The music coming through the speakers inside the Lakers’ facility was upbeat. The men about to sit in front of the team backdrop, Rob Pelinka and Darvin Ham, were smiling and joking as they sat down to unofficially start their team’s upcoming season.
Questions about their roster were minimal. There was no foundational trade on the horizon, the ripples from the Damian Lillard-Jrue Holiday trade shaking up the league around them.
Instead, the Lakers’ leaders were here Thursday, in some ways, to celebrate their summer plans, ones they executed relatively swiftly and drama-free.
Training camp opens Tuesday, one day after players will take their turns at the microphone during Monday’s media day. The team will enter the season not as the favorites in the league, but certainly among them after reaching the Western Conference finals.
“If you don’t have any expectations around you, you’re just existing,” Ham said. “I want to live. I came here for those expectations”
The excitement inside the Lakers’ practice gym has been building behind closed doors over the past month as the team has gathered for offseason workouts. This past weekend, LeBron James organized a minicamp in San Diego that had perfect attendance throughout the roster.
For James, the build to the season comes after his last public appearance as a Laker had him openly questioning his basketball mortality following the Lakers’ 4-0 loss to Denver in the West finals.
Pelinka, though, said he’s seen James’ fire re-lit this offseason.
“It’s staggering for a player who has 20 years under the hood already and is preparing for 21 like he’s a rookie,” Pelinka said. “He’s been doing 6 a.m. workouts. Probably been in our building as much as any player this offseason. Been in the weight room as much as any player. Any team LeBron’s played for, it’s been pretty uniform that his work sets the tone. There has been nothing but an increase in seeing that here. To me, it’s let’s be about it, let’s not talk about it. He’s definitely been about it this offseason. That really puts a spirit in our entire group to see him preparing that detailed and working that hard.”
Anthony Davis has also had a strong offseason, from a widening array of training methods like boxing to buzz about an improved jumper coming out of minicamp. Earlier this summer, he re-upped with the Lakers on a $186-million extension keeping him with the organization through the 2027-28 season.
“When AD came up for the extension, Darvin and I had great interactions with him. And the theme was, ‘We want to commit to you, but we want you to commit to us.’ And one of the aspects that we addressed with him in that exchange was becoming a leader and being the hardest worker, and he really did that this offseason,” Pelinka said. “… He’s taken on that leadership mantle and I think he knows that when the franchise invests in him, like we did this summer, he’s gonna return that. That’s just his character. That’s who Anthony Davis is. And we’re excited to see that.”
Ham removed some of the minor mystery heading into the season, anointing D’Angelo Russell and Austin Reaves as his starting backcourt. He said he expects the team to be at full health entering camp.
For Russell, it was a strong vote of confidence after the team moved him to the bench for their final game last season and signed point guard Gabe Vincent in unrestricted free agency.
Russell, himself a free agent this summer, re-signed with the Lakers on a two-year deal worth $36 million that contains a player option in the final season.
Prior to stumbling against the Nuggets in the conference finals, Russell had played well enough in the postseason after a good stretch following the Lakers’ trade for him midseason.
“We want to keep the bigger picture with him of (when he) came here, he impacted our season in a huge way, led us into the playoffs, beat the defending champions in the Warriors…I will say, his offseason has been quietly really impressive,” Pelinka said. “He’s really carried himself with confidence, spirit. He’s been a vocal leader on the court and kind of the workouts are going on with his teammates. It looks like he was very intentional too with taking care of his body and adding a little bit of shoulder strength. I think you guys will see he’s bumping guys off their line, getting into his fadeaway package. D’Angelo’s in a really good headspace.”
With Reaves, the anointing was more of a formality. After staying with the Lakers on a four-year, $54 million deal in restricted free agency, he became one of the top players for Team USA in the FIBA World Cup.
“I think Austin’s growth isn’t a surprise to any of us that really scouted him, drafted him and helped develop him to this point,” Pelinka said. “He uniquely has that sort of Mamba gene, where it’s all about the work, it’s about playing competitive on every play, it’s about being a great teammate, not caring about the personal accolades but just the team winning. He exemplifies that.”
Assuming Davis and James will also start — and that’s more than a fair assumption — the Lakers will enter camp with one spot in their first five available with Rui Hachimura, Taurean Prince and Jarred Vanderbilt all credible options.
“We’re going to tinker and entertain all sorts of different lineups,” Ham said.
One x-factor could be Christian Wood, the final player the Lakers added in free agency. Pelinka and Ham both talked about the lengthy recruitment, one that pushed back into July before Wood agreed earlier this month.
“Chris is a really articulate, very thoughtful kid. He thought deeply about the different opportunities he had. There were several contending teams that wanted to add him just because his skills are undeniable. (He) …can spread the floor. He’s got length. He moves fluidly. Just being down at LeBron’s little minicamp down in San Diego, seeing him on the court with Anthony Davis and just the length that those two have together. He’s a phenomenal talent.
“…I think Christian, more than anything, believed in our team, our talent, our group of guys, and then Darvin as the head coach. It was just a really positive process, and I’m super, super excited about the impact that he’s going to have on our winning this year.”
Ham said he and Wood have already spoken about taking his unique skills and using them to translate to more than just gaudy numbers.
“He’ll tell you he’s never been to the playoffs. And he and I talked and I said, ‘Now it’s time for you to show that your stats that you put up and your impact can impact winning and winning at the highest levels,” Ham said. “So, he’s excited about that. He’s excited and his teammates have totally embraced him and I’m looking for a lot of big moments out of him this season.”