LOS ANGELES — The Lakers thought they would be gathering as a team Friday to catch a flight to Phoenix for Game 7 of their first-round series against the Suns. Instead, they met for exit interviews to rehash a season that went awry.
“I think when you fall short of the goal that you set, it has to drive you,” said Lakers vice president of basketball operations and general manager Rob Pelinka, speaking to reporters on a videoconference. “It has to be the fuel that drives your passion, and I think us falling short as a team, that in some sense is going to be part of our motivation and putting in the work to getting back at it, and start training camp next year with a strong roster.”
In the coming months, Pelinka will oversee a score of decisions surrounding the eight players on his team set to hit free agency, with a ninth, Montrezl Harrell, holding a $9.7 million player option he could choose not to exercise to test the market as well.
Despite his team finishing with the No. 7 seed in the Western Conference and getting bounced from the first round, Pelinka echoed a belief shared by Lakers coach Frank Vogel and superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis after L.A.’s 113-100 Game 6 loss on Thursday that had their team been injury-free this season, their back-to-back championship bid could have been reached.
“I’m convinced that, again, without some of the unforeseen circumstances this year, the challenges that we had to face, that we’d be a championship-caliber team,” he said. “So the goal is to try to keep that core group together.”
With more than $100 million already committed to four players next season — James, Davis, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Kyle Kuzma — Pelinka was asked if he has ownership approval to dip deep into the luxury tax to retain some of the key pieces set to hit free agency.
“Jeanie [Buss] and the ownership group has empowered the front office to do one thing, and that’s to smartly build a roster to win championships,” he said. “I think next year, of course, hopefully, with all of our fans being able to come back and be a part of the building, we owe them the work to start the process of retooling and have a championship-caliber team that can do special things next year. That’s the driving passion, and there’s alignment there between Jeanie, the front office, the coaches. That will always be the goal.”
A goal that he laid out in no uncertain terms: “We have an insatiable desire and passion to bring banner No. 18 here. And we’re excited about the work we’re going to commence tomorrow to get that done for our fans and for the organization.”
Pelinka, Vogel and every player on the Lakers’ roster other than James, Caldwell-Pope and Kostas Antetokounmpo spoke to the media in an exit interview capacity since the conclusion of the Suns series.
Point guard Dennis Schroder, one of the free agents to be, said he did not turn down an $84-million contract extension during the regular season, as reported by ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, as a retaliatory measure for being included in trade talks for the Toronto Raptors’ Kyle Lowry.
“Let me make that clear first. I didn’t decline the extension because I was in trade talks,” Schroder said. “I own a [basketball] team in Germany as well. I try to run my organization in Germany as fair as possible, but end of the day, it’s still business. … That’s what Rob did as well. He told me the story. He listened to it. It wasn’t even right by the trade deadline, but he talked to them to see. … I would listen to offers as well. … You don’t know what you can get, and you see what your options are.”
Schroder said his relationship with Pelinka is very strong, having an open-door policy with the exec whenever he needs something, and Pelinka gushed about what Schroder brings to the team.
“I think all of us can look at Dennis’ body of work, and he is an extreme competitor, and that’s on both sides of the ball,” Pelinka said. “He’s hounding guys, picking up players full court, diving for loose balls, bringing that energy on the defensive end, and of course he has that ability to score at the point guard position. We value those qualities in him. August is August, and free agency is a couple months away. There’s a lot of different things we’ll have to evaluate there, but Dennis is an attractive player to us just because of what he brings to the table.”
Andre Drummond started 27 games for the Lakers after joining the team off the buyout market before receiving a DNP in Game 6 against the Suns.
“I think I’ve learned so much just being around the coaching staff, our teammates,” Drummond said. “Just an incredible group of guys that we have here. We’re looking forward to building more with them.”
Drummond’s addition disrupted a center rotation that already had two newcomers in Harrell and Marc Gasol, who were added to replace JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard.
Despite Drummond’s sometimes awkward fit, and the team going away from him with the season on the line, Pelinka said the decision to sign Drummond — who was a former client of his during his agent days — was a no-brainer.
“His ability to rebound the ball and protect the rim and give us athleticism and size in the paint was an essential ingredient to add to the team and something that we would do again and again,” he said.
Harrell and Gasol also spoke about their roles moving forward.
“I came in every day and did my job,” Harrell said. “I did what they asked me to do. And I played my role, simple as that. As far as my future, I don’t know what that holds right now. We just finished playing last night. I can’t give you that answer right now, brother.”
Gasol, who publicly griped about his role at times, said he found peace in the team’s collective struggle, recognizing he wasn’t the only one on L.A. trying to make things work.
“I’m very thankful for the year that I lived,” said Gasol, who unlike Harrell and Drummond, is under contract with L.A. for next season. “I know obviously it doesn’t end the way we all want it, but you know, it’s been better than it looked from the outside probably, for me personally. I just enjoyed some of the things that happened. Some of the other things I didn’t, but I tried to be positive and, like I said, I’m thankful for the opportunity I had here.”
Vogel is entering the final year of the three-year contract he signed to coach the Lakers in the summer of 2019. He did not want to discuss if he had begun extension talks with the team.
“I really just prefer those conversations to remain private,” he said. “Obviously, I love it here. I love this organization. And, you know, I hope to be a Laker for life.”
Meanwhile, Pelinka gave him a hearty endorsement. “Frank’s a guy that Kurt [Rambis] and I and the front office really enjoy working with that really does a great job with all our players, and we see him as a strong part of our future for sure,” he said.
While running it back next year with a similar core seemed to be the wish of many involved with the team — including major stakeholders in the decision-making process in James and Pelinka — Lakers forward Markieff Morris hinted there are some bad apples that have to be shaken from the tree.
“The way I feel is we have to have guys in there that are brought in to win,” said Morris, who is also a free agent and said he hopes to return. “Sacrificing whatever it takes to win. Being in the lineup, being out the lineup. Not getting your shot, getting shots. We need guys in here that are battle tested. We need guys in here that have one goal in mind and that’s to win the championship. When you’re on a team with LeBron and AD, you know you’re coming in here to be role players. Be the best at your role. And that’s what we need. Next year, I think we have to have that camaraderie that we had our championship year to win it — to have a shot at winning it again next year.”
Lakers veteran Jared Dudley, having just completed his 14th season and about to turn 35 next month, said he wants to return to his role as a locker room leader and glue guy next year even though he missed most of this past season with a torn MCL. “One thousand percent,” he said. “Come on, they need me, man. They need me like I need them. Come on.”