Lakers GM dispels talk of rebuilding year

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — During his opening statement while introducing new center Brook Lopez on Wednesday, Los Angeles Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka made a comment that raised eyebrows.

“We don’t see next year at all as a rebuilding year,” Pelinka said at the team’s practice facility. “We see it as a Lakers year. A lot of that is going to be centered around [Lopez] and what he stands for and what we know he’ll give this organization.”

On the surface, it was an incredibly bold statement for a team that posted a 26-56 record last season, the league’s third-worst mark, and hasn’t made the playoffs in four straight seasons.

It was even bolder considering that Lopez, whom the Lakers acquired in a trade with the Brooklyn Nets, will be asked to play a key leadership role on a team that features several key players in their early 20s who, while talented, are largely inexperienced.

Lakers GM Rob Pelinka emphasized at Wednesday’s introductory news conference that acquiring center Brook Lopez in a trade with the Nets was not about clearing cap space to lure free agents next summer. AP Photo/Chris Pizzello

For the cherry on top, it’s worth remembering that Lopez might not be around the Lakers beyond this season. Although the 29-year-old Lopez is one of the NBA’s premier centers, having averaged 20.5 points, 5.4 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.7 blocks for the Nets last season, he is also entering the final season of his contract that will pay him $22.64 million, which matters greatly for the Lakers.

By trading center Timofey Mozgov to the Nets last week and thus clearing his massive contract — he is entering the second year of a four-year, $64 million deal — and with Lopez’s expiring deal, the Lakers should have close to $60 million in significant cap room next summer.

Pelinka said last week that the Lakers consider that cap room “very sacred” and added that it could help bring in two superstar players in free agency, key pieces that the team needs to help return to contending status in an era when many teams are hoarding top-tier talent.

However, Pelinka could clearly sense the elephant in the room, as evidenced by how he began his opening statement.

“What today is not about is players that we traded away,” Pelinka said Wednesday. “It’s not about creating cap space. It’s about this phenomenal human being and player that we’re so excited to have join the Lakers.”

Pelinka referenced Lopez’s professionalism, leadership and conditioning and how he has become a threat from 3-point distance, having attempted 387 shots from beyond the arc while making 34.6 percent of them.

“I think he becomes a great North Star for our two young centers, Ivica Zubac and Thomas Bryant, who we took in the draft,” Pelinka continued. “[Head coach Luke Walton’s] system is predicated on having bigs that can stretch the floor and create space, especially with Lonzo [Ball] and Jordan Clarkson as attack guards … having bigs that can open up the floor and allow them to make plays, allow Brandon Ingram to get in creases, Julius [Randle] running the floor, Larry [Nance Jr. too]. I think it’s a perfect fit, and I think it’s a perfect road map to next generations of centers here, too.”

“What today is not about is players that we traded away. It’s not about creating cap space. It’s about this phenomenal human being and player that we’re so excited to have join the Lakers.”

Lakers GM Rob Pelinka

For Lopez, the move to the Lakers is a homecoming of sorts.

“I’m thrilled to be out here,” Lopez said. “It all happened very quickly, but it’s really a dream come true for me. It’s very surreal. Growing up a Cali kid, I was raised in North Hollywood, went to high school in Fresno, college at Stanford. I was a big-time Cali guy. It’s a dream come true to play for the Lakers. You grow up watching Kobe and Shaq and Showtime with Magic.”

Lopez spoke of the chance “to come back home and play for a team I grew up cheering for and help lead this franchise back to success. I want to be out there teaching the young guys, helping do whatever I can and being a guy that Luke can rely on to go out there and do whatever he asks.”

Specifically, Lopez referenced his time with veterans such as Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Vince Carter and others and said he’s ready to share their wisdom with the Lakers’ young players.

“I’m here, ready to do that,” he said. “That being said, I’m not looking to just do that. I’m looking to help the team any way I can on the court, whatever they need done, however I’m fitting into [head coach Luke Walton’s] offense, defensively, being a center the guys can rely on, an anchor in the paint, whether blocking shots or being on that help side. I’m willing to do whatever it takes.”

Lopez gushed about Lakers second-year center Zubac, saying, “He has a great touch, great footwork around the rim, and then he shoots the ball pretty well. Being in here the past three days, just seeing his work ethic and his work regimen, I’m pretty blown away. I think the sky’s the limit for him as long as he keeps that same mentality and [work] ethic.”

But Lopez’s introductory news conference wouldn’t end without a question about Nance Jr., who threw down one of the league’s top dunks last season, a dunk that happened to come right over the top of Lopez when the Lakers were in Brooklyn to face the Nets.

Lopez agreed that the dunk should’ve won “Dunk of the Year” at the recent 2017 NBA Awards Show.

“I knew that was going to come up eventually,” Lopez said with a grin. “I do [think he was snubbed in the dunk of the year contest]. It was impressive. I think I got a better view of it than anyone. When he introduced himself, I told him, ‘There was obviously no introduction necessary.’ I would vote for that for dunk of the year. At least I get to be a part of it.”

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