LOS ANGELES — A pivotal Lakers’ offseason starts with these foundational questions and a choice:
Is what they did after the All-Star break and through the playoffs repeatable? Or do there need to be significant changes if they are going to take the next step?
Unquestionably, Los Angeles was impressive in the final months of the season. After the All-Star break — more accurately, after general manager Rob Pelinka shook up the Lakers’ roster by sending out Russell Westbrook and Kendrick Nunn (among others) and bringing in Rui Hachimura, D'Angelo Russell, Jarred Vanderbilt, and D’Angelo Russell — the Lakers went 16-7.
That was the best record in the West, and the Lakers had the top defense in the NBA over the same stretch. LeBron James and Anthony Davis got healthy and the new-look Lakers hit the playoffs in stride, making a run all the way to the Western Conference Finals. It was something to be proud of, even if it didn’t meet LeBron’s standards.
“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,” LeBron said. “You know, I don’t get a kick out of making a Conference [Finals] appearance. I’ve done it. A lot. And it’s not fun to me to not be able to be a part of getting to the Finals.”
The Lakers new core made that run without the benefit of a training camp or much practice time together, something coach Darvin Ham talked about after his team was eliminated. To put a finer point on it, they didn’t have the time to develop the continuity that the Denver Nuggets showed while sweeping the Lakers out of the playoffs.
Is what the Lakers showed through the postseason reason enough to run it back?
Or were the shortcomings the Nuggets exposed — and the fact that, by Game 4, it took a Herculean effort by LeBron James to keep the Lakers competitive — a sign the Lakers need more and have to make changes?
LeBron’s unexpected retirement talk clearly put him in the “get me some help” camp. In Game 4 he played all but four seconds of the 48 minutes, scored 40 points, defended Nikola Jokić at times and did everything humanly possible to will the Lakers to victory. It wasn’t enough. LeBron came out of that series realizing that as improved as the Lakers were, they needed more to compete at the highest levels.
His postgame retirement talk sounded like an exhausted, frustrated man demanding the front office get him more help. It sounded like a leverage play.
It sounded like a man who understands he can’t be the No. 1 shot creation option for this team every night anymore. He needs help carrying that load.
The question is where that help comes from? Kyrie Irving was courtside, but the Lakers would have to gut their roster of depth to sign him (and Dallas could still outbid them). The Lakers still have the scars from doing that exact move to bring in Russell Westbrook. Sources have told NBC Sports not to expect the Lakers to make a run at Irving.
On Tuesday Pelinka planted his flag firmly in the run-it-back camp.
“After the trade deadline, we had one of the top records in the league. I think keeping that continuity is going to be very important,” Pelinka said. “We ultimately got knocked out by a team that has great continuity. That’s a high priority for us.
“We feel like we have a group of special players in the locker room. They enjoy playing with each other. Darvin [Ham] enjoys coaching them. We know there’s more growth and improvement in that group, especially if we get a training camp together. So, I would say it’s a high priority to keep our core players together.”
Is that core enough?
At the heart of the Lakers’ core remains LeBron and Davis, both of whom played at an All-NBA level this season — LeBron was voted third team, Davis didn’t play enough games for voters to put him on the team but he was good enough to make it. Both of them are under contract for next season, for a combined $87.5 million. Despite LeBron’s public deliberations, nobody believes he is actually retiring (remember, he hopes to play with his son Bronny in the NBA in a couple of years). It’s highly unlikely he putting on any other jersey at the start of next season.
Also under contract for next season are Mo Bamba ($10.3 million), Jarred Vanderbilt ($4.7 million) and Max Christie ($1.7 million). Malik Beasley has a $16.5 million team option, the Lakers may bring him back more as a tradable contract than a rotation player.
Then the decisions start for the Lakers.
They have two key restricted free agents, Austin Reaves and Rui Hachimura — the Lakers have made it clear they plan to match any offer for Reaves and probably Hachimura too, league sources told NBC Sports.
Reaves said he wants to remain with the Lakers, Pelinka said they want him back, the only question is money. The Lakers have Reaves’ Early Bird rights, but under the CBA the max they can offer him is the mid-level exception of around four years, $50.8 million. After these playoffs his market value is higher than that and another team looking for young guards — Orlando, Houston among others — likely will come in with an offer closer to four years, $80-90 million. The Lakers can match, but because Reaves is what is known as an Arenas Rule free agent, if the Lakers match the contract becomes backloaded (in the case of an $80 million offer, more than $27 million a year the final two years).
The Lakers have other questions to answer. Do they bring back D’Angelo Russell, who was very valuable in the regular season and in some playoff matchups, but against the depth of the Nuggets was a liability (and he is going to make around $20 million a season as a free agent)? Dennis Schroder was more valuable against the Nuggets than Russell, do the Lakers bring him back? Lonnie Walker IV also is an unrestricted free agent.
Even if the Lakers do run this core back, they need to find more shot creation and shooting to compete at the highest levels, and to get through the regular season without wearing LeBron James down. That could lead to trades — a report Tuesday said the Lakers had internal discussions about a Trae Young trade — and there will be others available. The challenge for the Lakers is who to chase and what to send out (they still have a 2029 first-round pick to trade). They may want to target good but more affordable free agents such as Gabe Vincent out of Miami (although he also may have played his way out of their price range).
Ultimately, both Pelinka and LeBron may be right, the Lakers need to bring back most of this season’s new core, but they need to add to it. Doing so will take a lot of creativity.
But this was a team four wins away from the NBA Finals and LeBron isn’t getting any younger. They need to make that push now.