New Lakers Veterans Bring Toughness, Teamwork

By Kevin Ding - Senior Writer

Very few questions qualify as no-brainers, particularly in this hot-take pit of professional sports. On the rare occasion you might begin a discussion with a sure thing—how about “Would you like LeBron James on your basketball team?”—a multitude of options and opinions still arise in how best to proceed next.

The Lakers’ front office has made clear that a marquee free agent next summer to pair with James makes sense, but Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka also came together to agree on the more immediate path to support James and the Lakers’ up-and-coming players for this 2018-19 season.

“Earvin and I had a conversation,” Pelinka said, “and LeBron echoed this sentiment: To try to play the Warriors in their own game is a trap. No one is going to beat them at their own game. That’s why we wanted to add these elements: defense, toughness and depth—and try to look at areas where we’ll have an advantage.”

That was the genesis for the route the club took with its post-LeBron summer signings in gathering a group with proven talent…but talent available on one-year contracts because of questions about its consistency.

As fascinating as all things LeBron were, are and will be in the Lakers’ world, it has been almost as curious how much attention Lance Stephenson, JaVale McGee, Rajon Rondo and Michael Beasley have gotten in joining James with the Lakers.

It’s a testament to how job reputations are vital to manage from the beginning, no matter if your occupation is at a desk or in a gym. Bosses in all walks of life will insist on professionalism and teamwork.

The back story is obviously pertinent to such skepticism over what Stephenson, McGee, Rondo and Beasley might bring to the Lakers—because the truth is that they’ve gotten some pretty glowing performance reviews from their recent supervisors.

McGee, by contributing to consecutive NBA championship teams with Golden State, and Beasley, by stably producing the past two seasons for Milwaukee and New York after toiling in China, have done a lot of work to legitimize themselves.

“I can tell you,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said in his first season with McGee. “I had a preconceived notion about JaVale before he got here that turned out to be totally false.”

Stephenson was the first player to agree to terms with the Lakers after James did. That made it pretty much impossible to avoid the mental image of Stephenson blowing in James’ ear on the court.

That’s the byproduct of choosing to be a bold individual: You will be more easily remembered, which is something Stephenson has always been cool with since his Rucker Park hotshot days.

Yet you’ll be far more easily remembered for the strange than anything solid.

Who even recalls that Stephenson’s Pacers beat James’ Heat in the ear-blowing game, a 2014 Eastern Conference Finals game that staved off Indiana’s elimination—or that it was perhaps James’ worst playoff game ever (seven points, two rebounds and four assists amid a mess of foul trouble)?

Stephenson’s past coaches have marveled at his passing instincts, so that’s one area where he might be a revelation in the Lakers’ offensive system. But such arcane detail is no match for the entertainment value of what else Stephenson offers. His free will spiced up the experience for the closely knit Pacers last season, but Stephenson made it work under a stoic taskmaster coach in Nate McMillan.

Lance Stephenson with the Indiana Pacers

Lance Stephenson with the Indiana Pacers

Stephenson was a really good teammate for an overachieving team not unlike the Lakers’ younger group of spirited workers. Almost half Indiana’s team personally lobbied general manager Kevin Pritchard to keep the group intact at the trade deadline…and then the Pacers proceeded to push James’ Cavaliers to the brink in a seven-game first-round playoff series.

That series furthered the Lance-LeBron rivalry, but the tone of it was already established back in the January regular-season game—a two-point Indiana victory—that included James’ forearm shove to Stephenson’s chest. Stephenson’s passion led to that rare technical foul called on James, and afterward James said: “Lance is just a little dirty, that’s all. He’s a little dirty.”

Before James finished speaking about Stephenson, however, he added one more thing, unsolicited. It was a postscript that clearly conveyed James’ understanding of Stephenson’s value: “But he played well tonight.”

Said Pelinka: “Rondo historically has been a tenacious, tough guy (with) steals. We wanted that mentality, and we identified it. Lance Stephenson, he’ll agitate you, he’ll get under you, he’ll cause you to get out of your game. And he can play in the open court and score at the rim.”

Stephenson salvaged his career with his second stint in Indiana and was an overwhelming fan favorite. It’s worth noting that when he signed back in 2017 and was asked about his first game being against James, Stephenson said he wanted to put the ear blow-ing and all that behind him.

Now consider what Pritchard said about Stephenson choosing the Lakers over the Pacers with this contract: “There was an opportunity for him to come back, and we understand he really wanted to go with the Lakers. We really understand that. It’s sort of a dream, and I think when LeBron calls you up and says, ‘I want you,’ it’s hard for him to turn that down.”

