Current Los Angeles Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka has taken over the majority of basketball decision-making duties in the vacuum left by the abrupt departure of former president of basketball operations Magic Johnson.
But in the wake of that shocking announcement and Rob’s potential ascent to the throne — at least one Rob has a chance at it, damn Freys — has come consternation about Pelinka’s ability to manage that role, particularly with multiple reports outlining his strained relationships with agents and front offices, accusations that he lied to Larry Nance Jr. by assuring him he’d only be traded for a top three player, and whispers about his tendency to gravitate towards isolated rather than collaborative decision-making. For example, the rumors of him silo-ing assistant general manager Ryan West and director of scouting Jesse Buss to their specific roles rather than openly seeking their input on things.
Those are certainly major concerns, especially the latter two. If the accusation of Pelinka lying to Larry Nance Jr. is as cut and dry as it’s been reported and if it’s true he also misled Andrew Bogut as well, that’s a very concerning trend-line of misleading players. NBA players are a very tight knit fraternity and word gets around quickly about someone’s true colors. Further, to the point of isolated decision making, collaboration and an open flow of ideas are critical to objective and clear decision-making, while also creating a sense of collective goodwill within an organization. If there is lying and isolation going on, that’s not good.
But contrary to those two points, the reports of strained relationships with other front offices and agents shouldn’t be that surprising considering Pelinka’s background as an agent who was a champion for his clients first and foremost, and who those same clients appreciated for his ability to get the best deal “by any means necessary.” That’s a quality the Lakers may appreciate, and those other executives may like less.
Because of that, it’s natural for some of those hard feelings to still exist, and there’s certainly a transition phase for Pelinka in adjusting from the singular focus of client and agency life to the more collective focus of team and GM life that requires trust and relationship building throughout the league.
But while there’s been plenty of focus on these negatives in recent weeks, what we haven’t heard much about are the positives that Pelinka brings to the table. To understand those, we first have to understand his professional background.
After graduating from University of Michigan Law school and working at law firm Mayer Brown, Pelinka was hand-selected by Arn Tellem, then a super agent and now the vice chair of Palace Sports and Entertainment Group — the company that owns the Pistons — to work at his agency SFX management. Rob became a full-time agent in 2000. Fun fact, Tellem also mentored current Warriors president of basketball operations Bob Myers.
Pelinka was successful enough in the following six years that he was able to set out on his own, although it isn’t totally clear if he was forced out in the wake of the Carlos Boozer contract fiasco or if he cut ties with Boozer and SFX in order to save his credibility and reputation. However, lending credence to the latter theory is how much Tellem, former chief executive of SFX, praised Pelinka when he got the Lakers’ job.
“Rob is the type of person that’s thoughtful and smart and patient,” Tellem told the Detroit Free Press at the time. “He has all the right personal qualities. I know he’ll make it work. Having the relationship with players helps because he understands it. He can put himself in their shoes, which not many can, and understand where they’re coming from. And I think it’ll be a great source of help to him as he tries to deal with them from the management perspective now.”
Before he got to the Lakers and after his SFX departure, though, Pelinka was able to create and build Landmark Sports Agency, taking the role of founder and president. The agency’s client list included James Harden (for whom Rob negotiated a $200 million shoe deal with Adidas), Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala, and most famously, Kobe Bryant.
In his work in building Landmark Sports, Pelinka was heralded by clients like Kobe Bryant for his combination of preparation, focus on the process and work ethic. Building out a new company and having a $200-plus million client list in the dog eat dog, Lord of the Flies agency world is no easy feat. It takes an extremely high level of organizational skill, discipline and process analysis.
As Kobe put it: “This guy is prepared for everything from A to Z and backwards.” When the maniacally hard-working and preparation obsessed Kobe Bryant calls someone prepared, you know it’s a real thing.
Pelinka has continued with that level of day to day preparation and work ethic during his tenure as Lakers’ GM. By many accounts, Pelinka is a grinder through and through, and self-admittedly “maniacal and obsessed with his craft”. His commitment and consistency in stark contrast to “absentee executive” Magic Johnson. It’s not hard to further project that such a disparity might have been a source of tension between the two.
Additionally, plugged-in ESPN reporter Ramona Shelburne credited Pelinka with making all the incremental moves for cap space that resulted in the advantageous situation the Lakers now find themselves in, being able to add another max star to pair alongside LeBron’s max contract.
During his first summer as GM, Pelinka met with Brooklyn GM Sean Marks — with whom he has a good working relationship — three times to discuss and build the framework of what would eventually become the D’Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov deal.
In the last week, we’ve continued to see Pelinka’s attention to detail and process through a multi-tiered, expansive interview process for the Lakers’ current vacant head coaching position. The process began by setting up initial “get to know each other” interviews with favored targets — Monty Williams, Ty Lue and Juwan Howard — then follow-up interviews with owner Jeannie Buss included as well, all the while also expanding the scope and doing due diligence on other potential candidates.
This may seem like “well duh, that’s what you’re supposed to do” and it is. But, it’s this lack of process that owner Jeannie Buss and the Lakers have been skewered for in recent years, from her hiring of Magic Johnson, to Luke Walton, to Pelinka himself. The latter’s implementation of a structured process is a very good indicator and insight into his level of organization and logical process flow. As Arn Tellem put it in early March 2017: “He has incredible judgment. He’s very analytical.”
All in all, Pelinka has consistently shown a high level of preparation, process-oriented nature, and extreme work ethic throughout his agency and now NBA career. Those are three foundational qualities for any successful executive. Make no mistake, it’s imperative that he work on mending fences and previously fractured relationships, be far more selective and cognizant with his assurances to players, and alter any lone wolf decision-making tendencies that served him well in the agency world.
But in spite of those concerns, Pelinka also seems to possess key positives that have been missing from this Lakers organization for an extended amount of time and could help steer this Lakers ship to where we all want it to go. As badly as the last few weeks have made the Lakers look, it’s worth considering that it’s at least possible that Pelinka isn’t the problem, and is actually part of the solution.