The Lakers and LeBron James’ camp appear to be drawing closer to open warfare with each passing hour. And given that increasingly intense climate, and how James’ goal for the rest of the season appears to be pressuring the Lakers into personnel moves, firing general manager Rob Pelinka, or both, it’s fair to wonder how warm the seat is getting for the team’s lead executive.
Well, according to the latest report from veteran NBA insider and Hall of Famer Marc Stein, at least as of right now, Pelinka — and his fellow decision-makers, Kurt and Linda Rambis — appear to be pretty safe (emphasis mine, via Marc’s excellent Substack):
The Lakers will be able to trade multiple future first-round picks in the summer, after they were limited to featuring a 2027 first-rounder in their recent trade offers. The problem: They still lack players other teams covet to package with those picks. James can seethe about the Lakers’ fruitless deadline all he wants, but it doesn’t make Pelinka’s hand any stronger.
It’s equally fair to wonder how much he’s alienating the Lakers in the process. Pelinka has the unwavering support of Lakers owner Jeanie Buss and is firmly entrenched as a pillar of the club’s four-pronged brain trust alongside Buss and the power couple of Kurt and Linda Rambis.
But how did we get to the point that Pelinka and the Rambii even need to be given a vote of confidence? For a quick refresher for anyone who is both reading a niche Lakers blog but has somehow missed all this — and if that’s you, congratulations on being less online than me, I envy you — let’s break down the last few weeks really quickly:
- James said this group couldn’t get to the level of the Milwaukee Bucks — i.e. contend for a title — as currently constructed, days before the NBA trade deadline
- General manager Rob Pelinka then claimed he was in total “alignment” with James and co-star Anthony Davis on making no moves
- A source close to both James and Davis subsequently leaked that Pelinka’s statement about consulting the two was “totally false”
- James then spent most of the last week breathlessly praising other executives and openly flirting with the idea of a return to the Cleveland Cavaliers, acts that seasoned James chronicler Brian Windhorst of ESPN recently — and aptly — described as James “hammering the team’s knuckles with rounds of trademark passive-aggressive maneuvers”
- Finally, Sunday saw the first explicit report that James’ representatives at Klutch Sports were “not happy with Pelinka,” with CEO Rich Paul only disputing the part of the story that he had pressured the Lakers to trade Russell Westbrook and a first-round pick for John Wall
So... yeah. This is all getting pretty ugly, and the Lakers haven’t even lost in the play-in game yet. But despite how horribly the season has gone, and there appearing to be a massive “level of value brought to the franchise gap” between James and Klutch vs. Pelinka and the Rambii, it appears that Lakers governor Jeanie Buss sees the latter party as less expendable, at least in Stein’s reading of the situation:
For all of the justified credit James deserves for hauling the Lakers out of the worst period in franchise history, steeling them through the tragedy of Kobe Bryant’s death and delivering a championship after a hard-to-believe six straight seasons out of the playoffs, continued shots at Pelinka might not be so swiftly forgotten.
Remember: This is an organization that has cut ties completely with Lakers icon Jerry West, who has a legit claim to Greatest Laker Ever status when you combine his playing achievements with his front-office work. James and agent Rich Paul, for all the perceived control they wield, are still outsiders when it comes to the Lakers’ power dynamics. If West can be cut off, rest assured LeBron can, too, if he can no longer lift the Lakers out of mediocrity.
Is some of that a bit speculative? Of course, but Stein is as informed as insiders come, and the reality is that his assertions are also backed up by, well, reality.
Kurt Rambis — ostensibly a “senior basketball advisor,” but in practice much more powerful than that title would imply — has been being referred to as the Lakers’ shadow president by league insiders since all the way back in May of 2019, and Linda Rambis has been one of Buss’ closest confidantes for decades, long serving as one of the most powerful people in the organization, period, a power that reportedly only increased after Magic Johnson stepped down.
For anyone thinking that will change, Buss last responding to criticism of Linda’s level of sway within the team by calling it “demeaning and disheartening,” implying it was only driven by people being “uncomfortable with women in power positions,” and adding that “nothing can penetrate that 30 years of trust” they share.
In short, it would appear unlikely she’s going to can either her best friend or her husband, no matter how pissed LeBron James or his powerful agency are.
Pelinka, meanwhile, has also known Buss from his time around the franchise for the entirety of Kobe Bryant’s career as his agent, best friend, and honorary family member, and ingratiated himself to the Rambii and Buss enough to remain employed in the wake of Johnson — one of Buss’ closest friends and Kurt’s former teammate — going on national television and calling Pelinka a backstabber, adding that he was driven to quit in part due to Pelinka constantly criticizing his work ethic behind his back.
That Pelinka made it through that is a testament to just how ingratiated he is within The Lakers Family. Comparatively, this year almost feels like a cakewalk.
And, to be as fair as possible to both Pelinka and the Rambii, the Lakers did win a championship with all of them at the helm in 2020. Now, was that mostly due to LeBron’s greatness, and Klutch’s maneuvering to get Davis to L.A.? Yes. But the three still deserve some credit for building the organization around those two stars, just as all parties involved deserve criticism for this mess of a season, even if all this finger pointing strongly implies most of them seem to think all this was everyone else’s fault.
But as this new and old context makes clear, despite all this messy infighting serving as a daily embarrassment for the organization and its fanbase, this is likely not a situation headed for a quick resolution. The Lakers aren’t just going to cave and fire Pelinka for forgetting to sign any wings this summer, or because James wants a scapegoat for the Westbrook trade that he and Davis pushed for. These are the three people Buss trusts most, and until that changes, either they’re going to find a way to get on the same page with James, or he’s going to have to head elsewhere.