What has been most overlooked about these signings is that Johnson and Pelinka wanted more voice in the Lakers’ locker room and more edginess on the Staples Center court. The Lakers were actually seeking out larger egos in this case. Bear in mind that Johnson lamented early in the offseason how many “quiet” guys were on his youthful roster.

The Lakers were determined not to be soft, especially around James. They expect to be tougher for opponents to handle in every way. And after Stephenson, McGee and Rondo came into the fold, Pelinka said: “These guys bring a level of understanding of what it takes to succeed in the playoffs.”

What will be even more interesting to see play out—but only if observers come into it with an open mind and not just predetermined reputations—is whether Stephenson, McGee, Rondo and Beasley wind up being positive influences internally with the Lakers. There’s valid reason to believe so.

It’s not as shallow as the Lakers simply hoping for the best from them. These guys have put forth a lot of that best lately as team members, even if few casual fans have cared to notice.

These guys bring a level of understanding of what it takes to succeed in the playoffs.

Rob Pelinka

Rondo got some credit because of his playoff success in New Orleans last season, averaging 11.3 points, 13.3 assists and 7.5 rebounds in a first-round sweep of Portland. But the positives of his play and especially his guidance of younger players in Sacramento, Chicago and New Orleans haven’t overshadowed his 2014-15 season of discontent in Dallas.

The negatives tend to linger in the public domain. But Rondo’s work ethic, basketball IQ and confidence were difference-makers in his other stops, especially under coaches who’ve given him more freedom. Even two years ago in Chicago, where he sometimes didn’t play at all, Rondo was the invaluable glue guy (whose on-court performance also spurred the team’s late-season run).

The highlight of that season was Rondo righteously defending his younger teammates in a scathing Instagram post after Bulls stars Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler pinned blame on the inexperienced players: “I may be a lot of things, but I'm not a bad teammate,” Rondo wrote. “My goal is to pass what I learned along. The young guys work. They show up. They don't deserve blame. If anything is questionable, it’s the leadership.”

Rondo’s commitment to that very cause was evident long before that: When the so-called “Three Alphas” were all excused from a preseason game in Milwaukee, who was the one driving up from Chicago for the game anyway to support his teammates and bond with them? Wade and Butler went to college in Milwaukee and could’ve made appearances for their fans there, but it wasn’t them.

Rajon Rondo getting shots up before a 2018 first-round playoff game

Rajon Rondo getting shots up before a 2018 first-round playoff game

When Beasley played in Milwaukee, the biggest surprise to some there was how much he did to help develop the Bucks’ younger players—even if Beasley’s trademark self-confidence never waned.

McGee sometimes didn’t play at all with the Warriors, but those around that team report his demeanor was consistently positive and dedicated in two years. He wound up rewarded with meaningful starting assignments in the 2018 NBA Finals, but he was a joy to be around throughout: working extra after practices, engaging fans and teammates with his Parking Lot Chronicles videos after home games, and—watch out Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma—memorably prank-gifting all the Warriors blankets with a sleeping Draymond Green’s open-mouthed face on them.

Funny thing is, it wound up being Green actively lobbying for McGee to get a larger role in the Warriors’ lineup.

What Rondo had last season under Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry is akin to what McGee had under Kerr: not just freedom, but encouragement to be himself. Kerr, Gentry and current Lakers head coach Luke Walton were all on the same Golden State staff a few years ago. They’ve compared plenty of notes on Walton’s newest players, and Walton has reached out to others for more intel on Stephenson and Beasley.

It’s actually a long-standing NBA rationale to surround a dominant player and leader with the best outright talent you can get—and hope for the best. But the Lakers can refer to the recent track record of these newcomers and have clear reason to expect their best.

They also have a head coach with a special sense for finding the best in people.

Walton has been told by friends his entire life that he might be too trusting, but he doesn’t care; he insists on looking for the good in people.

A lot of folks today forget even to hope for that best in people.

This Lakers offseason has already been a reminder how the hot-take sports world is filled with recycled hot air from the masses of gasbags: LeBron can’t stand Lance, JaVale is a clown, no one likes Rondo, Beas is a flake…

In fact, these guys have earned this chance now.

And what they bring from their unique personalities—here at a humbler point in their careers—might just make this a great fit for all.

They all know their public reputations precede them.

They all know playing and winning with LeBron and the Lakers would deliver a special sort of credibility.

Perhaps playing and winning with LeBron and the Lakers could even deliver more well-rounded pictures of who these guys are.

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Kevin Ding is an independent sports writer and the statements and views expressed by him do not necessarily represent the views of the Los Angeles Lakers.

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