'He's been doing 6 AM workouts': Darvin Ham, Rob Pelinka's first press conference for 2023-24 NBA season reiterates faith in LeBron James and co

Los Angeles Lakers Introduce Darvin Ham
Darvin Ham, Rob Pelinka exuded confidence in LeBron James and co

As they sat down on their respective chairs to reflect on the present and look ahead to the future, both Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka and coach Darvin Ham seemed at ease. It captured the Lakers’ clarity and calmness entering the 2023-24 season, a starker contrast than when they addressed plenty of turbulence and uncertainty following the 2022-23 campaign.

Instead of fielding concerns about the Lakers missing the NBA playoffs with a roster filled with holes and injuries, they expressed optimism about the continuity that ensured a trip to the Western Conference Finals. Instead of expressing uncertainty about the health of their aging superstar (LeBron James) and dominant big men with a checkered injury history (Anthony Davis), the Lakers offered rave reviews about their off-season regimen. Instead of insisting they can somehow make Russell Westbrook’s awkward fit work during his second season, the Lakers offered encouraging developments about their key role players including D’Angelo Russell (starting point guard), Austin Reaves (starting shooting guard) and Rui Hachimura (“Swiss Army knife").

“Any championship executive in any sport has done some things perfectly and has done some things where they've taken a risk and it hasn't worked out,” Pelinka told reporters at a press conference on Thursday at the Lakers’ practice facility.

“I think your job as an executive, or any sports executive, is if you take a risk and it doesn't work out the way you thought, you've got to fix it. And I think thankfully as a group, collectively as an organization, we obviously took a risk, we changed the way our roster was constructed, and it didn't work but we fixed it. That's our job and I'm grateful that together we were able to get it right last year and hopefully improve on that going into this year.”

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Key takeaways from Rob Pelinka and Darvin Ham’s press conference

#1 Lakers are optimistic that James and Davis will be even more healthy and stay dominant this season

James may be entering his 21st NBA season. He may be turning 39 years old in three months. And he may have last played appearing exhausted in the Lakers’ decisive Game 4 loss to Denver Nuggets the Western Conference Finals and even mulling retirement.

Since then, the Lakers have become more encouraged by James’ chances of staying durable and dominant.

“It's staggering for a player who has 20 years under the hood already and is preparing for 21 like he's a rookie,” Pelinka said. “He's been doing 6 a.m. workouts. Probably been in our building as much as any player this offseason.”

It was the same with Davis, whom the Lakers granted a three-year, $186 million extension partly because they believed he can overcome his extensive injury history.

“Training more this offseason than I’ve seen with him as a Laker,” Pelinka said. “He’s taken on that leadership mantle and I think he knows that when the franchise invests in him, like we did this summer, he’s going to return that.”

Davis has become active with various circuit and shooting workouts, resulting in what Ham observed as becoming “leaner, stronger, quicker, more explosive.” No one can discount that Davis played in only 194 out of a possible 308 regular-season games due to various ailments. Davis also missed a combined 26 games last season, including 23 to treat a stressed right foot. Yet, the Lakers have become encouraged that Davis avoided a major injury in the playoffs and stayed committed to off-season work.

“Nobody in life can prevent health stuff from happening unexpectedly. We're all human, we're all subject to that. But we can carry ourselves with character and Anthony Davis stands for that,” Pelinka said. “We think at 30 years old, he's heading into the peak of his career. We're going to bet on who he is, his character and expect him to be a leader to help us reach our ultimate goal.”

Denver Nuggets v Los Angeles Lakers - Game Three
Denver Nuggets v Los Angeles Lakers - Game Three

The Lakers believe they can reach that ultimate goal as well as manage James and Davis with care because of superior depth with their incumbent players (Russell, Reaves, Hachimura), new backcourt (Gabe Vincent, Taurean Prince, Cam Reddish) and frontcourt (Jaxson Hayes, Christian Wood).

“He's great at managing himself, all the resources he pours into making sure that he's not only available at a high level,” Ham said of James. “Now that we have, top to bottom, what we feel like is a highly, highly balanced, skilled, athletic, younger team of guys who logged a ton of NBA minutes, we can surround both he and AD with these players who are coming in eager to contribute, eager to show that they can impact winning. That's going to allow us to be more efficient with his game-to-game minutes.”

