The 3 phases of the Lakers’ reconstruction this offseason

Aug 10, 2021; Los Angeles, California, USA; Los Angeles Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka at press conference at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Aug 10, 2021; Los Angeles, California, USA; Los Angeles Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka at press conference at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports /

The Los Angeles Lakers‘ offseason so far has consisted of two themes: the potential trade for Kyrie Irving and GM Rob Pelinka’s youth movement as he fills out the roster.

According to reports, the Lakers and the Nets have discussed an Irving-Russell Westbrook swap. The two clubs have yet to agree on which other players and/or draft picks would be included in the prospective deal.

Acquiring Irving is a gamble for LA. His talent is not in question since he is one of the best offensive guards in the league. A nucleus of LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Kyrie would arguably give the Lakers three of the league’s top ten players.

But there’s also no denying that Irving is a first-class head case. He has burned bridges with every team he’s played for so far. James, who along with his agent is reportedly pushing for the trade, believes he can get Kyrie to focus on basketball first and foremost. Maybe, maybe not.

Reliability would certainly be an issue. Kyrie played in just 29 games last season, primarily because he refused to get vaccinated against Covid-19. But he also played in just 54 of the Nets’ 72 games the previous season, and in only 20 games in 2019-20.

Neither James nor Davis have been the epitome of health either. LeBron missed 26 games last year and 27 the previous year. He’ll turn 38 shortly after the season begins, so it’s fair to question his ability to stay healthy for the new season.

AD’s injury problems have been well-documented. He sat out 42 and 36 games the past two seasons due to a variety of injuries, primarily to his lower extremities. His dependability is a legitimate and ongoing concern.

It’s not a certainty that the Nets will trade Irving, or even Kevin Durant, who requested that the team move him. Both stars are under contract for next season so the Nets can hold out for the deal(s) they want or keep both for another run.

If the Lakers do finalize a deal for Kyrie, it will be the team’s biggest news of the offseason. But in the meantime, Pelinka has been rebuilding the 2022-23 roster, which will take on quite a different look.

A year ago, Pelinka was 100% in win-now mode and signed mostly grizzled veterans. That included seven players age 30 or older, including center Deandre Jordan and forward Trevor Ariza, who were both shadows of their former selves, as well as Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard, Wayne Ellington. Kent Bazemore and Avery Bradley. None have been re-signed.

Of that group, only Jordan, surprisingly, has signed with another team. Why the Nuggets committed to him on day one of free agency is a head-scratcher.

This year the GM and the front office reversed course and opted to fill the roster exclusively with younger, more athletic players.

The Lakers’ reconstruction has consisted of three distinct phases.

Phase One: The Draft and its aftermath

The Lakers drafted guard Max Christie, just 19 years old, in the second round. He played only one season at Michigan State and is viewed as a bit of a project but has the potential to become a 3-and-D specialist. Christie is not expected to contribute much this season and will likely spend most of it in the G League.

Almost immediately after the draft ended, the Lakers signed two more veteran college players, point guard Scottie Pippen Jr, 21, and 6-9 forward Cole Swider, 23, to two-way contracts.

Pippen has the better-known name because of his father. But Swider is even more intriguing because he is a sharpshooter from long-range (over 40% each of his last two seasons), an area of weakness for the Lakers.

Phase Two: Player and team options

Point guard Kendrick Nunn, soon to turn 27, missed all last season to injury, but kept his word and exercised his below-market $5.2 million player option. He averaged 15 points per game in his two NBA seasons with Miami. If healthy, he will provide a scoring punch out of the backcourt.

To the surprise of no one, Westbrook also opted in for a mere $47 million. He is coming off a disappointing season with the Lakers, at least in part because he only played 21 games alongside both James and Davis.

Pelinka then wisely exercised team options on two younger players acquired later in the season, small forward Stanley Johnson, 26, and power forward Wenyen Gabriel, 25, although his contract is reportedly not guaranteed. Along with another returnee, guard Austin Reaves, 24, the trio represents the type of scrappy, hard-nosed role players that have long been a Lakers tradition.

Johnson is cut from the mold of Michael Cooper, Rick Fox and Ron Artest/Metta World Peace. Gabriel has a little bit of AC Green, Kurt Rambis and Robert Horry in his game. Reaves is somewhat reminiscent of Derek Fisher, Alex Caruso and Fox.

Phase Three: Free agency

When the free agent period began, Pelinka effectively had one hand tied behind his back. The team is well over the salary cap so he could only offer minimum contracts. Yet he still had six roster spots to fill.

The biggest open hole was in the middle because the team had no true center on the roster. The GM seems to have done quite well by signing two former Lakers, Damian Jones, age 27, and Thomas Bryant, 24.

Jones, 6-11, 240, is a former Warriors first-round pick who played 8 games for LA in 2021 before being released to make room for Andre Drummond. He is athletic, a good leaper with good hands. After leaving the Lakers he played well for Sacramento, where he even developed a respectable three-point shot (35% last season, not bad for a big).

It remains a mystery why the Lakers cut Bryant, 6-10, 250, after his rookie season. He went on to score double-figure points for three straight seasons for Washington before tearing his ACL. Now he says he is fully recovered and represents a bit stronger and sturdier option in the middle and is also an established three-point threat (over 40% his last two healthy years).

Depending on matchups and foul trouble, Jones and Bryant will presumably split 35-40 minutes at center with AD sliding into the 5 for the remaining time.

Pelinka’s youth movement also included the signing of three perimeter players, including two more former first-round draft picks.

Lonnie Walker IV, a 6-4 shooting guard, is best known for his athletic drives to the rim and his hops. “Skywalker” averaged nearly 12 points a game the past two years for the Spurs, who drafted him 18th in 2018. Walker, who turns 24 in December, is expected to compete for a starting berth with LA.

Troy Brown Jr, a 6-6 small forward from Oregon, was drafted 15th by Washington in 2018. Another good athlete, his offense as a pro has been inconsistent but his defense is strong. He turns 23 later this month.

The third player is Juan Toscano-Anderson, 29, a 6-7 forward. He was a valuable reserve the past three seasons for Golden State where he was known for his tough defense.

Any or all three of the wings could be part of the Lakers rotation this year. Unfortunately, none is a particularly good three-point shooter. Each has a career mark of between just 34 and 36%.

That’s why fans shouldn’t sleep on the 6-9 Swider, an outstanding shooter beyond the arc who potentially could be this year’s Duncan Robinson.

As of now the roster shapes up like this:

·        Point guards– Westbrook, Nunn, Pippen (two-way)

·        Shooting guards– Talen Horton-Tucker (turning age 22), Walker, Reaves, Christie

·        Small forwards– James, Johnson, Brown, Swider (two-way)

·        Power forwards– Davis, Toscano-Anderson, Gabriel

·        Centers– Bryant, Jones

Of those 16 players, 12 are age 27 or younger and only 2, James and Westbrook, are over 30, a far cry from last season.

One roster spot remains open. This could change, of course, if any trades are made. The Lakers could soon sign another free agent, wait for training camp to see which players are cut by other teams (which is how they signed Bradley last year), or elevate either Swider or Pippen to a full contract and sign some other youngster to a two-way deal (7-0 center Jay Huff is a possibility).

it’s exciting to see the front office inject some youthful energy into the team. But regardless of whether they acquire Irving or how well the youngsters perform, the success of the Lakers this coming season will once again depend on the ability of both LeBron James and Anthony Davis to stay on the court and perform like top 10 players.