What a difference a year makes. Rob Pelinka spent his first season as the GM of the Los Angeles Lakers being critiqued and laughed at by talking heads and fans of other NBA teams. The Lakers were certainly dysfunctional last season, as LeBron James’ first year in Hollywood devolved into a mess. But the team has been great this year, thanks in part to the moves made by Pelinka. He may not demand the respect of the most accomplished GMs, but he deserves recognition for his part in the success of the Lakers.
Rob Pelinka gets a job no one expected him to get
The 2010s were a difficult decade for the Lakers. They had fallen off of their perch as the NBA’s most dominant franchise. The team hadn’t been in title contention since winning the championship in 2010. Big trades for Steve Nash and Dwight Howard failed spectacularly. From 2013 to 2017, the team failed to win even 30 games in a season. Kobe Bryant’s presence on the roster was the only thing keeping the franchise from sliding into irrelevance. Fans and executives got sick of this new normal. Something had to change.
In 2017, Jeanie Buss, president of the team and the daughter of the late Lakers’ leader Jerry Buss, fired long term general manager Mitch Kupchak and accepted the resignation of her brother, Jim, the Vice President of Basketball Operations. She hired Magic Johnson as the President of Basketball Operations, while Pelinka became the team’s GM.
The reasoning behind Johnson’s hiring was obvious. He’s the most iconic Laker of all time, and his standing in the game could be used to bring star players to the franchise. But Rob Pelinka’s hiring was much more surprising. He had never worked in a front office before, let alone been a general manager. His main claim to fame was that he was Kobe Bryant’s agent for most of his career. There were serious questions about his suitability for the job. Those questions only got more intense during his tumultuous first year on the job.
The 2018-19 Lakers were defined by chaos
The good times were supposed to be back in Los Angeles. After trading away some players to create more space on the salary cap, the Lakers were ready to make a big move to bring the franchise back to prominence. Moves don’t get much bigger than signing the best player in the NBA on the first day of free agency. LeBron James agreed to a four-year deal with the team on July 1, 2018. Getting James to L.A. was a great accomplishment for the new front office. But things went downhill from there.
The Lakers filled out the rest of the roster with players — Lance Stephenson and Michael Beasley, for example — who didn’t make sense playing next to James. The team struggled to find fluency and completely fell apart after James suffered a groin injury that kept him out for 17 games. They finished the season 37-45.
Once it became clear that the on-court product was going to be a disappointment, attention turned to the actions of Johnson and Pelinka. Their inexperience was telling. Magic’s conduct surrounding last season’s attempt to trade for Anthony Davis was viewed very poorly both by analysts and players. Rob Pelinka was perceived to be a disingenuous guy who said strange things at press conferences. As things got worse, the relationship between the two of them became increasingly fractious.
The situation became even weirder when Johnson suddenly resigned as the team’s president. He quit during an impromptu press conference, without having told Pelinka or Buss, who he claimed to love like a sister. A month later, Johnson went on ESPN’s First Take to accuse Pelinka of undermining him to take his job.
Why Rob Pelinka could be one of the best GMs in the NBA
Pelinka managed to keep his job after the fiasco at the end of the 2018-19 season, and he repaid the Lakers’ faith in him by building one of the best teams in the NBA. He pulled off the Anthony Davis trade after agreeing to give New Orleans three players and three first-round picks. Many people voiced concerns that L.A. had given up too much for Davis, and that the lack of depth would come back to haunt them. That hasn’t been the case.
Davis and James are a historically great offensive duo, in addition to being absolute terrors on defense. Even the smaller moves, such as bringing back Dwight Howard, have paid off better than anyone expected. People made jokes after Kawhi Leonard decided to sign for the Clippers, but the Lakers took the setback in stride.
Pelinka also made the right call on the head coach. Frank Vogel wasn’t their first or second choice — Ty Lue chose to become an assistant for the Clippers, while Monty Williams took the lead job in Phoenix — but his defensive mindset and steady leadership have certainly contributed to the Lakers’ drama-free excellence this season.
They could still use another ball-handler and some shooting to fill out the roster, and they still have the assets to acquire such a player. Kyle Kuzma is a bright young player on a cheap contract, and they have some other players on expiring deals that could be used to grease the wheels.
Pelinka isn’t necessarily a great GM, but he has put together a squad that should challenge for titles for a few more years. He was recently promoted to vice president of basketball operations, a job he will do while retaining the GM position. That news would have seemed impossible just a few months earlier. He successfully righted the ship when many were calling for his firing. When the time comes to vote on the Executive of the Year award, Rob Pelinka should have his name near the top of the list.