We know that Rob Pelinka can often sound like an old philosopher with his penchant for speaking through proverbs, but who knew he’d rely on Heraclitus’ aphorism “The only constant in life is change” in his approach to list building.
In the four offseasons since Pelinka became a member of the Lakers’ front office (working first under Magic Johnson and now as the team’s primary basketball decision maker), the Lakers have never brought back more than eight players who closed the season on the previous list.
(By the way, the least they’ve ever returned is three, which was the last offseason, but I digress.)
That is, in an NBA where rosters are capped at 15 (and 17 if you include 2-way deals), a Lakers team led by Pelinka is very likely to have around 50% of their team made up of new players who weren’t in the team the previous season. To put it even more clearly, less than two calendar years ago the Lakers won the NBA championship and now, after only two offseasons since winning that title, only LeBron James and Anthony Davis remain on that team.
This degree of turnover is not ideal for a variety of reasons, but chief among them is the simple idea of how continuity helps create cohesion, which in turn helps foster the kind of togetherness that title teams almost always own. And in a still-talented NBA, it’s often these types of intangible traits that differentiate teams at the top from each other. and create the margins that separate contenders from champions.
Which brings me back to this season’s Lakers and the need to evoke continuity and harvest chemistry from another group of mostly brand-new players. Of the players who logged a single regular season minute for the Lakers last season (sorry Kendrick Nunn), only five are currently scheduled to return (LeBron, AD, Russ, Austin Reaves and Wenyen Gabriel) – and that number could go down depending on what happens with Russell Westbrook. Luckily for the Lakers, there is a path to get there, and they just have to look to this title-winning team as a guide.
The 2019-20 Lakers only fired six players from the previous season: LeBron, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Alex Caruso, Kyle Kuzma, Rajon Rondo and JaVale McGee. The rest of the team was brand new, remodeled after the Anthony Davis trade gutted the rest of the team and created the need to fill half a roster. By filling out this squad – both in free agency and then later via the buyout market – there are clues to which traits are important, especially when balanced with returning players.
Above all, it is important to recognize how significant LeBron is in the face of these types of circumstances. His stature in the league already inspires respect, but his specific brand of leadership that combines a positive, fun approach mixed with direct accountability gives his teams a massive head start in bringing a group together. Add to that his elite skill level and natural sense of play and you have the right ingredients to build the kind of foundation that can foster cohesion.
After LeBron, however, if the hope is to be able to build cohesion where there is none naturally, I would say that the next trait you need from players who complete the team is a “feel” of the way to play (aka general basketball IQ). Offensively there are a number of things I look for in a player, but the basics are what I call the holy trinity of feel: do you know when to cut and how to space the ground? Do you know how and when to test? Are you doing the right readings as a setter?
If you can answer yes to these questions, you’re well positioned to thrive on any top basketball team, but especially one built around star players like LeBron and AD; players who not only get so much attention from defenses, but understand how to make plays for their teammates when that attention turns to pressure via collapsing defenders, extra pressure and defined rotations.
On the title winning team there were several players who could be described as possessing these traits (Caruso, Danny Green and Chief Rondo among them) and looking at the roster as it stands today I see real potential in a handful of others. In Austin Reaves, Troy Brown Jr., Juan Toscano-Anderson and Patrick Beverley, I see four players who all have the requisite understanding of how to play the game and, in the case of Reaves, Toscano-Anderson and Beverley, an a real idea of how to work with star players (I have high hopes for Brown in this area too, but need to see more before I’m convinced).
I hope these players will (most of the time) just play on instinct rather than force the action when something isn’t there, that they’ll slip through the cracks in defenses on a smart cut when their man begins to drift towards LeBron or AD, and that they will pass the connective swing when the ball is kicked to them and the defense rushes at them in full rotation. I know they will (again, most of the time) lock in to the game plan, play to their strengths, and bring more to the table than they take out.
Also, I believe these four players will go against each other defensively, which is the other part of the equation that will be needed to try and build chemistry and unity. In particular, this is where I think the Talen Horton-Tucker trade for Beverley will be most felt, and why, regardless of how one views the craft as pure talent play, the commitment of Pat Bev to play top defense individually and at team level will be a real tone-setter that will help the club lay the foundation for what it will be at this end of the pitch.
Do the Lakers need more of these players? A few reinforcements couldn’t hurt, that’s for sure.
But, looking at the group they have, headlined by what is still arguably the NBA’s best duo in LeBron and AD, who are flanked by a quartet of two-way contributors around the perimeter, a guy like Nunn (who didn’t play last season but has good skills on both ends of the court), and big, energetic players who will play hard and make quick plays, I think the team has a lot of the right ingredients to create the kind of chemistry that might belie their novelty as teammates.
And this is the exact type of change the team needs after its disappointing last season.
For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed at itunes, Spotify, embroiderer Where Google Podcasts. You can follow Darius on Twitter at @forumbluegold.