With a record of 0-5, to 2-10, and even 26-32 on Feb. 13, the 2022-23 Lakers rallied massively to pull off a trip to the Western Conference Finals, even if they fell short of the forever franchise goal of winning a championship.
“I think this was a season of advancement and growth for the Lakers,” said Rob Pelinka at Tuesday afternoon’s exit interviews, a day after the Lakers lost to Denver in the WCF. “Obviously, we didn’t achieve our ultimate goal, which is No. 18, which is something we always have our sights on, but it really starts by giving a lot of credit to Darvin (Ham) and his staff for establishing a pillar of our organization, and that’s the way we compete until the bitter end.”
Pelinka noted the rough start to the season, and praised Ham and his staff for keeping up the belief in the players throughout, through the final play of their final game (Game 4 vs. Denver on May 22), when LeBron James couldn’t cap off a 40-point, nearly 48-minute effort with a game-tying attempt off a drive to the rim.
“I think that’s something as an organization that we owe to our fans, something we demand from our players and it really starts from our head coach and leader, and the qualities he’s instilled,” Pelinka explained.
Ham was a constantly positive and energetic presence for his players, in his first season in the big chair after many years next door.
“I’m humbled by how far we were able to go after such a challenging start, but we came together to make history, and that process is ongoing,” said Ham. “I have all the faith in the world in Rob, and he and I getting together, really going through the roster, going through the opportunities that are out there starting with the draft, to add to this team and continue to trampoline from this season, and not just be satisfied because we turned it around in this first year. This is a step-by-step process, and I’m looking forward to working with Rob and Jeanie (Buss) and building something special, and getting to our ultimate goal, (championship) No. 18.”
For myriad reasons, the Lakers have not had the benefit of continuity for the last several seasons. That should change heading into next season.
“Keeping that continuity is going to be very important,” said Pelinka. “We ultimately got knocked out by a team that has great continuity, they’ve got a group of players that have been together for several seasons, and it shows in the way they play. That’s a high priority for us. We feel like we have a special group of players in the locker room who enjoy playing together. Darvin enjoys coaching them. We know there is more growth and improvement in that group, especially if we get a training camp together, so I’d say it’s a high priority to keep our core players together.”
Of course, a massive part of that continuity would be the longest-tenured Lakers, LeBron James, who hinted after Game 4 that he had a lot to think about this offseason.
Asked about LeBron, Pelinka said that James, of course, speaks for himself, and they’ll talk to him in the coming days to see how he’s feeling.
“LeBron has given as much to the game of basketball as anyone who’s ever played,” offered Pelinka. “When you do that, you earn the right to decide if you’re going to give more. I think sometimes we put athletes and entertainers on a pedestal, but they’re humans. Just like us, they have inflection points in their career. Our job as the Lakers organization is to support any player on our team if they reach a career inflection point. Obviously, our hope would be that his career continues, but we want to give him the time to have that inflection point and support him along the way in everything that he does.”
“Coming off a tough loss like that, with the work we’ve put in this season, I think I was ready to retire after last night too,” quipped Ham. “But in all honesty and seriousness, LeBron has earned the right to do whatever he wants to do, make whatever choice.”
Ham went on to thank LeBron for being a consistent resource for him in his first year as a head coach, providing constant support, knowledge and communication.
“My transition into it, from where we started to where we ended up, as Rob said, the growth process, reestablishing the competitive culture here, trying to work to get us back to the top of the food chain, he was right there front and center for me and my staff,” he said. “So kudos to him, we love him, support him, and again, he’s earned the right to do whatever he feels comfortable doing.”
In the coming days, Pelinka and Ham will turn their eyes towards the NBA Draft, and free agency, as they look to add to the roster, and surround their core players with additional talent.
“It’s all about the work here,” Pelinka explained. “None of us get caught up in accolades. If you stay focused on the work, the results come. I said (to Darvin): Campaign No. 2 starts today. We have the 17th pick in the draft, and the 47th pick in the draft. We pivot from the growth and learning lessons of this season to now building towards next year, and making sure our advancements continue.”
The Lakers had several young players, with Austin Reaves in particular, step up in a big way this season. Pelinka was asked about Reaves, and how much a part of L.A.’s future he might be.
“There are certain rules with the CBA where we can’t talk about free agency until July, but I’d say this resoundingly clear, our intentions are to keep our core of young guys together,” said Pelinka. “We saw incredible growth and achievement in guys like Rui, Austin, Vando, D-Lo. We have a lot of great young players. We want to do our best to fit the puzzle together … in a way that will help us compete for a championship.
“Austin in particular had an incredible year. He defines really what’s at the heart of playing for the Lakers. He’s a selfless, team-first guy. He lives in the gym. He loves the big moment. He’s been able to meet the big moment. I think he’s a guy that that, regardless of what his deal is, I don’t think it’s going to change him as a person. We’ll hang our hat on guys like that that compete, love the game, love their teammates. We’re proud to have him as part of this franchise, and again, without talking about specific players, we’ll do our best to keep this group intact, growing and getting better each year.”