#2 Ham named Austin Reaves and D’Angelo Russell as definitive starters

Ham spent all summer and the beginning of Thursday’s press conference stressing that he hasn’t determined his starting lineup outside of James and Davis. Ham later told the truth about Russell (“he’s our starting point guard”) and Reaves (“he will be our starting two guard”).

Neither decision seems surprising, but each decision has a different context.

The Lakers retained Reaves on a four-year, $56 million contract as he blossomed into a dependable role player as a scorer, defender, and shooter. He displayed those skills with the U.S. National team in the FIBA World Cup. Ham has projected him as an All-Star. Pelinka observed that Reaves “has that sort of Mamba gene” because he has emulated the late Kobe Bryant’s fearlessness and insatiable work ethic.

“Austin’s growth isn’t a surprise to any of us that really scouted him, drafted him and helped develop him to this point,” Pelinka said. “He uniquely has that sort of Mamba gene, where it’s all about the work, it’s about playing competitively on every play, it’s about being a great teammate, not caring about the personal accolades but just the team winning.”

As for Russell, the Lakers retained him on a two-year, $33 million deal under different circumstances. He shot inconsistently during the postseason. The Lakers also signed Vincent partly to bolster its backcourt depth. Nonetheless, the Lakers are mindful that Russell played a significant factor in bolstering the team’s offensive chemistry following last season’s trade deadline with his passing and floor spacing.

“We don't get to where we got to without D'Angelo Russell,” Ham said. “I'm going to encourage him to be assertive, he's a highly intelligent basketball player who's coming back with a chip on his shoulder. He chose us, we believe in him and he's one of those guys who has a ton of pride and passion about not only his individual performance, but those of his teammates as well. He's one of the biggest supporters of his teammates.”

Pelinka likened Russell’s second stint with the Lakers as “a great honeymoon” that may have included some logistical hurdles.

“You can go on a Honeymoon with your significant other and you can have 13 incredible days, perfect days,” Pelinka said. “Then lunch on the 14th day isn't as good as you want it to be. It doesn't mean it wasn't an incredible trip. We want to keep the bigger picture with him.”

#3 Ham had little reaction to the Damian Lillard trade

The entire NBA community talked about the blockbuster trade involving the Portland Trail Blazers dealing Damian Lillard to the Milwaukee Bucks. Not Ham, though.

Denver Nuggets v Los Angeles Lakers - Game Four
Denver Nuggets v Los Angeles Lakers - Game Four

My only concern is Lakers business,” Ham said when asked about the trade.

Instead, Ham outlined what will influence the Lakers’ title fortunes.

“We’re only going to go as far as our daily work takes us,” Ham said. “For the paper to look like is one thing, there has to be a huge amount of work and patience. It’s going be a process.”

#4 What do the Lakers think of the NBA’s new resting rules?

Ham joked that he liked the NBA’s new resting policy because James

“was grandfathered in by the rest rules.”

Those rules state that players at least 35 years old can be preapproved to sit out of back-to-back games to conserve their workload. Otherwise, the NBA can fine teams over $1 million for multiple star players missing marquee nationally televised games.

“You got to have evidence if a guy is sitting out, you’re not trying to be strategic and trying to set yourself up to lose a game here, win a game here, trying to navigate playoff position, or draft position, whatever the case may be,” Ham said. “Now people really have to come out and be ready to show up and show out for the fans, first and foremost. These people are working regular jobs. We’ve been blessed. We’re in the top whatever percentile, one percentile, and these people that’s out here, the construction workers, the people that work in education, they are paying hard earned money. These tickets are not cheap. The memorabilia, the gear, all of that is not cheap. So, the league wants their players and their product to be at an elite level. They want them consistently shown and consistently available. So, I can’t fault them for that.”

Pelinka also can’t fault the NBA for trying to maximize the worth of its television contracts that expire following the 2024-25 season. Nonetheless, Pelinka shared that the NBA’s competition committee has called for the league to eliminate back-to-backs.

“Can we eliminate them completely? Can we make tweaks to the season to make it a little bit longer on both ends?” Pelinka said. “There’s a lot of factors in those things. But I do think minimizing the number of back-to-backs will play into getting rid of players taking games off or resting.”

Follow NBA writer Mark Medina on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and Threads.

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