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Column: Lakers GM Rob Pelinka treks grandmaster path to team building

Lakers star LeBron James hugs general manager Rob Pelinka after defeating the Miami Heat for the NBA title in October.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

In between making moves that have reinforced and rejuvenated the Lakers’ roster, Rob Pelinka has passed time during the pandemic watching Netflix. For most of us, the streaming service provides entertainment. For the Lakers’ general manager and vice president of basketball operations, watching the chess-themed miniseries “The Queen’s Gambit” provided a good analogy to his approach to free agency during this abbreviated NBA off-season.

“Free agency is a little bit like playing a game of simultaneous chess with 29 other teams,” he said. “And they’re all really smart and they have their plans and their boards and they’re going to make their moves and we’ve thought out our various chess moves that we can make and you never know exactly how the game’s going to be played out.

“I think if you watch that show on Netflix you see the ins and outs of chess and how to study the board, but you don’t know until you play the game how it’s going to go.”

Pelinka has won the game of offseason roster management, making the Lakers younger and grittier — if a bit smaller — while also securing LeBron James to an extension through 2022-23 and signing Anthony Davis to a five-year max deal through 2024-25. “Our two pillars, our two captains, our two unicorns,” Pelinka called them during a webinar Friday. “It’s being able to find young players that can win now and also carry forward the torch with AD and lining up with his age.”

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Before last season, it seemed Pelinka could do no right. He couldn’t lure Kawhi Leonard to sign as a free agent in the summer of 2019, he couldn’t get Monty Williams or Tyronn Lue to take the coaching job, and he had to take a chance on an apparently faded Dwight Howard after center DeMarcus Cousins suffered a torn ACL. The Lakers mortgaged their future to acquire Davis from New Orleans, and with James coming off a groin injury there was no guarantee their gamble would pay off.

Now, in the warm and fuzzy aftermath of the Lakers’ first championship since 2010, it seems like Pelinka can do little wrong. Coach Frank Vogel proved to be an inspired choice who got James and Davis invested in a defense-first mentality. When they enthusiastically bought in, everyone else fell in behind them. Davis became that second unicorn alongside James, a force at both ends of the floor and a singular leader in the playoffs. The supporting cast stepped up admirably.

But to stand still would have meant falling behind, and Pelinka had to move his pieces around the chess board. On Friday he thanked Howard, Rajon Rondo, JaVale McGee, Danny Green and Avery Bradley for their contributions to the team, saying they will “be etched in the history of this franchise forever,” but losing them was a reasonable cost in his plan to not only repeat but to establish dominance for years to come.

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To add the snarl he and Vogel wanted, Pelinka signed away from the Clippers big man Montrezl Harrell, the NBA’s sixth man of the year, and traded for guard Dennis Schroder, the sixth man runner-up. Schroder is 27 and in position to become a long-term and solid supporting player. “I love his edge that he plays with, his demeanor. The nasty competitor side of him is something you hate playing against but you love it when he’s on your team. I’m thrilled about it,” said Vogel, who added it’s too early to say if Schroder will start or come off the bench.

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“He’s one of the fastest guys in the league and we were a great fast-breaking team last year, so I think he’s only going to add to what we do in that regard. I always called him the speeding bullet. There’s probably very few coaches in the league that are bigger fans of his game than I am.”

These aren’t the glitzy “Lake Show” Lakers. Their work ethic is more lunch pail than lavish expense-account lunch. The newcomers’ hunger and energy should fit in well.

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“I think Frank Vogel and his coaching staff have made it clear that the identity of this team is centered on defense and just playing gritty, tenacious basketball,” Pelinka said. “When you have talented guys like LeBron and AD, things on the offensive end are going to work themselves out.

“You look at the guys we added: Schroder I think is a pit bull of a defender. Montrezl Harrell is one of the hardest-playing players in the NBA, just the way he brings it every night. I think Marc Gasol, [the 2013] defensive player of the year is one of the highest-IQ players in today’s game, and then Wesley Matthews, who manages to stand out.”

After the Lakers open the season against the Clippers, they face Dallas and Portland. Here is the first half of the schedule, released Friday.

The Lakers may be overestimating Harrell’s defensive ability, but it’s also possible that with no need to cover up for teammates’ defensive failings and with better defenders around him, he will elevate his game. The influence of strong leadership and the not-so-distant gleam of a championship ring could work wonders for him and for the Lakers’ repeat chances.

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“I think it’s really building a team around the identity of kind of how the coaching staff wants to coach. And that’s with defense and high basketball IQ and grit, and that’s how we built it,” Pelinka said. “Those threads and those themes can run through a franchise and can continue because it’s just the natural part of sports that players will come and go, but if you have that identity in who you are and how you play, that’ll endure, and that’s what this team’s about right now.”

Grandmaster, the highest attainable title in chess, isn’t on Pelinka’s resume. Another championship or two would make a case for adding the basketball equivalent of that honor.


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