It’s easy to forget now that the Los Angeles Lakers have LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the best record (33-8) in the Western Conference halfway through the 2019-20 campaign, but there was a time during the offseason when James, then-general manager Rob Pelinka and the Lakers working well together seemed to be far from a certainty.
Before Pelinka pulled off a trade for Davis and built the roster that’s coalescing so well today, there was a period of time between the end of the season and the trade talks for Davis starting up again in which things seemed far gloomier for the Lakers. Magic Johnson had just resigned without warning amid allegations that Pelinka had stabbed him in the back, and reports of dysfunction were rampant. Fans were protesting for a change in leadership outside of Staples Center, and there was even a pseudo-report that James’ trust in the team had been “damaged.”
Now, it’s worth noting that James himself quickly (and memorably) shot down that report on Instagram, screaming “That. Is. Not. Truuuuuuuuuuuuuue!!!!” while showing a TV screen with the headline playing during a workout in the Lakers’ practice facility, but still, the fact that him not trusting the Lakers didn’t seem that outlandish — or, honestly, unwarranted on James’ part — said all you needed to hear about the state of the team at that point.
But the Lakers stuck with Pelinka anyway, and regardless of where he and James actually stood back in April, it would seem Pelinka has proven himself in the eyes of his superstar, as after he was rewarded for building one of the best rosters in basketball with an extension and promotion to vice president, basketball operations, James made sure to praise Pelinka on Twitter:
Yes he ABSOLUTELY has Earned it!! Congrats RP! https://t.co/KQ4gIPiBYY— LeBron James (@KingJames) January 11, 2020
And while the job obviously isn’t finished for Pelinka, it’s pretty much impossible to disagree with James’ assessment of how things stand so far. The Lakers shut out outside criticism of their process, stuck by the guy they believed in, and Pelinka went out and proved himself.
And this isn’t just about how great this Lakers roster is, or about their chances to win a title this year. Pelinka’s promotion — and James’ public endorsement — is also a testament to the relationship-building skill that allowed Pelinka to become a super-agent, and then make himself so trusted within the Lakers that team governor Jeanie Buss stuck by a first-time executive even when he was in conflict with Magic Johnson, as legendary and beloved a player as this team has ever produced, not to mention basically an adopted brother to Buss.
Pelinka’s talent in this area has proven transferable to elite players as well. While other executives anonymously called Pelinka untrustworthy, and there were other reports that players felt like they couldn’t believe what he told them (reports that were somewhat disputed, although not fully), Pelinka has used the people skills that allowed him to earn the faith of players like Kobe Bryant, Andre Iguodala and countless others to build a productive relationship with James and Davis, both of which the Lakers surely hope will lead to Davis re-signing with the team this summer.
Pelinka staked his future on building a partnership with his stars, and showing the rest of the league that that’s how the Lakers do things. He’s openly spoken about consulting with James and Davis on every free agent signing the Lakers made, giving them ownership — and, savvily, some level of public accountability if things went wrong — for the roster built this season.
Given how calculated James is publicly with these kind of things, and how much he understands the power of his words, his tweet would seem to imply that Pelinka’s strategy worked, and that Pelinka has (at least somewhat) earned James’ trust as someone who can help build his future. The Lakers almost surely would not have offered this extension were that not true, nor if they didn’t get a good sense that Davis and Klutch Sports felt similarly.
It remains to be seen if things keep going this swimmingly, but for now, it’s hard to blame the Lakers if they’re feeling pretty optimistic about the way things are going. Or for rewarding the man who helped them trudge through some major offseason adversity to get here.