Breaking Down Magic and Pelinka's Presser
Beginning on July 9, when the Lakers announced the signing of LeBron James, we’ve had two months and change to imagine, envision and speculate on how everything’s going to look.
On Thursday at the UCLA Health Training Center, Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka gave us a preview of all that by taking questions from assembled reporters to look ahead to the 2018-19 season. LeBron and the rest of his teammates will follow suit on Monday at the team’s official Media Day, but the front office execs gave us a lot to work with.
Here’s a summary of their comments:
Pelinka has quickly established himself as a story teller in the presser setting, as a GM that’s quick with a timely metaphor, and he delivered once again with this one:
I think of a story, I don’t know if it’s an ancient tale of old, but of the young kitten that’s running around the jungle. It sees a bobcat, and says, ‘Wow, that’s a bigger cat, it must be a lion,’ and starts mimicking the bobcat, and thinks it’s become the king of the jungle. A year later, along comes a male lion, and the little cat is like, ‘Oh my gosh, I didn’t realize what the lion’s roar was until I saw and heard it. Now I know how to become a lion.’ Well, in terms of player development, I think they’re no better way to do that then by exposing our young core to today’s greatest player, that is today’s hardest working player, too. Then they see what it takes to be great. It’s one thing to hear stories, it’s one thing to watch tape, but to be in the gym every day with LeBron in particular and guys like Rondo that have won championships and done it at a high level, there’s no better way to develop players than that.
As you might guess, LeBron came up a few times. A selection of comments on James:
Magic: "I’ve watched LeBron from afar, I’ve been at many games, but to watch him in the gym is a whole different thing. How much he makes everybody better, but also how he raises everybody’s level of play. His basketball IQ and his leadership ability. It was all on display."
Pelinka: “I think the biggest thing for me is to see the reverence he has for the game. He had his first time in the building, and it was a moment you’ll never forget, where he comes in early, 6:00 or 6:30, and he was actually waiting for some of the coaches and different things to arrive. I could just see he sat in a folding chair underneath all the banners in this unbelievable facility, and who knows exactly what was going on in his head, but you have to think he was reflecting on the history of the Lakers and the great players and the championships and the respect he had for all the numbers that are retired on the wall, and just thinking now it’s his turn to etch his name in this storybook franchise.”
More from Magic: “LeBron comes in and is already in midseason form. Shooting fadeaways and three pointers from almost halfcourt, and you’re sitting there saying, ‘Man, thank god we signed him!’ It’s just beautiful to watch.’ … All these guys that’s been able to really come in and effect our team in such an incredible way, but it starts with, of course, LeBron James, and his aura, his winning attitude and the way he goes about his business. When you see him on the court, and also in the weight room, he’s the same way. Just amazing. So it’s been fun for me, and I’m excited.”
LONZO BALL UPDATE
Rob Pelinka offered some context around Lonzo Ball’s progress since he got his knee scoped in July:
“He’s been 100 percent cleared by our medical staff to return to full basketball activity. Because he hasn’t played NBA five-on-five for four or five months, there is — with any player who has surgery — a progression to come back. So he started that progression.
“He will participate in our training camp in everything other than five-on-five contact drills in the beginning, but will progress along that continuum and we’ll take it a day at a time. There’s no way to predict the future, but the fact that he’s 100 percent cleared and feeling good is great.”
THE MAIN TRAIT
Pelinka described what he thinks stands out the most about this group of Lakers after watching them in 5-on-5 scrimmages.
“This group of guys is as competitive as you can imagine … Earvin and I were talking about how the gene of being a competitive individual is something that gets multiplied, almost like compounded interest, when you have competitive guys in the gym. It’s not 2+2+2 = 6, it’s 2x2x2 = 8. It has this effect of just growing exponentially. What we’ve seen early in just the guys playing pickup ball in the gym … just the gene of being competitive starts oozing out. That’s what we are particularly excited about. And Luke (Walton) as the leader and coach is an ultracompetitive guy. I’ve said before, that’s one of his strongest attributes as a coach. He’s a fiery competitor. So that’s what we’re really excited about, excited for our Lakers fans to experience when camp and games begin.”
Magic is quite pleased with what he’s seen over the last few days in particular with the pickup games in the building, especially as compared to last season.
“I haven’t been this excited in a long time,” he said. “We brought in champions. That’s what our young players needed … These pickup games, we’ve seen that. They’re going hard. It’s physical. It’s tough. It’s trash talking. It’s just a lot of fun, and a lot of teaching at the same time. LeBron is out there teaching in pickup games. Rondo is teaching in pickup games.”
He added that “every guy” on the team has improved, and credited the player development from over the summer, and how obvious it is that guys like Kyle Kuzma*, Josh Hart and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope* have taken a step.
