For Rob Pelinka and the Los Angeles Lakers, the road back to the title contention the team was in while boasting players like Kobe Bryant — or Pelinka’s front office partner Magic Johnson — isn’t going to be easy.
Still, the Lakers did display more improvement than most expected this season by posting a 35-47 record and boasting the 12th-best defense in the league.
That type of rapid progression might lead some to think the team should be going all-in to win now — and on some level they are, if the rumors about their free agency/trade targets are true — but Pelinka feels that they can’t skip steps.
“You’ve got to show patience. You can’t just jump at the first shiny thing,” Pelinka said during ESPN 2’s NBA Draft Combine telecast on Thursday. “We know we have to from where the Lakers have been in the last five years, not making the playoffs, to a playoff team and then to a championship team. We’re on that path and we’re going to get there.”
As NBA history has shown, understanding that the path Pelinka references is long isn’t always easy for general managers, and he even acknowledged that “it’s hard.”
But in something of an upset given Bryant’s oft-stated line that every year he didn’t win a title was “a waste,” it’s actually been the former Lakers great in his former agent’s ear about not skipping steps, something Bryant recently said on the radio as well.
“My first day on the job Kobe called me and said ‘here’s your biggest challenge, Rob, to be patient.’” Pelinka said. “Look at the great teams, look up north of us with the team that’s playing Houston right now. They drafted well, they were patient. They had opportunities to move some of their pieces in their rookie contracts for made now stars and they didn’t and that’s led to what they have, so that’s a great pathway and patience is essential to that.”
The distinction Pelinka makes about not moving pieces is an important one. The Lakers obviously shouldn’t start tossing draft picks or young players into trades unless they’re trading for a true superstar that’s under contract or has agreed to stay, but outside of a potential Kawhi Leonard deal, that’s not really the choice the team is facing this summer.
If the Lakers can add players like LeBron James or Paul George in free agency for nothing more than cap space, than that’s not the same lack of patience that Bryant is warning against. That’s just smart utilization of salary.
Now, if the Lakers can’t sign true superstars, than they may be better off not tying up a bunch of cap dollars in overpaid role players. But this summer is also looking like a buyer’s market, so there is a possibility that the team could get a good player for below-average value.
If they can’t do any of those appealing options, though, it sounds like Pelinka is just fine taking Bryant’s advice and continuing to let his young core grow.