At exit interviews last week, Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka spoke like a man with a very specific set of instructions: To publicly take accountability for any decisions the team has made, and deflect any blame from other involved parties like LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Jeanie Buss.
This was a tone shift for Pelinka, who reliably mentions how much he collaborates with his two stars nearly every single time he has media availability. When things are going well, that can be viewed as a positive quality, a selling point to future stars from an apparently ego-less executive; Come here, and we will take your input.
But, cynically, it’s also always been possible to view that talking point as a deflection mechanism, Pelinka creating plausible deniability so he can’t be as easily blamed for any bad decisions. Take the trade deadline, for example, when Pelinka claimed he was on the same page with Davis and James about making no moves, something reps for the two pushed back on.
It’s pretty clear that, whether as a result of how badly this season went or other factors, Pelinka isn’t allowed to spread credit around anymore. That was made plain when he was asked a question about Jeanie Buss’ role in Frank Vogel being fired — “First of all, the basketball decisions made here are made by the basketball operations department, and so I take full responsibility for any decision that’s been made,” Pelinka said — and then when he was asked by Mark Medina of NBA.com about LeBron James’ role in roster-building.
“Again, I think the important thing, Mark, is that at the end of the day, the roster decisions ultimately rest on my shoulders,” Pelinka said. “I will take input from LeBron and Anthony as our two captains, I have done that during my entire tenure, but at the end of the day I’m the one who leads the basketball operations department and will take ultimate accountability for the roster decisions that are made.”
That’s a notable tone shift in terms of tone in the way Pelinka claimed to be the ultimate final shot caller on basketball matters, lending credence to the idea that he only has a year to fix this before he starts to end up on a hot seat of his own, a theory even further indicated by how he finished his previous statement (emphasis mine).
“Our dialogue with our captains is open, and has been very productive, but it’s important that we are seen as the ultimate decision-makers,” Pelinka said. “That’s how it will go and has gone.”
Who is it important to that Pelinka is seen that way? He didn’t say. But we can take a guess, and the fact that this type of deliberate damage control and blame (and possible credit) consolidation is necessary from him is just the latest sign that this is a make-or-break offseason for the embattled executive. He’ll either prove his critics wrong, or join them on the outside looking in soon. Either way, he’s not going to get to blame James, Davis or his bosses for how the rest of this story goes.