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LeBron James, Rob Pelinka discuss Lakers' disappointing season, next moves

LeBron remains 'hungry' and 'confident' despite a rocky season filled with losses, questions about roster makeup and injuries.

LeBron James missed a combined 24 games because of injuries to his left ankle (seven), left knee (seven), abdominal muscle (eight) and right ankle (two).

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — The calm demeanor camouflaged LeBron James’ season-long frustrations with the Los Angeles Lakers’ persistent losing and his various injuries.

That calm demeanor also captured how James could put his four-year tenure with the Lakers in perspective with both exhilarating highs (a 2020 NBA title) and disappointing lows (two missed playoff appearances and one first-round exit).

“I came here to win a championship. I want to win more,” James said Monday at the Lakers’ practice facility. “I accomplished what I wanted to accomplish. But I’m still hungry for more. I’m confident that this organization wants the same.”

James spoke those words shortly after having his exit interview with Rob Pelinka, the Lakers’ vice president of basketball operations and general manager. About 90 minutes later, the Lakers announced that they fired Frank Vogel as head coach after a missed playoff appearance in his third season contrasted sharply with the championship they won in his first. An hour later, Pelinka spoke with reporters partly to pledge he will do more to validate James’ public trust in the organization.

“We had a very disappointing season,” Pelinka said. “That will not be the case next season.”

Pelinka explains why Lakers parted with Vogel

The Lakers often belabored the team’s injuries for their season-long shortcomings. And why not? The Lakers missed a combined 246 games due to injuries and another 41 related to COVID-19. With James (26 games) and Anthony Davis (42) nursing overlapping ailments, the Lakers’ two stars played only a combined 21 games with Russell Westbrook. Kendrick Nunn, a key offseason free-agent signing, never played a single game because of a bruised right knee. The Lakers fielded 41 different starting lineups.

Pelinka declined to dwell on those circumstances, saying “it’s a win and loss business; we’re not in an excuse business.” Under that framework, Pelinka offered some self-criticism. He conceded that “our roster did not work” after constructing a veteran-heavy team featuring Westbrook and a handful of role players on veteran’s minimum deals. The Lakers also lost some of their youth and depth to acquire Westbrook last summer from Washington, including Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and a first-round pick.

“That starts with the front office, led by me and our ability to construct the right roster,” Pelinka said. “It starts with the coaches holding players accountable and making sure there is on-court execution. It goes to our training staff with making sure they have everything they can to have healthy bodies on the court. It goes to our players to play with on-court execution at the highest level. That’s what Lakers fans expect and deserve from all of us. When you have disappointment, you need to take ownership of that and vow to make the adjustments to be better.”

Lakers part ways with Frank Vogel

Nonetheless, the Lakers wasted no time with conveying that they thought Vogel’s presence contributed to their shortcomings.

“Today is not going to be a day of finger-pointing or unwinding all the specific reasons,” Pelinka said. “We just felt organizationally at the highest level that it was time for a new voice.”

Pelinka said that he had an “open and honest meeting” with Vogel on Monday morning. Then, Pelinka said that he expressed gratitude to him for overseeing the Lakers’ championship season two years ago and added that Vogel “was a great coach here and he will go on to be a great coach somewhere else.” And Pelinka described Vogel as “a great man and a great coach” after expressing gratitude for him and his family.

“I respect Frank as a coach, as a man and our partnership we’ve had,” James said. “Over the few years here, it has been nothing but just candid and great conversations. This guy gives everything to the game and prepared us every single night along with his coaching staff.”

Yet, the Lakers hardly showed the same professional courtesy toward Vogel shortly after the Lakers season ended on Sunday with an overtime win over the Denver Nuggets. Shortly after the game, ESPN reported about the Lakers’ plans to inform Vogel of his firing on Monday. Shortly afterwards, Vogel spoke with reporters and used an expletive when sharing that the Lakers’ front office had not informed him directly about his future.

“The basketball decisions made here are made by the basketball operations department. I take full responsibility on any decision that’s been made,” Pelinka said. “In terms of media reports that are speculative and unsourced, we don’t spend any of our time reacting to that type of information in terms of how we make decisions here.”

Does that mean ESPN’s report was inaccurate?

“We don’t respond to unsourced media reports,” Pelinka said. “In terms of the timing of our decision, I’m going to keep that internal.”

Do the Lakers feel embarrassed Vogel learned about his dismissal through social media instead of communicating with him directly?

“He factually heard about our decision in an in-person meeting from me this morning,” Pelinka said.

It remains unclear which candidates the Lakers will pursue to replace Vogel. Pelinka described the next steps “as a very methodical process” without an end date. Nonetheless, Pelinka admitted he hopes the Lakers hire their next head coach roughly around the same time the NBA Draft takes place on June 23.