*“Kuz is a different guy. Man. Man. I mean, he got mad he wasn’t in the (Sports Illustrated) Top 100, and I’m glad they didn’t put him in the Top 100 so he can keep working hard.”
**You’re going to see a different KCP. Rob did a wonderful job of explaining diet. He looks like a total different guy, and is playing like it, too.
THE FILM ROOM
Pelinka said that Magic, Rondo and Lonzo met in the film room the other day, and put on the Lakers-Pelicans game from March 22, which New Orleans won 128-125. Rondo had 24 points and 10 dimes plus three steals, while Lonzo went for six points, 12 boards and nine assists with two blocks.
Pelinka set it up by having Rondo narrate when he had the ball, describing what was going on in his mind as he led his team. Then he asked Lonzo to do the same thing.
“And then you have the best point guard that’s ever played the game layered on top of that,” said Pelinka, of Magic’s role. “It was amazing to be in that room and to hear these three point guards talking about the game and breaking it down.”
PACE vs. THRUST
Last season, the Lakers led the NBA in pace for most of the season, before New Orleans took over the top spot in the final month (when Lonzo/Ingram were out for L.A., and DeMarcus Cousins was hurt for NOP). Meanwhile, LeBron’s Cavs were 12th in pace, and LeBron’s teams have never finished in the Top 10 in pace in his career.
My contention is that the Lakers will still run a ton this year, and be in the top seven (at worst) in pace, because that’s how Luke Walton likes to play, and they have a ton of athletes who already excel at getting out in transition. LeBron can either rebound and trail the young legs, or get out himself when he wants to, even if he still (rightfully) slows the game down at strategic points to execute in the halfcourt, which he’s so great at. So I asked Magic and Pelinka how they thought L.A.’s pace last season would square with LeBron’s ability to run (on one hand) but preference to control the game in the half court (at times) on the other.
Magic: “I don’t think we’re just talking about one guy, because we don’t want his usage to be high like he has to just has it all the time. We’re going to run. Whoever gets it, we’re gone. We’re not looking for one player. Rondo can run the break. Lonzo can run the break. Lance can take it. B.I. can take it. Michael can take it. We’ve seen that in the scrimmages as well. We have a number of ballhandlers. That’s how we built this team. So we won’t just rely on LeBron making all the shots for people in terms of creating the shots for people. We want him also to play off of them. But that’s on Luke … he’ll handle that situation, and he’s already been thinking about ways to utilize not just LeBron but everybody.”
Pelinka: “What we saw in the playoffs and how we wanted to build this team, to use a sports car analogy, we wanted this team to have a lot of engine thrust. And not just from one player. As (Magic) just pointed out, you can go down our list. We have playmakers and guys that can get it, and not just come at you but come at you with force … that was one of the components and one of the things we have to focus on. Pace is an overused word. I think every team in the league says we want to play with pace. We want to have thrust with our pace, like strength.”
The FO shared a few thoughts on their excitement about Rajon Rondo:
Magic: My main thing this offseason was also, how do we get somebody to mentor Lonzo. And we got the right mentor, because Rondo … his basketball IQ is off the charts. He’s been incredible, and he’s in such great condition, too.”
Pelinka added that Rondo was calling floppy actions in the pickup game today, where he had Svi Mykhailiuk* and KCP coming off as shooters, and did a pocket pass to McGee. “He’s out there coaching and talking … there’s been so much communication in a good way.”
*Svi, by the way, nailed six straight threes from all angles in Thursday’s scrimmage, according to Magic.
Pelinka pointed out that the Lakers have seven players that are 6’9’’ and above, which he thinks brings plenty of size and versatility, in response to a question about what they’ll do at the center position.
“As the game is moving a bit more positionless, we don’t even really talk about center, point guard, two guard,” he said. “It’s a positionless game, and we have a versatile, long roster with adequate size, for sure.”
Lance Stephenson picked up the moniker “Born Ready” from a Rucker Park announcer as he dominated older players, and apparently he’s been playing with that same persona in scrimmages at the UCLA Health Training Center.
“He’s been being mean and physical out there, so nobody gets an inch with him,” said Magic. “And again, it’s teaching our young guys how to play a physical style of basketball.”
Magic was asked about what he’s thinking in regards to Luke Walton managing this roster.
“We’re excited for Luke and his coaching staff,” he said. “Luke has been working very hard to figure out how to utilize all the pieces. Luke’s a winner. As a player, up at Golden State, and he’ll be a winner here too."
Pelinka added that the team’s roster depth is “an extreme strength.” He thinks Walton will manage it well: “Our roster and its strength actually lines up perfectly with our coach and his strength."
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