Rob Pelinka was smiling. Darvin Ham was laughing. For 40 minutes the Lakers basketball brass fielded questions from reporters. As Thursday’s pre-training camp press conference wound down, Pelinka indicated to a PR rep that they were ready to go 40 more.
“If there’s anyone that didn’t get to ask a question that wants to,” Pelinka said, “we want to make sure everyone has a chance.”
These are good times in Los Angeles. Happy times. Training camp opens on Monday and the Lakers are ready for it. There’s no roster imbalance. No first-year coach jitters. No brewing Russell Westbrook drama hanging over their heads. This was a team that went 16–7 after the All-Star break. That knocked off Memphis and Golden State in the playoffs.
Last year the Lakers talked about winning a championship.
This year they actually believe it.
And why not? On paper, the Lakers are loaded. “We’re two, three deep at every position,” said Ham. LeBron James is back. Pelinka said James, a noted gym rat, was “in the building as much as any player.” James will turn 39 in December. He is entering his 21st campaign. But he averaged 29 points in 36 minutes per game last season. There’s no reason to believe those numbers will significantly decline.
Anthony Davis has been around. Injury free this offseason, Davis has focused on his body. He has started cross-training and has been in the weight room with Lakers assistant Chris Jent. “As soon as he walks in the room, you can tell,” said Ham. He will start camp on Monday leaner, stronger, quicker and more explosive, Ham said. He signed a three-year, $168 million extension in the offseason and spent the summer seemingly determined to prove he’s worth it.
The supporting cast is good. Very good. At the end of last season, Pelinka emphasized the need for continuity. The Lakers had shaken up the roster every year since winning the 2020 title. This group needed time to jell. Austin Reaves, D’Angelo Russell and Rui Hachimura got new deals. Davis and Jarred Vanderbilt signed extensions. In free agency Pelinka nibbled on the fringes, bringing in Gabe Vincent, Taurean Prince and Cam Reddish to shore up the perimeter and taking flyers on Jaxson Hayes and Christian Wood for the front line.
“Not just going after star players,” said Ham. “But players that are starring in their roles.”
Said Pelinka, “We were very intentional about the versatility.”
Instead of taking big swings, the Lakers are betting on organic growth. They’re betting on Reaves, the 25-year-old guard who averaged 17.6 points after the All-Star break. Reaves, Pelinka says, has a “Mamba mentality,” a reference to Kobe Bryant, whom Pelinka represented for years as an agent. Reaves is even-keeled in a way the Lakers love. The attitude. The work ethic. The no-nonsense approach.
“He’s all about winning,” said Pelinka. “He doesn’t listen to the praise and get bigheaded. He doesn’t listen to the criticism and get down on himself. He’s just about the work.”
They’re betting on Russell. It’s easy to forget how well-traveled the 27-year-old is. The Lakers haven’t. Russell struggled in the conference finals, shooting 32.3% against Denver. But he shot 48.4% (including 41.4% from three) after being acquired from Minnesota. At his exit meeting, Pelinka likened Russell’s Lakers run to a two-week honeymoon, with 13 great days and one bad one at the finish. On Thursday, Ham named Russell his starting point guard.
They’re betting on Hachimura, who attached himself to James this offseason. “Bron calls him his ‘understudy,’” said Pelinka.” On Vanderbilt, a high-energy rebounder and defender. On Max Christie, a developing three-point shooter.
On Wood. There was little fanfare when the Lakers signed Wood to a two-year, $5.7 million deal this month. For the Lakers, though, it was a reward for weeks of work. Pelinka estimated he spoke to Wood’s agent “every other day for two months.” Ham, who coached Wood in Milwaukee, says he texted Wood directly nearly as much. Though defensively limited—O.K., very defensively limited—Wood is a career 38% three-point shooter and Ham is already envisioning a two-big lineup with Davis that will be tough to stop.
Plenty can go wrong. James could age. Davis could get hurt. Development could stall. For now, though, all is right in Lakers Land. Last season ended just eight wins shy of a championship. L.A. believes they have the roster that can get them there.
“There has to be a huge amount of work, patience, [and] it’s going to be a process,” Ham said. “We’re only going to go as far as our daily work takes us, and I’ll repeat it: We’re only going to go as far as our daily work takes us.”