EL SEGUNDO – The day began at 5 a.m. when Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka woke up so he could make phone calls with Eastern Conference teams starting their workday at more conventional hours.
The day ended with the Lakers experiencing the predictable and unexpected. To no one’s surprise, the Lakers selected UCLA point guard Lonzo Ball with their No. 2 pick in Thursday’s NBA Draft. But Pelinka felt “gratitude,” because the team then added three more players by virtue of two trades.
The Lakers selected Utah forward Kyle Kuzma with the No. 27 pick, which they acquired from Brooklyn after trading center Timofey Mozgov and guard D’Angelo Russell for center Brook Lopez earlier in the week. The Lakers then traded their No. 28 pick to the Utah Jazz for the 30th pick (Villanova guard Josh Hart) and the 42nd selection (Indiana center Thomas Bryant).
That capped a day during which Pelinka said the Lakers were “really relentless” in other trade proposals, which also included talks with the Indiana Pacers for forward Paul George.
“That will continue until we get in a position again where we feel like this roster is a championship-level roster,” Pelinka said Thursday night at the Lakers’ practice facility. “We’re not there yet. So we’re going to be relentless with the work and we’re going to pursue every opportunity until we reach our goal.”
The Lakers had offered Indiana their No. 27 and No. 28 picks and their choice of fourth-year forward Julius Randle or fourth-year guard Jordan Clarkson. The Pacers did not accept the offer, and the Lakers refused to make their No. 2 pick or second-year forward Brandon Ingram available.
George’s representatives informed the Pacers late last week about his aspirations to join the Lakers as a free agent in the 2018 offseason. Nonetheless, the Lakers have pursued him now to prevent a talented team from acquiring him on a perceived rental that could turn into an extended stay if he has a good experience.
How have the Lakers managed exploring possible trades without squandering most of their resources?
“We’re built on being smartly aggressive,” Pelinka said. “Being aggressive and unwise isn’t a good combination. We’re going to be very aggressive, but also very smart.”
Pelinka found it smart for the Lakers to trade with Brooklyn even if it came at the expense of losing Russell, who had averaged 15.6 points and 4.8 assists while shooting 40.5 percent.
The organization was split on Russell, with supporters clinging to his potential as a scorer and passer and detractors feeling frustrated with his inconsistency, attitude and work ethic. Pelinka downplayed whether Ball’s passing and leadership qualities made Russell more expendable.
“I think D’Angelo’s a special player and I definitely don’t want to attach the name ‘expendable’ next to him because he’s an extraordinary talent,” Pelinka said. “We just looked at that trade as doing three things that were all positive for us.”
Pelinka then called Lopez an “All-Star-caliber five that can spread the floor and open things up” after he shot 34.6 percent from 3-point range (seventh best among NBA starting centers) on a league-leading 387 attempts among starting centers.
“Brook Lopez really transformed his game last year and became a guy that was making threes. He’s a really good shooter. He’s also a very, very high IQ basketball player,” said Pelinka, who noted Lopez attended Stanford University. “High basketball IQ, plays the game the right way, so we thought that was a really amazing opportunity to get a player like that.”
The move also cleared Mozgov’s hefty contract – he is owed $48 million over the next three years.
“We were able to get amazing salary-cap relief and space so that in July of 2018 we have the ability to add hopefully two max-salary players to our franchise,” said Pelinka, mindful that George, LeBron James and Russell Westbrook will be among the free agents. “And that really fit in to our long-term plan.”
The Lakers also acquired the No. 27 pick in the deal, which they used on Kuzma. Their 28th pick then was exchanged for two other picks at No. 30 and No. 42.
“We accomplished so much in one trade, it was really the perfect storm for us,” Pelinka said. “We feel like it’s going to have a big impact.”
The Lakers’ work is just beginning.
“We need two superstar players to come here, to join this platform and join our core group of great players we now have,” Pelinka said. “That’s our plan and we’re going to put all of our energy and all of our hard work toward that.”
To do that, Pelinka said the Lakers will pursue a few goals.
He wants to acquire more shooters in free agency to accommodate Russell’s absence and Nick Young’s expected departure after the veteran opted out of his $5.7 million player option to become a free agent. Pelinka also hopes to add “the two or three remaining guys to the roster or potentially more that will help the young core develop and be mentors for the guys and fill positional needs.” Otherwise, Pelinka said the Lakers will be “very sacred” about preserving cap space this summer.
So after spending nearly all of Thursday “running various trades and running scenarios” with president of basketball operations Magic Johnson, general manager/director of scouting Jesse Buss and D-Fenders president Joey Buss, Pelinka said that exercise will resume in the days to come.
“I don’t think there’s a stone unturned in the NBA,” Pelinka said. “We were really working hard.”
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