As Darvin Ham and Rob Pelinka walked to their seats to wrap up the Lakers’ season that ended the night before, Pelinka turned to his team’s coach and looked to the future.
“Campaign No. 2 starts today,” he told Ham on Tuesday minutes before making clear that his vision for next season’s team looks a lot like the one he had for this season.
Before meeting with the bulk of the team, Pelinka said he viewed continuity as a high priority for the team this summer — a big list of prospective free agents in house that the Lakers will work to retain.
“I would say this resounding clear: Our intentions are to keep our core of young guys together,” Pelinka said. “… We have a lot of great young players. We want to do our best to fit the puzzle together. There’s, as you guys know, a new collective bargaining agreement now that has different components to it. We want to fit the puzzle together in a way that’ll help us compete for championships.”
LeBron James and Anthony Davis still appear to be at the center of that puzzle despite James’ musings about retirement after the Denver Nuggets completed their sweep of the Lakers on Monday night.
“Again, [we] want to respect LeBron’s time and space to continue to process what he needs to process. But LeBron and AD as two pillars is, to us, an unmatched combination that we’ll continue to lean into and build around,” Pelinka said. “Both incredibly high-character players that want to win and play the game the right way. We’re proud of that combination of superstars and want to continue to invest in that and invest in advancing the growth we had this year into next season.”
The Lakers met with Davis on Tuesday, and Pelinka said he and Ham would speak soon with James, who said after Monday night’s loss that he has “a lot to think about” regarding his basketball future.
The Lakers’ future, based on Pelinka’s comments Tuesday, could look a lot like this year’s Western Conference runners-up.
Austin Reaves, Rui Hachimura, D’Angelo Russell, Dennis Schroder and Lonnie Walker IV are among the long list of Lakers who are about to enter free agency.
Reaves’ free agency could be the most interesting, with the young guard expected to receive interest from the San Antonio Spurs, the Houston Rockets and the Utah Jazz, among other teams. The Lakers can offer Reaves a four-year deal worth about $51 million, while opposing teams can offer almost twice as much. The Lakers, though, can match any opposing offer because of Reaves’ restricted free agency.
“I mean, I want to be here,” Reaves said. “This feels like home to me.”
Two years after going undrafted, Reaves developed into the starting shooting guard for the Lakers during the playoffs, averaging 16.9 points, 4.4 rebounds and 4.6 assists. The Lakers are expected to offer Reaves the maximum they can per year in addition to being aggressive in matching any other team’s offer.
“Austin, in particular, had an incredible year. I think defines really what’s at the heart of playing for the Lakers,” Pelinka said. “He’s a selfless, team-first guy. He lives in the gym. He loves the big moment. He’s been able to meet the big moment. I think he’s a guy that, regardless of what his deal is, I don’t think it’s gonna change him as a person. And we’ll hang our hat on guys like that, that compete, love the game, love their teammates.
“I think we’re proud to have him as a part of this franchise. And again, without talking about specific players, we’ll do our best to keep this group intact and growing and getting better each year.”
Hachimura, whom the Lakers acquired by sending guard Kendrick Nunn and three second-round picks to the Washington Wizards ahead of the trade deadline this season, also will be a restricted free agent and a priority for the team.
“It was one of the best moments, and I think I had a good experience,” Hachimura said. “You know, I learned a lot of things from, of course, LeBron, AD, the coaches. … Yeah, it was just, it was great for me. I think it’s gonna be great for my career.”
Russell, who came off the bench for Game 4, said the role change in the playoff finale was tough but did little to shake his confidence or his desire to return to the Lakers as an unrestricted free agent this summer.
“Complete success. Honestly, it’s been a great time,” Russell said. “It’s been a great experience to come back and be in this position as prepared as I was, give myself a pat on the back for that one. Being able to just adjust and just get thrown into the fire with the team and try to figure it out on the fly and make it to the Western Conference finals, complete success. I really can’t complain about anything besides the ball going in when I wanted it to. But other than that, I enjoyed my time.”
Other players, such as Schroder, expressed interest in returning. Schroder, who played this season on a minimum deal, cited “unfinished business” for his return after he had a one-year exodus from the Lakers last season.
On Tuesday, he said he felt like he settled that.
“I tried to make it right, and I think we sure did. We had a hell of a season,” he said. “… We gave everything we have. I gave everything I have, and I think it was a great, great season.”
Malik Beasley, whom the Lakers acquired as part of their midseason shakeup, said he hopes something can be worked out. The team has an option on his $16.5-million contract that it can exercise. The Lakers also have non-guaranteed contracts for Jarred Vanderbilt and Mo Bamba.
The focus now shifts to the upcoming NBA draft before the Lakers plot their course in free agency, the positivity from this season serving as a launchpad into the second year of Ham’s and Pelinka’s partnership.
“We pivot from the growth and learning lessons of this season to now building towards next year. And making sure that, you know, our advancements continue,” Pelinka said. “But I think to me, it’s if you stay focused on that work, and you pour yourself into it, the results have come, and that’s where my head is.”