LOS ANGELES — Sometimes, when Los Angeles Lakers vice president of basketball operations Rob Pelinka sits with his daughter, Emery, he’s reminded just how daunting the NBA’s planned restart in Orlando, Florida, really is.
“Have I had nights at dinner where I’ll look over and my 10-year-old daughter has tears in her eyes and I ask her why and she says, ‘It’s because daddy could be gone for 3-and-a-half months’?” Pelinka, who is also the Lakers’ general manager, said on a video conference call with reporters Tuesday. “Yes, that stuff is part of this. But I think she understands the bigger picture.”
It’s the full context that comes with the bigger picture, however, that shows the enormity of the league’s attempted undertaking.
The Lakers, in the middle of a pandemic that has already claimed nearly 129,000 lives in the United States, are preparing to fly 2,500 miles away from home to stay in a state where new coronavirus cases have spiked from less than a thousand a day earlier this month to nearly 10,000 on June 27, and set up camp there until mid-October. And they’re doing so with a 17-man roster — including two-way players and the planned addition of JR Smith to replace Avery Bradley, as reported by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. And that roster is made up of 16 Black men while the country is in the middle of an unprecedented national movement to correct social injustice and racial inequality.
It’s a lot to take in. And as such, Pelinka said he believes that the Orlando bubble will challenge his players’ brains as much as it does their bodies as they attempt to get back into game shape with a weeklong individual training camp that opens Wednesday following a 3-and-a-half month hiatus.
“I think Orlando itself is going to be as much of a mental test as it is a physical test just because of the extraordinary circumstances there,” Pelinka said. “I think a team like ours, that has such a strong togetherness component, will have an advantage at that part. This team of guys love being together and love playing together. I think that’s the significant part of the [first] 63 games.”
The last time anyone saw the Lakers on the court, they were surging. L.A. went 8-2 after the All-Star break, including impressive back-to-back wins against the Milwaukee Bucks and LA Clippers, and held the No. 1 record in the Western Conference at 49-14. With everything that has happened since — from the circumstances surrounding COVID-19 that prompted Bradley to bow out to be with his family, to the team waiting on Dwight Howard’s decision on Orlando as he mourns the death of Melissa Rios, the mother of one of his sons who died from an epileptic seizure in March, Pelinka is trying to steel his team for the stress ahead.
“We have,” Pelinka said, “put a ton of thought into the mental part of this journey. It is going to be as much as a physical grind as it’s going to be a mental grind. And I think the mental component might even be more paramount. And so, yes … we have mental wellness people on staff here and we’ve been working with them on developing a protocol to address some of the concerns that are going to come up from an extended time away from family or an extended time living in a city that’s not your home.”
Pelinka cited former Lakers coach Phil Jackson’s unconventional approach featured in ESPN’s The Last Dance — specifically embracing yoga and meditation — as ways the current Lakers can tackle the Florida restart.
“Just keeping guys fresh, keeping life interesting,” Pelinka said. “Keeping everyone’s passions sharpened, I’m sure there will be many, many stories coming out of Orlando about some of the different practices that evolve once we get down there.”
Still, the Lakers’ GM let it be known that he thinks his group is up for the task. Whether that be leaning on franchise history (Pelinka said Kareem Abdul-Jabbar recently spoke to players on systematic injustice) or even by cribbing some of Jackson’s coaching methods, he says the team is preparing for its future — as murky as the next few months might seem.
The close bonds the Lakers already have established this season, Pelinka said, will aid them when they are far from home — whether that be as big a picture as navigating the winds of change in the U.S. or as granular as integrating Smith, Dion Waiters and Markieff Morris (who have combined to play just eight games for the Lakers this season) into the lineup.
“I think that we’re in a unique situation where we’ve had such a strong chemistry, such a strong team chemistry, that I think that platform is going to be seamless in terms of guys jumping on and being part of that identity and chemistry that we already had formed,” Pelinka said. “I don’t see that changing at all with the new additions, just because it’s such a strong identity. “