The Lakers have always considered themselves a family organization. If you do well by the franchise, you forever have a place with the franchise, and it’s almost impossible to gain a foothold as an outsider. As things stand right now, the only real way to gain power is to either be related to Jeanie Buss, or be a long-time friend, and seemingly once you get that power, there’s nothing you can do to lose it.
Rob Pelinka’s contract extension is just the latest example of Buss’ refusal as principal governor to actually hold anyone accountable.
Magic Johnson was hired after almost no net was cast for potential presidents of basketball operations and Rob Pelinka was named his second-in-command with the same process. In that position, Johnson came and went as he pleased and eventually resigned without warning after a tumultuous season that saw LeBron James miss the playoffs for the first time since his second season.
Johnson, by Buss’ own admission, still comes in and somehow has real sway in the organization despite his embarrassing departure and the bridge-burning media tour that followed.
After Johnson’s resignation, the Lakers, who had James, a young core and future picks that was on the verge of being traded for Anthony Davis, and enough cap space to potentially sign Kawhi Leonard, could probably have convinced almost any executive come and run their basketball operations.
Rather than even interviewing candidates for the position, however, Buss once again looked no further than her inner circle and promoted Pelinka to Johnson’s old position — and notably didn’t hire anyone to his still vacant general manager gig.
Coming off the most frustrating season in Lakers history and arguably one of the most damaging offseasons they’ve ever seen, one would imagine that Pelinka’s seat might have already started warming up, with the temperature rising depending on how things would go this year.
Except, no. That’s not the case. Pelinka instead inked a reported four-year contract extension. Because sure!
So, for those keeping track at home, the only person held accountable for last season’s failings are Frank Vogel. And while he didn’t make the best out of a bad situation by any stretch of the imagination, shouldn’t the people who put him in that position feel some heat, too? And they for damn sure shouldn’t have been rewarded for those mistakes, right?
But that’s exactly what Pelinka gets here, and once again under Buss’ watch, it’s not for basketball reasons. Pelinka got his position because of his proximity to Kobe Bryant, who turned down the gig when Buss came calling. Pelinka still holds that position, one would imagine, because of those ties even though had Bryant had to play on last year’s roster he probably would’ve been calling for heads to roll.
And look, nepotism in professional sports is by no means a new story. Bill Belichick’s son is wandering the sidelines in New England. Thanasis Antetokounmpo and LiAngelo Ball currently enjoy jobs they probably don’t deserve because of their brothers’ success. Hell, Jac Collinsworth gets to call Notre Dame games because of his dad’s decades as one of the faces of NBC’s NFL coverage.
What is unique about the Lakers, though, is the lack of accountability for falling well short of expectations. This is where Buss has to start doing her job, as awkward as it might be. Yes, Pelinka was there for the championship and obviously did really well to put that roster together after he missed out on signing Leonard. But he’s also stripped that roster down completely and, based on the decisions he’s made, had no idea what made that team special.
Winning one championship with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic wouldn’t have felt like enough. Walking away with only one title while Shaquille O’Neal and Bryant played together would’ve been a disappointment. Jeanie had no problem firing Mitch Kupchak, either, and he won two rings with Bryant and Pau Gasol.
So why is the one championship Pelinka has under his belt enough while they’ve employed LeBron and Anthony Davis, especially considering the title irrelevance they’ve trudged through in the non-championship seasons? The answer to this has nothing to do with basketball, and that has to change.
The Lakers market themselves on exceptionalism. They are the marquee NBA franchise. Nothing matters more to the Buss family — and Jeanie specifically — than maintaining the brand’s reputation. But you can’t do that without holding those under your employ to the highest standard, and extending Pelinka coming off of last offseason having still not remedied the Russell Westbrook disaster is the opposite of the kind of accountability the Lakers have thrived off of for decades.
This week on a special Monday episode of The Hook, I spoke to Aaron Larsuel about all that, this roster as it currently stands, and who we think should be in the rotation.
And for a short-form recap pod, check out Lakers Lowdown, in which Anthony Irwin recaps the previous day’s news and gets you ready for the day ahead in LakerLand, every weekday morning on the Silver Screen & Roll Podcast feed.