Rob Pelinka got straight to the point: “For us,” the Lakers general manager said back in July, “anything short of a championship is not success.” All executives talk about a championship as an attainable goal, even if it’s false and they know it, because their job security depends on the illusion that a title is possible. So it was a normal, front-office-y thing for Pelinka to say, except Pelinka rarely says normal front-office-y things. There was no biblical reference, not one pop culture metaphor, and the man who once read The Alchemist to announce a free-agency signing put a profound standard for his franchise into very plain language: ring or bust.
The Lakers can’t be deemed a success by Pelinka’s terms for at least another six months. For now, though, L.A. is atop the Western Conference at 21-3 and led by two MVP candidates in LeBron James and Anthony Davis. There are miniature, 10-point-font asterisks to each of those facts: L.A. has benefited from an easy early-season schedule, and their superstar tandem is susceptible to injury. But both are healthy now, and a difficult stretch of games lies ahead. Based on their success—sorry, their… prosperity—so far, they’ll welcome the challenge.
I love beautiful basketball, so I’ve enjoyed seeing LeBron and AD thrive as new teammates. It’s a relief to see a Lakers team with defensive sensibility again, and to see them participate in an actual system installed by new head coach Frank Vogel that goes past Luke Walton’s attempt to exclusively play in transition. Even the supporting cast has been a pleasant surprise, outside of kcp. (In October, a friend suggested spelling Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s initials in lowercase until he earns grown-man letters; even as a longtime opponent of the tough-love approach, I see no choice but to comply.) Danny Green has added reliable shooting; Dwight Howard has finally, albeit partially, begun his resurrection; Alex Caruso has officially replaced Joe Ingles as the league’s most valuable math teacher doppelgänger. No role player is averaging more than 12 points per game, but there also aren’t too many shots to go around next to LeBron and Davis, for good reason.
Every success … or… triumph that the Lakers are experiencing was once considered an epic Pelinka screwup. The AD trade, the coaching search, and the offseason signings to fill out the roster were all met with skepticism. LeBron is proving that he’s not washed at 34 years old; Davis is maximizing his versatility next to a superstar passer, in the block, in transition, in sets, and in the air, so the Pelicans drama has drifted to a cortex far, far away; Vogel is proficient even with a coaching staff that was forced on him; the 2.0 meme team is coming through. They’ve all been given their respective hat tips this season. Pelinka has not.
The decision to keep Pelinka on after Magic Johnson abruptly—and publicly—left was bemoaned. He and Magic proved capable of creating chaos, but not team-building. Outside of winning the LeBron lottery, drafting Lonzo, and acquiring Kuzma, the pair wasn’t able to bring in any major players. (They probably deserve more credit for securing Kuzma and Hart, two steals of the draft, through separate draft-day trades.) The original meme team, the 2018 signing class that included Michael Beasley, Lance Stephenson, JaVale McGee, and Rajon Rondo, was viewed as a joke, and performed as such. LeBron was stuck in the same situation he left, without support. It was a disaster of a season sealed by Magic’s abandoning the team at the end. Pelinka seemed incompetent. The decision to keep him on alone, despite L.A.’s front office being one of the biggest stories of the year, hasn’t been revisited since.
How would you explain Pelinka’s personality to someone who doesn’t follow basketball? (I’m not going to use the usual “to an alien who came down to earth.” Wholly unnecessary with Pelinka’s antics.) Let’s try a quote. When Pelinka, who was Kobe Bryant’s agent for many years, was introduced as the Lakers’ new GM in 2017, he held nothing back. “I’m a little bit of a storyteller by nature,” he said in the introductory press conference that March. He said that Kobe, who hadn’t been on the team for a year, was a “North Star,” calling his influence like sugar stirred into coffee. “Once it’s there, it’s there forever.” (Admittedly, kind of lovely.)
Pelinka prophesied that the young Lakers—which then consisted of Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, and Kyle Kuzma—had as much potential as Taylor Swift. He spoke of camping with Kobe in Montana and compared Ball to Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Pelinka would later say that kcp (lower! case!) reminded him of a story in the book of Genesis where bread falls to earth, which he then incorrectly sourced. Later in the season, he compared trade rumors to his wife and his pastor being separated by 100 people on a trolley in San Francisco.
That’s quirky Pelinka, who communicates exclusively via anecdotes and biblical references and metaphors. There’s also, reportedly, Pelinka the fabulist. Pelinka, who was famously accused of fabricating a dinner with Kobe and Heath Ledger that would’ve occurred six months after Ledger’s death. Pelinka, who was considered disingenuous by his staff. “We think, more often than not, he’s not being truthful,” one member of the coaching told ESPN last spring. “That goes throughout the organization.” Pelinka, who reportedly sat in on locker room meetings that weren’t meant for GMs, and whose presence made players uncomfortable to speak up.
After Magic left, he accused Pelinka of manipulation and backstabbing. He felt Pelinka was after his job. “If you’re going to talk about betrayal, it’s only with Rob,” Magic said on First Take a month after he left. “I wasn’t having fun going to work, knowing that you want my position.” Pelinka did usurp Magic, and the Lakers have thrived under his solo command. (The situation was also immediately improved by Magic’s absence.)
Pelinka’s approach being so drastically unconventional isn’t surprising. He’s a former agent, one of the most influential and cutthroat in the game, with no previous front-office experience. His relationship with Lakers executives was already not “good” from his time representing Kobe and other players. Pelinka’s former career explains the access he gave LeBron and Rich Paul, LeBron’s agent, in the team’s decision-making process, and his inclination to go directly to players for insight. (He once asked Hart about a prospect L.A. was scouting before discussing the player with his staff, later informing them that he had already consulted Hart and made a decision.) But maybe there is something to the talent-first approach Pelinka has carried over from his former career as an agent—especially in the player empowerment movement. The Lakers involved Klutch Sports, which represents LeBron and Davis, from the start; the Lakers now have LeBron and Davis.
It’s difficult to take Pelinka seriously given all the bizarre stories that orbit him. The dichotomy between his odd past and the team’s recent fortune leaves little room to celebrate his GM moves. The praise skips over him and on to LeBron, AD, Vogel, etc. Maybe that’s how it should be. LeBron didn’t need to be recruited. The best player in the world decides what he wants. Davis willed his way to L.A. to join LeBron. The Lakers front office originally botched the trade in February—although to Pelinka’s credit, L.A. eventually did pull it off, but within the context that the Pelicans had a new general manager uninterested in keeping a player who didn’t want to be there. And what could possibly stop two of the greatest players in the game once they’re together? (Except another team in L.A., also with two of the greatest players in the game.)
Even the championship Pelinka needs for the Lakers to be deemed a “success” could fall short of full validation for the GM because of the talent around him, a conundrum reminiscent of Kevin Durant’s first title with the superteam Warriors. Though rings do tend to soften past negative feelings—like Neil (Ben Affleck) finally proposing to Beth (Jennifer Aniston) in He’s Just Not That Into You. If Pelinka has unlocked something with the Lakers, like [generic Kobe metaphor], he has the chance to put the drama and the jokes behind him, and join a club of highly respected executives who have won with LeBron. It’s no longer unfathomable that a Pelinka rebrand could be approaching—like Taylor Swift’s in 2014—whether or not he deserves forgiveness for his past actions. Isn’t there a Bible verse for that?