Rob Pelinka: We wanted to surround LeBron James with versatile defenders

ByOhm Youngmisuk ESPN logo
Thursday, July 12, 2018

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- Saying that the Los Angeles Lakers didn't want to fall into "the trap" of trying to beat the Golden State Warriors at their own offensively loaded game, general manager Rob Pelinka said the Lakers' goal in free agency was to purposely build a team "very differently than the past ones" surrounding LeBron James.

In a clear departure from how the Cleveland Cavaliers surrounded James with perimeter shooters, Pelinka explained Wednesday how the Lakers -- who finished 35-47 last season -- deliberately added what they feel are versatile, tough players with playoff experience and the ability to defend, to play around James in an effort to find another way to combat the defending champs.

"If your goal is to win a championship, you've got to look at the way the champs are assembled and how you can give yourself the best chance to take them down," Pelinka said of one of the many reasons for the construction of the Lakers' current roster. "It is certainly part of the equation. ... [President of basketball operations] Earvin [Johnson] and I had a conversation, and LeBron echoed this sentiment: I think to try to play the Warriors at their own game is a trap. 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."

After James committed to the Lakers early in free agency, they quickly added the likes of Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson and JaVale McGee while re-signing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. The Lakers seemed to load up on versatile playmakers like Rondo and Stephenson, who are often at their best with the ball in their hands and have reputations as tenacious defenders who can also get under an opponent's skin. Pelinka also wanted to add playoff experience to a young, growing core that includes Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart.

Rondo has played in 105 postseason games and averaged 10.3 points, 12.2 assists and 7.6 rebounds last postseason to help New Orleans advance to the second round. Stephenson has played in 57 playoff games and has had his share of run-ins with James while with the Indiana Pacers. The fiercely competitive Rondo and Stephenson also add a new dynamic to the Lakers locker room as they bring strong-willed personalities. Stephenson, who once famously blew into James' ear while the two were next to each other, noted how he thought "it was actually funny" that they are teammates now.

Pelinka explained the thinking behind adding Stephenson, who had something of a rivalry with James and often tried different antics in an attempt to throw James off.

"If you study championship and playoff teams of the past, if you look at Michael Jordan having a player like Dennis Rodman, look at Kobe [Bryant]'s teams with Metta [World Peace], having a tough player that brings an edge to the game like Lance is a really nice ingredient," Pelinka said. "That, I think, with LeBron's leadership will pervade to our young core as well and just give them a sense of swagger and toughness."

McGee, who is known for his own unique personality, adds playoff experience from the Warriors' past two championship runs and also gives the Lakers some size inside.

The way L.A. management envisions it, coach Luke Walton has several versatile, multidimensional pieces who can defend, play and switch on multiple positions while also being able to create opportunities for others.

"We did not want to go out and just sign specialists, 'Oh, this guy can just shoot,'" Pelinka said. "We wanted tough two-way players that can defend with a level of toughness and also make shots. Listen, 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. 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.

"And we identified with, if you look at KCP was a guy that is a tough defender and shooter, Josh Hart has proven to be a pit bull of a defender and can make shots, Rondo historically has been a tenacious, tough guy, steals. We wanted that mentality and we identified it. Lance Stephenson, he will agitate you, he will get under you, he will cause you to get out of your game and can play in the open court and score."

Pelinka also made it clear that the four starting spots around James will be open to competition. That means Rondo and Ball will be competing for the starting point guard spot.

"We feel like we are going to have an open training camp in terms of competing and figuring out what is that best five to win and go deep into the playoffs and give ourselves a chance to win a championship," Pelinka said. "We are going to play fast. ... You can imagine lineups on the court where everyone is 6-[foot-]7, 6-8 or above. Brandon Ingram, LeBron is a positionless player. ... It is really exciting to think about the length and speed and the way we can play."

Ball has been nursing a torn meniscus in his left knee and has sought different ways to treat it, such as with platelet-rich plasma-injection treatment and rest. While the Lakers would not comment on Ball's injury, Pelinka did say that the expectation is Ball will be ready for the start of the season.

"I'll just say, I know he's evaluating with his management team a number of things," Pelinka said. "The good news is all the things they're evaluating as his options have him 100 percent ready for training camp. ... We're just excited to know he's going to be 100 percent available for training camp."

And as for the narrative that the Lakers don't have nearly enough perimeter shooting around James after averaging just 34.5 percent from 3-point range -- second to last in the NBA last season -- Pelinka challenged that notion and said the Lakers have plenty.

"There's been this kind of surge of 'Hey, where are the shooters?'" Pelinka explained. "To me, that's a little bit of a misnomer because, again, we wanted a particular type of shooter. When we looked at the free-agent list, the elite shooters ... guys who have had max deals as shooters are in the 38 to 42 percent range in 3-point shooting. I'm talking elite shooters. If you look at last year, Josh Hart shot 40 percent. Brandon Ingram shot [39 percent]. KCP had a career year at almost 39 percent, and I feel like he's gonna have an even better year. LeBron shot 37 percent, Kyle Kuzma 37 percent.

"So just because we didn't sign sort of the poster-child shooter that is a specialist and can just make shots, we felt like we assembled a cast of guys that can really shoot the ball but also defend and be versatile. ... Also, if you really study LeBron and Rajon Rondo and the way he plays, these guys are so smart at creating angles and passing. The shooting windows for our other players are gonna be bigger, so that's gonna increase their percentages. We feel very confident in how we landed here."

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