“With obviously superstars on our team, we want a strong voice that’s able to inspire the players to play at the highest level of competition every night,” Pelinka said. “That’s going to be one of the resounding qualities we look for in terms of holding everybody from the top player on our team to the 15th man to a degree of accountability.”

The Lakers’ initial hopes to have someone hired by the NBA Draft does not just correlate with other head-coaching candidates becoming available following certain playoff exits. It also coincides with the Lakers’ hope to collaborate with their next head coach before free agency begins on July 1.

“I don’t think every time you make a roster decision, you’re going to make a perfect one and not have mistakes,” Pelinka said. “That’s just a part of making choices. But there will be a strong sense of collaboration with our future roster decisions as there was with Frank in his tenure here.”

What will it take for Lakers to get back on track?

Expect James and Davis to become involved in those conversations, too. They always have in three seasons together.

They admittedly brainstormed with Pelinka on how to construct the Lakers’ championship roster two years ago. They openly advocated for the Lakers to pursue Westbrook even when they nearly completed a deal to land Sacramento Kings guard Buddy Hield. Still, James has stressed that he has not become the team’s shadow GM during his four years with the Lakers.

“The front office is going to do whatever it takes to help this ball club become a better ball club from top to bottom,” James said. “If they ask me my opinion, I’ll give them my opinion. But at the end of the day, they’re going to make the decisions they feel is best for the franchise.”

The Lakers’ lack of on-court roster continuity was part of the undoing in 2021-22.

After all, the Lakers have historically gone against James’ wishes in other cases. They originally chose Vogel over Tyronn Lue, who coached James for four years with the Cleveland Cavaliers, after the two could not agree on the length of a potential deal. Despite James’ public endorsement of Westbrook, he also would have supported a deal for Hield. The Lakers also admitted previously that they changed course once they learned Westbrook could be available. The Lakers also abstained from making a deal before this season’s trade deadline despite urging from the locker room.

On Monday, Pelinka offered public endorsements from various front office members, including Kurt Rambis (director of basketball affairs), Jesse Buss (assistant general manager/directory of scouting) and Joey Buss (vice president of research and development). But Pelinka put the critiques on the team’s roster construction on himself.

“The roster decisions ultimately rest on my shoulders,” Pelinka said. “I will take input from LeBron and Anthony as our two captains. I have done that during my entire tenure. But at the end of the day, I’m the one that leads the basketball operations department and will take ultimate accountability for how the roster decisions are made. Our dialogue with our captains has been open and very productive. But it’s important that we are seen as the ultimate decision makers. That’s the way it will go and has gone.”

After all, James admitted that the Lakers never told him directly about Vogel’s firing even during his exit meeting.

“You can’t worry about what’s going on in the outside or how people feel and things of that nature,” James said. “It’s a lot of things that could be done a certain way better this way or that way, but when the decision is made, you’re never going to make everybody happy.”

What does Westbrook’s future look like?

The Lakers have plenty to sift through considering they only have seven players under contract this season and at least eight empty roster slots to fill once free agency begins on July 1.

Should the Lakers fill those empty roster spots with more scoring, defense or youth?

“All three,” James said. But part of that depends on what the Lakers do with Westbrook, who has a $47 million player option next season.

Sam Mitchell talks about how Russell Westbrook needs to regain his confidence.

“One thing about Russ that I love and will always love is just his competitive spirit and what he brings to the game every single night,” James said. “When you’re in a profession where so many injuries happen and so many things go on, to have a guy that’s reliable and can put on a uniform every single night, that’s something I respect out of everything. I’m not going to sit here and make decisions for the front office and things of that nature. But I loved being a teammate with Russ.”

James expressed optimism that he could thrive as a wing player while Davis serves as a lob threat and Westbrook works as a playmaker at a fast pace. James argued that “the reason we were not very good together is we weren’t on the damn floor together.” But the Lakers still went only 11-10 in the games that James, Davis and Westbrook played together. The Lakers did not fare much better with games featuring Westbrook and James (25-30), Westbrook and Davis (17-22) and Westbrook as the No. 1 option (0-5).

Although Pelinka described Westbrook as a “Hall-of-Fame player that gave everything he could to this organization this year,” the Lakers’ general manager hardly committed toward his long-term future. Pelinka said the Lakers will simply wait for what Westbrook decides to do with his $47 million player option in June.

“We’ll partner with him after that decision is made about what is best for his future,” Pelinka said. “Rest assured, we’re going to look under every stone for ways to be better and be open to anything that will improve our team and put us in a position to compete at a higher level next year than we did last year.”

After a brief pause, Pelinka stressed the meaning behind his words.

“That statement is not about any specific player on our roster,” Pelinka said. “It’s a general statement. I don’t think it’s fair today to take on any player on our roster and discuss his future and whether he’ll be in a trade or won’t be in a trade. I don’t think that’s fair. But in general, the statement I made I stand behind.”

