Lakers GM Rob Pelinka on slimmer LeBron James, preseason outlook

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With the Lakers off to a player-directed mini-camp in Las Vegas, General Manager Rob Pelinka might even get a breather before training camp begins next week.

The 51-year-old executive spoke with reporters Thursday in advance of what many expect to be another title-contending season for the Lakers, the 2020 champions who fell flat in a first-round playoff exit earlier this year. With a greatly overhauled roster now featuring Russell Westbrook as a third superstar alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis, Pelinka has put a lot on the line to chase another title.

Aside from the vaccination status of his players – the Lakers are expecting to be fully vaccinated by opening night on Oct. 19 against Golden State – Pelinka talked about some of the team’s offseason moves and workouts in his first public comments since introducing Westbrook last month. Here are the top takeaways from Pelinka’s presser:

James and Westbrook setting the tone: While some observers have questioned how two ball-dominant, strong-willed playmakers will mesh together on the court, the culture fit is obvious to the Lakers. Few players are willing to work as hard as James, who turns 37 in December, or Westbrook, one of the most athletic specimens in league history.

Pelinka expects James to come into camp a little slimmer than he’s been in the past, a few months removed from a high ankle sprain that caused the four-time league MVP to miss most of the second half of the regular season.

“We all know LeBron studies the greats, and he adds things into his game,” he said. “And I think going into this stage of his career, he’s made a decision to come back a little bit leaner, and I think that’s gonna translate in his explosiveness and quickness.”

With Westbrook, the Lakers expect a return to his hometown to spark something in the 2017 MVP, especially on opening night at Staples Center when Pelinka expected the Leuzinger High and UCLA product to be “gassed up.” But one thing both men have contributed to is a sense of belief within the organization that the Lakers will be a true title contender this season.

“There’s a palpable feeling, there’s a palpable taste in your mouth that when this group of guys is in the gym, or around each other, there’s a respect for, ‘Hey, we have a chance to do something special this year, and we all have to make sacrifices to get there,’” Pelinka said. “And I think this group shares that common belief in the assumption that sacrifices will have to be made, but there’s something greater that we can accomplish.”

Keeping Horton-Tucker and losing Caruso: Of the Lakers’ two biggest free agents going into the offseason, Alex Caruso departed for Chicago, but the team was able to retain Talen Horton-Tucker as a restricted free agent. There have been reports of hard feelings between Caruso and his former team: The Athletic reported last month that the Lakers didn’t counter the Bulls’ offer. But Pelinka seemed to push back on that account, saying the Lakers “made an aggressive attempt” to keep Caruso, who had become a critical defender and trusted complementary piece to the All-Star duo of James and Davis.

“We pursued him and wanted to keep him,” Pelinka said.

At this point, that’s history. The Lakers are focused on Horton-Tucker, who will turn 21 this season and is under contract for the next three years. While he had bright moments last season (9 ppg, 2.8 apg), the team has hopes that the 6-foot-5 wing can build on his strong drives to the basket and add more playmaking while also becoming a more consistent defender.

“There’s nothing that Talen doesn’t have to keep him from being an elite player,” Pelinka said. “We all know about his publicized incredible wingspan, broad shoulders, quickness, athleticism. If he makes a choice to dominate you on the defensive end with his body and his length and his athleticism, that can be a nightmare for opponents.”

Melo’s fit: The Lakers have been linked to Carmelo Anthony for years, dating to when he was a superstar free agent, to more recent times when he wasn’t playing at all. Now 37, Anthony figures to be a bench piece for the team with definite holes in his game but strengths that Pelinka emphasized. One of the most appealing traits, Pelinka said, is Anthony’s ability to stretch the floor as a forward, and his steadfast confidence in his catch-and-shoot ability. Anthony is the 12th-leading scorer in NBA history, and he shot nearly 41 percent from 3-point range last season.

“I think there are some players, when you play with people like LeBron or Russell, when that ball is kicked to you, maybe it’s a little heavier,” Pelinka said. “But Melo, I don’t think he’s paying attention to who’s throwing him the ball. He’s just getting it, and he’s just locked into trying to convert.”

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“I don’t have any concerns about us being a very, very strong team defensively,” said Pelinka, who cited the additions of Kent Bazemore and Trevor Ariza as helpful in that regard. “I believe in the group’s commitment, and the effort, and Coach’s teaching at that end, and I think we’ll be successful as a defensive ballclub.”

Final roster spots: It’s no secret the Lakers are feeling some financial strain thanks to the luxury tax. With three superstar salaries helping balloon them past the salary cap, the Lakers pay more than three dollars for every dollar they’re now over (an estimated $35 million tax bill). That fiduciary interest was part of the reason the Lakers replaced Marc Gasol’s salary with DeAndre Jordan’s veteran’s minimum, and why they still have two open roster spots available just days away from training camp.

Pelinka said the Lakers will likely leave one spot open, which will ease their tax bill in the short term and allow them to add a player in the buyout market in the spring. The 14th spot can be filled when they identify the right player: Pelinka said the team is making “final evaluations” on what to do with that roster spot, a decision that should be made as camp opens next week.

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