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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 and Josh Hart Getty Images/Ringer illustration

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.

“We did not want to go out and sign specialists,” Pelinka said. “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.”

And so Pelinka quickly followed that up by praising Rajon Rondo’s and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s toughness, as well as Josh Hart’s, making it seem like Pelinka had every intention of keeping Hart in purple and gold and not shipping him off in a trade. Hart is an interesting case — the least heralded of the young crew that also includes Ingram, Lonzo, and Kuzma, but likely one of the most important. In three summer league games, he has averaged 23.3 points and shot 44 percent from 3. He’s too good for the level of play found at summer league, but the showcase has allowed him to show how well he could perform as a 3-and-D wing.

Zoom out and this is one of the most fascinating rosters around LeBron ever. There’s a mix of veteran savvy and upstart youth. Despite what Pelinka says, this team needs more shooting, or rather, it needs Lonzo to improve his shot, Ingram to stay consistent, and Kuzma to not regress. If the Lakers are going to keep their youth for now, they’ll have to elevate them. The question is how will those young players respond, and just how long will that take.

Given what kind of roster LeBron played with at the end of his time in Cleveland, it’s hard to argue that this isn’t an upgrade. But I’m not certain LeBron picked L.A. with the desire to be a mentor to the young Lakers, as well as a mediator among Stephenson, McGee, KCP, and Rondo.

This may be all posturing. Pelinka may be just saying what he has to say — he could still ship off at least some of the Lakers’ youth to San Antonio tomorrow, for all we know. But given how quiet it’s been on that front, it seems like the Lakers are sticking with this roster, like they’re going to take the risk and wait until Kawhi’s free agency like they did Paul George’s, and like they’re all in on their young players for the foreseeable future. That may not give them the best chance to win a title right away, but it does make them the most interesting team in the NBA.