EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — A lot has happened in the Western Conference in the five weeks since the Los Angeles Lakers were swept out of the conference finals.
The Denver Nuggets, who eliminated L.A., proved they had a championship-ready group already by beating the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals. The Phoenix Suns traded Chris Paul to the Washington Wizards in a deal for Bradley Beal. The Golden State Warriors then traded Jordan Poole to Washington for Paul. The Memphis Grizzlies received news of Ja Morant‘s 25-game suspension and dealt Tyus Jones as part of a three-team trade to land Marcus Smart from the Boston Celtics.
Despite the flurry of activity, Lakers vice president of basketball operations and general manager Rob Pelinka has stayed grounded in his plan for the offseason: attempt to return as much of the Lakers’ core from last season as possible to make another run at it.
“I think we believe in the proof of concept of this group, and we saw defensively what we were able to do to finish the season out, and I think defense and rebounding wins championships … We want to lean into that,” Pelinka said Tuesday. “I think if there’s ways we can improve the roster, of course we’re going to do that. I think probably less focus of, ‘Hey, what is Team X or Team Y doing?’ And more focus on, ‘How can we optimize us?'”
Pelinka opined that the NBA is wide open, causing plenty of franchises to plan to stock up for next season with free agency set to begin Friday (6 p.m. ET).
“Teams are going to be aggressive,” Pelinka said. “There’s a lot of parity in the league right now, and everyone smells an opportunity to chase the championship, but we’re going to try our best to stay in that pack or at the head of that pack.”
Before being eliminated by Denver — losing the four games by a combined 24 points — L.A. reeled off an 18-6 record through the end of the regular season, play-in tournament and first two rounds of the playoffs.
L.A. has several key players from last season’s team hitting the market, including restricted free agents Austin Reaves and Rui Hachimura and unrestricted free agents D’Angelo Russell, Dennis Schroder and Lonnie Walker IV. On Tuesday, the Lakers extended qualifying offers to Reaves and Hachimura, which means they have the right to match any outside offer to retain them.
Sources told ESPN the Lakers plan to exercise the $4.7 million team option for forward Jarred Vanderbilt for next season. Vanderbilt, 24, will be eligible for a contract extension worth up to four years and $71 million starting Sept. 7.
“We want to try our hardest to keep this core of guys together and also improve around the edges and on the margins to not only get back to where we were last year but hopefully take the next step and get into the NBA Finals,” Pelinka said.