On Tuesday afternoon, Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka was back at work, in his office in El Segundo with a large clear window that overlooks the practice court.
But the familiar surroundings belie the singular circumstances that Pelinka, the Lakers and the NBA find themselves in just a month out from a planned restart in Walt Disney World — and most of the questions he’s facing are completely new.
Most pressingly, the Lakers are still waiting to confirm that Dwight Howard will joining them when the team flies to Orlando on July 9. Already without starting guard Avery Bradley, the Lakers are hopeful that one of their most impactful bench players throughout the season will agree to play. Howard averaged 7.5 points and 7.4 rebounds per game this season in a surprise return to the Lakers that has gone much more smoothly than his previous stint, and he’s been a part of some of the team’s most effective lineups.
Howard has spent much of the hiatus in his home state of Georgia, and he has dealt with the death of the mother of one of his children. Pelinka acknowledged that there has been an ongoing discussion about how Howard can take care of his son if he chooses to play, which could mean staying in Florida for more than three months. The Lakers intend to submit their final roster to the NBA by Wednesday.
“We are going to continue to work through those extenuating circumstances with Dwight, support him, support his 6-year-old son and hope for the best that he would be a part of our roster in Orlando,” Pelinka said. “But that will be a continued process.”
In his third full season, the Lakers’ GM has learned to live with fluidity. The team plans to start its first official training camp season on Wednesday with individual workouts and coaches present, however that plan was pending the results of COVID-19 tests that are now administered every other day. Phoenix, Denver, Brooklyn and New Orleans have seen planned sessions stall because of positive COVID tests in the last week. The NBA and NBPA said 16 of 302 players tested positive in the initial screening on July 23.
Pelinka demurred on a question of whether he expected all players to be available when camp begins.
“That question changes moment-to-moment, test-to-test,” he said. “So that’s the best I can do.”
That level of risk, along with a restrictive plan that will keep families out of the Orlando campus for at least the first few weeks, has led to difficult decisions like the one Bradley made to not play out the season. Pelinka said he had hoped Bradley would add his toughness and tenacity that he’s brought during the 49-13 start to the season, but that the Lakers understood.
“They made a decision that the risk was too high, given the medical situation and the extenuating circumstances around that,” Pelinka said. ” And I think for us, that was a process we wanted to stay close with Avery and his family on, and we were involved with, and we wanted to support him in his journey.”
Pelinka was more guarded about sensitive topics: He wouldn’t say whether the Lakers had any positive tests among their players last week (two Lakers tested positive in March). He also declined to outline if there are any special considerations for members of the 35-member travel party who might have underlying health conditions (like JaVale McGee’s asthma) or might fall within a vulnerable category (like assistant coach Lionel Hollins, who is 66 years old).
Pelinka was also relatively mum on rumored private workouts, especially as photos have surfaced in recent weeks of players such as LeBron James playing in groups without masks. When asked if he had communication with players about such private sessions, Pelinka simply said no.
But he was more open about other challenges, like deciding which of the staffers in the organization will go to Orlando for the limited slots. The Lakers believe that the sports performance staff will take on an even more important role in the restart, given that players have just a limited window to work themselves into shape — which is commonly seen as a risk factor for soft tissue injuries. But others typically in important roles may not travel, meaning not only that they’ll miss out on a postseason run, but their jobs will have to be replicated by someone else in the travel party. These details have not been finalized, Pelinka said.
For the people who are going, it will be challenging to set aside families for the duration of the season. Players will be permitted to invite their families after the first round of playoffs, but the NBA has not firmly indicated whether that will also apply to other staff members as well, such as coaches and Pelinka himself.
Pelinka said his grade school-aged children have had some difficulty wrestling with the idea that their father might be gone for that long. But given that players are arguably subjecting themselves to the most risk, putting themselves in physical contact while on the court, Pelinka said every possible consideration should be made for them first.
“I think they will keep it open and fluid but for now the focus is on the players, and I guess frankly that’s where it should be,” he said. “We’ve said over and over again, we want to be a player focused organization. And I think we put our players first, the staff is also incredibly supportive and we hope to get the chance to have guests, but I think we’ll let the players go first on that.”
The Lakers have eight seeding games to protect their 5.5-game lead against the Western Conference, but being the top overall seed has fewer spoils than ever since home court advantage will not exist in Disney World. Aside from having preferential treatment in hotels, the Lakers expect almost no advantage if they do secure the top overall seed.
Instead, Pelinka said, the organization is looking to use those seeding games to round back into shape and re-cultivate a winning mentality. The lower stakes can help them ramp up more gradually, as if it were preseason.
Pelinka also cited the importance of social and racial equity issues, which are likely to be a focal point in the restart and may involve players representing various causes on the back of their jerseys. He said he and his family attended a Black Lives Matter Protest, and he had also watched the film “Selma” about Martin Luther King Jr. to expose his children to the issues the country is grappling with. As an organization, the Lakers have also created a new director of racial equity and action.
“I just see tremendous promise in just the attention around eliminating racial injustices and systematic injustices that we’re seeing as a nation,” he said. “I think although it’s symbolic, we’re seeing statues coming down and we’re seeing laws being reformed. To think we get to be a part of the NBA community and the incredibly powerful platform that community has to usher in, be change agents for needed change, is exciting.”