EL SEGUNDO, Calif. (AP) — Rob Pelinka says the Los Angeles Lakers aren’t trying to beat the Golden State Warriors at their own game.
Instead, they’re building a team around LeBron James to do something different.
Pelinka spoke publicly recently for the first time since the Lakers’ remarkable off-season overhaul began, and the irrepressibly optimistic former agent radiated excitement about the future for a team that hasn’t made the playoffs in five seasons.
“To get the commitment from LeBron James to come to the Lakers for four years was really the culmination of everything we’ve been working towards,” Pelinka said. “When LeBron chose to come here, it was the ultimate validation for the moves we’ve made and what we’ve been building since we started.”
The longest postseason drought in franchise history could be finished after James chose the Lakers in free agency. The club also added veterans Rajon Rondo, JaVale McGee and Lance Stephenson alongside their young core while parting ways with Julius Randle and Brook Lopez, among others.
Pelinka and top executive Magic Johnson hope the result is a sturdy, defense-minded team with enough up-tempo offense to trouble the Warriors, the Houston Rockets and every other contender for the title.
“I think to try to play the Warriors at their own game is a trap,” Pelinka said. “No one is going to beat them at their own game, so that is why we wanted to add these elements of defense and toughness and depth and try to look at areas where we will have an advantage.”
Pelinka said the Lakers focused their free agency recruitment efforts on versatile, playoff-tested talents who can score and defend, instead of looking for elite players with only one specialty. He hopes the result will be a flexible, dangerous team under coach Luke Walton — and a different look around James, whose Cleveland Cavaliers teams often looked like a collection of perimeter shooters whose deficiencies were exposed by Golden State and others.
Pelinka praised Rondo as a gritty guard whose championship pedigree will fill a void on the roster. He also described Stephenson as providing “an extreme toughness and an edge,” comparing his skills to Dennis Rodman’s contributions to Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, or Metta World Peace’s work with Kobe Bryant’s late-career Lakers.
“The road to the NBA championship has to go through the team that won last year, and we all know the guys up north have a special group,” Pelinka said. “But one of the ways to attack what they have is with defensive toughness. I think we saw that in the Houston series with some of the players that Houston has.”
Pelinka’s desire for flexibility extended to the payroll as well. After years of trading away draft picks and acquiring high-priced veterans in an effort to win now with Bryant, the Lakers were overextended until Pelinka and Johnson spent the past 16 months creating enough salary cap space to sign two elite free agents.
They only got one, although the Lakers still appear to be in contention for disgruntled San Antonio star Kawhi Leonard, who has a year left on his contract with the Spurs.
No matter what happens, Pelinka said the Lakers’ series of one-year contracts around James will put them in position to have ample cap space again next summer, when several stars could be available to join James.
Pelinka said the Lakers will have “an open training camp” in September, with only James guaranteed to be a starter. That means Rondo and second-year pro Lonzo Ball will compete to be Los Angeles’ starting point guard, a possibility that was welcomed by Rondo after he signed.
Pelinka also said Ball will be fully healthy for training camp. The point guard has a torn meniscus in his left knee.
Pelinka’s idiosyncrasies shone through again, with the GM beginning his news conference by reading a passage from Brazilian author Paulo Coelho’s “The Alchemist,” a book recommended to him by former client Bryant and carried by James throughout the playoffs. The passage describes the process of making a decision being “only the beginning of things.”
“Hopefully it will lead to things … happening that are bigger than our dreams could ever imagine,” Pelinka said.
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