It Sounds Like the Lakers’ Young Roster Is Here to Stay

Rob Pelinka says Los Angeles is building a Warriors-beater, but the team and LeBron James appear set up more for the long haul than immediate success—and that’s just fine.

LeBron James’s decision to play for the Lakers (that still feels weird to say) has inevitably flipped the franchise upside down. No longer are they the lovable, rebuilding Lakers led by Luke Walton. LeBron is at the center of the enterprise, but Los Angeles didn’t trade away its young core to immediately build a superteam around him. Instead, the Lakers have rising players in Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and others while adding a smorgasbord of veterans in Rajon Rondo, JaVale McGee, and Lance Stephenson. Suddenly, the Lakers are trying to do a little bit of everything.

Their one-year signings suggest a play for the summer of 2019, when the cap space will remain and the available superstars will abound. Meanwhile, keeping Ball, Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, and Josh Hart (for now) also suggests that they’re playing the long game. And yet their general manager, Rob Pelinka, hasn’t hesitated to talk about beating the Warriors, and he’s been clear that constructing a defensive-minded team is the way to take down that offensive juggernaut. Though with the short-term deals the Lakers signed, the team may be defensive-minded for just one season. Pelinka sounds like the new Daryl Morey, itching to take a shot at Golden State right away.

“It is certainly part of the equation. … 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,” Pelinka said during a press conference Wednesday. “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.”

To beat the best team ever assembled, and to beat them as soon as possible, the Lakers are banking on the best player in the world and … a grab bag of intangibles? Really, they are also banking on youth. What they might not be able to say out loud — that it’s OK to let this season become a test run, but not an all-out attempt to win a title — also plays to their seeming lack of interest in trading their whole treasure chest of young assets for Kawhi Leonard. The Lakers are playing the long game; they just don’t want to publicly admit it.

As trade talks between the Spurs and Lakers seem to have stalled out for now, reality is settling in: This is the roster around LeBron James. Pelinka spoke of the team’s young players in a way that suggested they’d be sticking around, touting Hart’s, Ingram’s, and Kuzma’s abilities from beyond the arc. He implied that this was the reason they didn’t go after shooters in free agency. The Lakers assessed that they already had the spacing to allow LeBron to thrive on the roster.