National Basketball Association
Lakers building a team to fear as GM Rob Pelinka leaves Russell Westbrook deal behind
National Basketball Association

Lakers building a team to fear as GM Rob Pelinka leaves Russell Westbrook deal behind

Updated Jul. 3, 2023 7:38 p.m. ET

Los Angeles Lakers fans were calling for general manager Rob Pelinka to be fired. After losses, he'd often be seen hurriedly walking through the tunnels of Arena with his eyes fixed on the ground. For a season and a half, the Lakers were considered one of the greatest disappointments in the NBA.

Even though that was the Lakers' reality as recently as five months ago, that dark period for the franchise now seems light-years behind it.

The first major shift came at the trade deadline in February, when Pelinka dealt Russell Westbrook and Patrick Beverley and added six new players, giving them increased size, shooting, rim protection and better chemistry. They went from being in 13th place in the West into being legitimate contenders that reached the conference finals.

Then in the opening days of free agency, Pelinka has only made the team deeper and stronger, while also re-signing the team's priority players, including Austin Reaves, Rui Hachimura and D'Angelo Russell.


Now, Pelinka is being widely hailed. LeBron James gave him a very public nod of approval, posting photos on Instagram of each player with whom the Lakers reached a deal. Kendrick Perkins, a former player and current ESPN analyst, even called the Lakers the winners of free agency.

On Friday, the Lakers agreed to contracts with Hachimura (three years, $51 million), Gabe Vincent (three years, $33 million), Taurean Prince (one year, $4.5 million) and Cam Reddish (two years, $4.6 million, player option on second year).

On Saturday, Russell (two years, $37 million, player option on the second year), Jaxson Hayes (two years, money currently undisclosed) and Reaves (four years, $56 million, player option on fourth year) also agreed to deals.

It's a windfall for Pelinka, who was highly scrutinized for trading away some key pieces from the Lakers' 2020 championship team (including Kyle Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope) to acquire Westbrook in 2021. That proved to be an unmitigated disaster for the Lakers, who missed the playoffs in 2022 and were seemingly en route to the same fate for a second consecutive season before he remade the roster. 

Should Lakers be content running it back?

Now, the Lakers are unquestionably one of the teams to fear heading into next season. 

Here's a quick look at the Lakers' recent moves:

Reaves, who was undrafted out of Oklahoma in 2021, was the Lakers' biggest surprise last season. He went from being a fringe NBA player to being the team's third-leading scorer in the playoffs behind James and Anthony Davis, averaging 16.9 points on 46.4% shooting, 4.4 rebounds and 4.6 assists. The Lakers avoided potentially having to offer matches north of $100 million to retain Reaves, re-signing him for the maximum they could offer without having to match.

[How Austin Reaves, the ‘Hillbilly Kobe,’ won over LeBron James]

Then there's Hachimura, who also left a deep impression during the postseason with his efficient play, lack of fear, ability to protect the rim and his shooting. He averaged 12.2 points on 55.7% shooting over the playoffs, including 48.7% from beyond the arc.

As for Russell, the Lakers got him for a relative bargain after he proved that he can be a reliable floor general albeit streaky shooter during the regular season, averaging 17.4 points and 6.1 assists over 17 games. His value dropped after he struggled during the playoffs, especially against the Denver Nuggets, when he averaged just 6.8 points on 32.3% shooting.  

In Vincent, the Lakers acquired a vital cog to the Miami Heat's Finals run. Vincent, who went undrafted out of UC Santa Barbara in 2018, was huge with his playmaking and spot-up shooting, including scoring a team-high 23 points on 8-for-12 shooting in the Heat's win over the Nuggets in Game 2 of the Finals. 

With the 6-foot-11 Hayes, the Lakers added size, athleticism and rim protection. They acquired a 3-and-D player in Prince. And in Reddish, they're increasing their wing depth. The Lakers also retained Jarred Vanderbilt by picking up his $4.7 million team option. 

The Lakers had a strong showing in the playoffs before getting swept by the eventual championship Nuggets in the conference finals, beating the young and talented Memphis Grizzlies in the first round, followed by knocking out the then-reigning defending champion Golden State Warriors in the second round.

That led Pelinka to say during his exit interview that he believed in this iteration of the Lakers. 

"We were on the doorstep of potentially the NBA Finals," Pelinka said in May. "And in the NBA Finals, anything could happen. So I think there's proof in concept that this was a really good team. But again, we're not going to rest on our laurels. If there's opportunities to get even better. Whether it's through the draft, whether it's through trades or free agency, we're always looking to improve. But we have a core that is highly successful."

The Lakers' success over free agency is surely a welcome development for the 38-year-old James, who intimated that he was considering retirement after a season in which he became the league's all-time leading scorer and broke all sorts of records for a player in the 20th year of his career.

LeBron hints at retirement following loss to Nuggets

But James was clearly very emotionally and physically drained after falling short of his ultimate goal. 

"I don't like to say it's a successful year because I don't play for anything besides winning championships at this point in my career," James said in May. " ... We'll see what happens going forward. I don't know. I don't know. I've got a lot to think about, to be honest."

Sources have since told FOX Sports that they believe James will return. This much is certain: The Lakers have built a team designed to contend, which will obviously weigh heavily in James' ultimate decision. 

For Pelinka, it has been a whirlwind. 

He went from being considered a failure to an absolute success, a whiplash-inducing journey for the general manager of a franchise that has won an NBA record-tying 17 championships.  

Now, the Lakers are at the center of the basketball world once again, expected to be contenders next season. 

Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.

FOLLOW Follow your favorites to personalize your FOX Sports experience
National Basketball Association
Los Angeles Lakers
LeBron James

Get more from National Basketball Association Follow your favorites to get information about games, news and more