The Los Angeles Lakers won their 17th NBA championship on October 11 and look like a completely different team roughly six weeks later. Somehow, the team that led the Western Conference for most of the 2019-20 season won a title in the league's Orlando bubble got much better this offseason. All credit for those marked improvements should go to Rob Pelinka.
The Lakers' vice president of basketball operations and general manager was much maligned during his first few years on the job. But over the course of the last three offseasons he's proven himself one of the NBA's top executives. In 2018 he helped the Lakers land LeBron James. For an encore in 2019, he engineered a blockbuster trade that brought Anthony Davis to Los Angeles. He also deserves credit for hiring Frank Vogel off the scrap heap and installing him as the team's head coach. Vogel's commitment to defense helped pave the way to a title. Now, Pelinka has completely reshaped the Lakers with a plethora of moves that have the team set up as favorites again this season.
It has been fascinating to watch him piece together a near-perfect offseason.
Knowing he might lose guard depth due to a litany of guys with player options attempting to secure more money, the first thing Pelinka did was add a playmaker with some scoring punch. He landed Dennis Schroeder in a trade with Oklahoma City that sent Danny Green and the 28th pick in the 2020 NBA Draft in the other direction. Schroder is coming off a career year with the Thunder in which he averaged 18.9 points per game off the bench and hit 38.5 percent of his three-point attempts. He can get his own buckets and is great on catch-and-shoot threes, which means he'll be able to play off the ball with James, or with the ball when he LeBron sits.
Once free agency opened, Pelinka set out to replace Green on the wing and landed Wes Matthews with a one-year, $3.6 million deal. Matthews was actually better than Green last season defensively and is a career 38.1 percent three-point shooter. Thus, the role of a 3-and-D man was filled cheaply with a solid veteran.
The next move was a shocker. The Lakers lured reigning Sixth Man of the Year Montrezl Harrell away from the rival Clippers on a two-year, $19 million deal. The 26-year-old Harrell had a breakout year for the Clips, averaging 18.6 points and 7.1 rebounds off the bench, and his PER of 23.26 made him the 13th-most efficient player in the league. He gives the Lakers a killer roll man whose thunderous dunks can change the momentum of games. He's a high-energy guy who will bring fire when he's on the floor.
With guards Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley leaving for greener pastures and the multiyear contracts they couldn't get in LA, Pelinka brought back Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. KCP's numbers don't jump off the page, but he was a key starter during LA's title run. He also shot a career-best 38.5 percent from three-point range while playing stellar defense. His three-year, $40 million deal was completely acceptable given his contributions down the stretch.
As if that wasn't enough, Pelinka unloaded the $4.2 million contract of JaVale McGee by trading him to Cleveland along with a second-round pick. In exchange he got two low-priced veterans in Jordan Bell and Alfonzo McKinnie. While those two players' futures with the team are unknown, Pelinka used the savings from dumping McGee to sign Marc Gasol to a two-year deal.
Gasol, who was originally drafted by the Lakers before being traded to Memphis as part of the trade that sent his brother Pau to LA, is a perfect fit for what the Lakers need up front. He's a well-rounded post player who can eat minutes, rebound, pass, hit 38.5 percent of his 3-point attempts last season and is a former Defensive Player of the Year. He's a smart, savvy veteran and will fit right in with James and Davis. It's also worth noting he won a championship with Toronto in 2019, so he knows what it takes to bring home a ring.
Pelinka & Co. managed to convince Markieff Morris to run it back with the Lakers on a veteran's minimum contract. LA signed Morris in February after the Pistons bought him out. While he didn't do much in the regular season, he was outstanding in the playoffs. Morris added a layer of toughness to the Lakers' bench, managed to hit 42 percent of his three-point shots in the postseason and even started two games against the Rockets. Without him, the Lakers have a much more difficult time winning that title.
For the cherry on top of Pelinka's kick-ass sundae, Anthony Davis is also preparing to re-sign with the Lakers, though the length and structure of the deal has yet to be determined. But it's all a formality. He'll be in purple and gold next year and likely for the foreseeable future.
Pelinka checked all the boxes this offseason. He improved the Lakers across the board while also securing players who fit with LeBron and Davis. He added scoring punch, secured defensive stoppers, upgraded the team's post options and added some energy and flash. And he did it all without committing to long-term deals, which gives LA flexibility for 2021's massive free agent class. It's stunning how it all came together.
I'll be the first to admit I wasn't sold on Pelinka as a general manager. I thought he and Magic Johnson were steering the Lakers into the ground despite landing LeBron in 2018. I truly believed Pelinka was in over his head. I was dead wrong. The man is shrewd and has proven just how adept he is at identifying targets and convincing them to sign deals that fit the Lakers' salary needs.
Pelinka did a masterful job this offseason and deserves all the credit in the world.