Over the past few seasons, even as much of the Lakers brand has been in disarray, the one strength of this team has been its ability to draft, particularly with late first-round and second-round picks. From 2014 through 2016, the Lakers got Jordan Clarkson at No. 46, Larry Nance Jr. at No. 27 and Ivica Zubac at No. 32, before getting both Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart at the end of the first round in 2017.
This was the one thing the Lakers could do right, but now, even the drafting process has become muddled by the front office dysfunction.
As Baxter Holmes detailed for ESPN, the 2018 draft represented a microcosm of all that went wrong in Los Angeles during the Magic Johnson/Rob Pelinka tenure: Lack of clarity with regards to decision-making, closed lines of communication, and the blame game:
“As the Lakers neared their 25th pick in the first round, staff members in the second war room expected — and, according to one basketball operations staffer present, were excited — that they would select Villanova power forward Omari Spellman, who was the highest-ranked remaining player on the Lakers’ draft board, according to multiple team staffers present. Instead, the Lakers took [Moe] Wagner, the forward from Michigan. Sources said that inside the second war room, scouts and other staff members watched the pick on television and were shocked.
Later, Pelinka told staffers he had heard negatives about Spellman and that he had discussed the issues with Lakers forward Josh Hart, who had played at Villanova before Spellman. Hart, he said, agreed there were concerns. Staffers were taken aback, and some said it represented another instance of a unilateral decision being made by Pelinka or Johnson without the involvement of key figures who would normally be central to the decision. “For him to covertly go to a player and go behind everybody’s else’s back, that’s the problem,” one coaching staff member said.
Imagine working for months to build a draft board and having the decision made surreptitiously by people in a separate room. It devalues the work of the all of scouts and everyone else involved in draft preparation, and it creates an environment where people don’t feel like they have a say. Pelinka and Johnson should obviously have final authority as the lead executives, but a healthy front office would have collaboration leading to that choice, not be surprised by a decision coming from another room.
Ultimately, if a president and/or GM is going to overrule the opinions of the rest of their staff, that is a reasonable outcome if they take ownership of their decision. In the Lakers’ case, Pelinka didn’t accept blame for the situation:
It also represented what multiple basketball operations staffers said was one of several instances in which Pelinka was quick to say that others — such as agents or players — were at least partly if not wholly responsible for certain decisions, which staffers believe was Pelinka’s way of deflecting blame and from taking ownership or responsibility.
Some staffers have even sought out those whom Pelinka has said he has spoken with, just to confirm whether such conversations took place. In this instance, a source close to Hart said the two spoke briefly, for less than a minute, and Hart offered that Spellman had a great work ethic, but he was concerned about his fitness. (A Lakers spokesperson said Pelinka and Johnson consulted with everyone in the front office but that the decision on whom to draft ultimately rested with them.)
To recap, Pelinka overrode the decision of his drafting team and then defended that choice based on a conversation that he had with Josh Hart, which was later revealed to be less than a minute long. This is like Jason Kidd ‘mentoring’ Lonzo Ball all over again.
Bringing Hart into this nonsense is so slimy as well. To have a player give what appeared to be a surface-level opinion of one of his former teammates and then use that to justify a draft pick is clearly a cover up for simply wanting Wagner in the first place. Hart is also incredibly close to his fellow Villanova players, and it must hurt for him to have his name associated in this context. He evidently cleared things up with Spellman since the report dropped, but it’s unclear what that means:
There’s a lot of snakes in the industry but I ain’t one of them. It’s all love on the side and has always been Brodie. Keep doing your thing https://t.co/pJWYBb0cgB— Josh Hart (@joshhart) May 28, 2019
Again, it isn’t really that big of a deal if Johnson and Pelinka preferred Wagner to Spellman and wanted to draft him despite the wishes of the rest of the Lakers team. Building the roster comes down to two of them. But they could have shared that opinion with the rest of the front office to avoid confusion on draft night and also show support for Wagner. Instead, they’ve has made Wagner — who still plays for L.A. — feel like a second choice, inadvertently dragged Hart’s name through the mud, and validated nearly all of the criticisms that have existed about the front office in the process.