially considering that Los Angeles struggled down the stretch largely because of injuries to James and Davis.
Soon, we’ll see what the Lakers will do, but one thing is certain. Another appearance in the play-in tournament as the No. 7 seed in the West and subsequent first-round loss won’t cut it.