What will James’ future look like?

No doubt, James will play a large factor in the Lakers’ success next season. That left Pelinka expressing optimism considering that he described James as “the Mt. Rushmore of basketball” who had a “jaw-dropping” season after nearly leading the NBA in scoring (30.3 points per game).

Yet, James argued that “going after a scoring title when you’re not making the postseason is the most wackest thing ever.”

“Once we were eliminated from playoff contention, then there was nothing to talk about, nothing to think about,” James said. “I’m not going to be out there just to be playing meaningless games to try to win the scoring title. That’s so beneath me and where I am in my career.”

Nonetheless, James described this season as “very taxing” while he missed a combined 24 games because of injuries related to his left ankle (seven), left knee (seven), abdominal muscle (eight) and right ankle (two).

LeBron James dominates, notching a 38-point triple-double as the Lakers breeze past the Cavs, 131-120.

“I take a lot of the responsibility,” James said. “I wish I could’ve been a lot better leading the franchise this year. I wish I could’ve been in uniform a lot more than I was.”

James missed the last five games and seven of the last eight after rolling his left ankle during the Lakers’ loss in New Orleans on March 27. After missing two games, James conceded he should not have returned for a rematch against the Pelicans before adding he “wanted to see if we could make a late push.”

But James’ ankle injury became severe enough that he had an MRI that prevented him from being around the team for its season finale in Denver on Sunday. James reported that he won’t need any surgery or injections on his left ankle. He did not wear any cast or bandages around his left ankle during his exit meeting. And James expressed optimism he won’t need surgery when he has follow-up doctor appointments in the next couple of weeks for his left knee and groin.

“I’ll make a full recovery,” James said.

Yet, James will enter his 20th season at 38 years old feeling Father Time’s strain. He missed a combined 27 games in the 2017-18 season because of a left groin injury. He also missed a combined 27 games last season because of a high right ankle sprain.

James likened those incidents “to freak accidents” considering each injury resulted in an unexpected player collision. Nonetheless, it has taken longer for James to recover from such ailments than earlier in his NBA career.

“It’s my job to make sure I’m ready at the start of training camp and ready to lead the franchise and lead the team on the floor, whatever that may be,” James said. “My focus is to get rid of some of these injuries. Time heals all. I’ll wait for these injuries to go down and then be ready in September or when training camp starts again. It’s my job to lead the group of guys that the front office decides will be a part of this franchise.”

James expressed optimism he can play at any position regardless of the workload and physicality it entails. But after leading the NBA in field-goal attempts (21.8) while ranking only 15th in free-throw attempts (6.0), James outlined a clear goal for next season.

“I want to get to the free-throw line,” James said. “I want to figure out how to trick the refs.”

James sounded less certain about his long-term future than his actual health and game. James remained non-committal on whether he will sign a two-year, $97.1 million extension this summer.

“When we get to that point,” James said, “then we’ll see.”

James stressed that he and his agent, Rich Paul, have not talked with Pelinka about the topic simply because the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement prohibits all parties from having any discussions until August. Earlier this season, though, James said he plans to play with the Lakers “for as long as I can play.”

Pelinka described his partnership with James and his representatives as “great” and a “gold standard” because of their direct consideration. Nonetheless, James took veiled shots at Pelinka during All-Star weekend and even told The Athletic he would consider ending his career in Cleveland, a development that prompted the Lakers to have an in-depth meeting with Paul.

It’s my job to make sure I’m ready at the start of training camp and ready to lead the franchise and lead the team on the floor, whatever that may be. My focus is to get rid of some of these injuries.”

— LeBron James

“Every indication that we’ve received is he sees the Lakers as his home,” Pelinka said.

How long that will be remains to be seen. James remains under contract for next season. But he has said multiple times he plans to align his NBA career so that he can play on the same NBA team as his son, Bronny, who enters his senior season next year at Sierra Canyon School in Chatsworth, Calif. Bronny would then either have to play in college, professionally overseas or in the G League for at least one season before declaring eligibility for the NBA Draft.

“It’s up to my health. It’s up to my spirit. It’s up to my motivation,” James said. “The great thing for me is I get an opportunity now to be around my boys and watch those guys through their AAU tournaments and their summer ball. Those last five years have motivated me to come back and just watching them and watching their circus. So, I don’t have a cap on how long I want to play. I don’t want to say this or that. My wife doesn’t want to hear that.”

The Lakers absolutely do, though. They will cling to any good news after experiencing plenty of bad recently.

“We need to do all that we can to be caretakers of his legacy and to try to build the best team we can around him,” Pelinka said of James. “That’s something that we had the objective for our last year. Obviously that roster did not work. But there’s a great level of trust in our collaboration with him to make sure we get it right this summer and fix it.”

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Mark Medina is a senior writer/analyst for You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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