Lakers GM Rob Pelinka says this is an “exciting time” for the franchise

Rarely do you hear NBA general managers use the terms “championship road” and “young core” to describe the same strategy.

After a series of moves to deadline day, a 24-hour period that saw five players released and five new ones added, Lakers GM Rob Pelinka said he thinks the Lakers have gotten better but also touted the younger, fresher feel of the squad. Including Rui Hachimura, who was acquired by the Wizards last month, the team has added what Pelinka called “five core players” who are 26 or younger.

Is that a contender, especially for a team that sat 13th over the weekend? Maybe not. But the Lakers’ move to youth could relate less to this season — as the team’s playoff hopes dwindle — and more to the future.

Pelinka spoke to the media for more than 20 minutes Saturday morning about the team’s active stint, including sending off former MVP Russell Westbrook in what he says was a failed attempt to bid for a championship. Many basketball watchers gave Pelinka solid marks on deadline for adding shooting, defending and clearing Westbrook’s $47 million due for a protected first-round draft pick this summer. The Lakers were able to retain their 2029 pick, as well as coveted youngsters Austin Reaves and Max Christie.

But while Pelinka said coach Darvin Ham is “excited” to coach his newly revamped roster on the track, the difficulty of what the Lakers are trying to accomplish this season hasn’t escaped anyone’s notice. Adding to the problems, LeBron James, 38, was ruled out Saturday morning with a left ankle pain, his second straight missed game. Pelinka confirmed Ham’s comment on Thursday that James had had imaging on his foot, but said: “We’re grateful that things came back clean and well.”

With James’ uncertainty adding to the challenges of bringing the roster together, Pelinka’s comments on the Lakers’ future stood out even more than how the deals are helping the Lakers in the present. Pelinka referred to the 26 remaining games (including the Lakers’ Saturday game at Golden State) as “data points” that the franchise can use to make decisions this summer.

“I think it’s really an exciting time for Laker Nation,” Pelinka said. “If you just think about the fact that we have these five young players, ages 26 and under, you can see that even these five guys are a really good match for our captains from LeBron and Anthony Davis. So not only does it set us up for what will hopefully be a productive run… it gives us a core to focus on for the next year, which is very exciting.”

One of the new faces is a familiar one: The most notable acquisition was D’Angelo Russell, guard for the Minnesota Timberwolves, who was the 2015 Lakers No. 2 pick. Pelinka was part of the front office that transferred him to Brooklyn in 2017.

But setting aside Russell’s 2019 All-Star season, his scoring and playmaking performance (17.9 ppg, 6.2 apg) and career-best shooting efficiency (39.1% 3FG, 54.6% eFG), Pelinka said , he and Russell would have talked about how much the soon-to-be-27-year-old has grown in his years since he received treatment.

“I think both Magic (Johnson) and I were both intrigued very early on by the incredible talent that D’Angelo had and now you have a mix of talent, shooting, playmaking, IQ and the development that he’s capable of was collecting as a player and I think that really makes him ideally suited,” said Pelinka. “We don’t just see him as a player on short-term loan.”

The biggest name the Lakers were known to be involved with was Brooklyn’s Kyrie Irving, a talented player who was also a lightning rod for controversy, missing more than half of the potential games in his Brooklyn stint in part due to his personal views. The Lakers reportedly offered two first-round picks for Irving, but the Nets shared the 30-year-old with Dallas.

Pelinka declined to discuss a specific player signed to another team in compliance with NBA manipulation rules, but used an apartment metaphor when asked about Irving.

“Trading is a bit like the LA housing market in that you can’t buy homes that aren’t listed and ultimately it’s the sellers who decide whether or not to sell a home and which buyers get it,” he said. “But the last thing you want to do in the housing market is overpay or put all your effort and energy into buying a home that someone doesn’t want to sell.”

Pelinka commented on the gifts of the other new acquisitions besides Russell. Big man Mo Bamba’s wingspan can “change the geometry of the ground,” Pelinka said, and he noted his distance as a player who shot over 38% last season and this season with 3-pointers. He called Malik Beasley “one of the elite snipers in the game” with solid efficiency at high volume that can affect defenses with his gravity.

Pelinka praised Jarred Vanderbilt for his ability to defend and switch multiple positions, adding, “His effort every night, every possession is incredibly convincing.” He calledDavon Reed a “strong character” 3-and-D winger who can develop.

Perhaps significantly, the Lakers also have the flexibility to move on from almost all of those young plays this summer if they so desire. Russell and Hachimura will be free agents; Beasley has a team option; Reed and Bamba have non-guaranteed deals next season. Vanderbilt has a year left on their deal but is widely viewed as a steal at under $5 million next season and could be a tradable deal.

“If you really study the contracts of these five players, we very deliberately planned these moves to offer options in July,” Pelinka said. “Some of these players have team options or team-controlled years in their contract, which in turn gives us an opportunity to see how those final 26 regular-season games and potential post-season games are going. And then with a larger collection of data points and some kind of real-time analysis of how the pieces are fitting, we can go into this off-season and make decisions for the future.”

Given their experience with Westbrook, if the Lakers decide to create cap space this summer rather than move forward with their new younger plays, they should be wary of looking for the right third star — if not going without a third star altogether . While Pelinka said the franchise would look back at the players they traded “with respect” for their tenure, there’s little denying that Westbrook’s season and a half with the Lakers was a largely unlucky one: The team was only 58-79 with Westbrook on the list.

Pelinka acknowledged that the Lakers didn’t live up to their championship expectations when they got Westbrook in 2021 for a slew of roleplays and a first-round pick — a generous understatement — but also didn’t put team’s struggles at Westbrook’s feet.

“They then have to try to rotate when something isn’t working to correct it. I think this trade deadline, there was an opportunity,” he said. “I think it’s really unfair to attribute the last year and a half or whatever period that is to a player. I think the whole squad has to fit together and fit. And part of the sport is sometimes when things don’t work, you have to fix them.” Lakers GM Rob Pelinka says this is an “exciting time” for the franchise

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