Editor’s Note: When a team underachieves to the extent the 2021-22 Lakers did, it is paramount that the organization’s decision-makers not only identify why things went wrong, but that they incorporate what they learned into future decisions. In this series of posts, Darius Soriano will examine some of the lessons from this Lakers’ season and why they mattered so much to their downfall. Next up, let’s take a look at Rob Pelinka’s leadership and decision-making in leading an organization with many perspectives to account for, and quite a few stakeholders to keep happy.
If you go to the Lakers media guide for the 2021-22 season and turn to page 8, you’ll come to the section dedicated to Rob Pelinka. This page has a lot of information about Rob — his past accomplishments, some of the moves he made in the offseason, and a bunch general anecdotes that give you a sense of who he is as a person. It’s like a mix of a PR release, a LinkedIn page, and a transactions summary.
The part of this page that interests me most, however, isn’t any of the inferences about what his plan was heading into this season or how much he enjoys trail running. No, the part that I find most interesting is right there at the top of the page where it lists his title: VP, Basketball Operations and General Manager.
I’ve always loved the job title General Manager. I love it because those words are exactly what the job is. When most people think of a General Manager, they think of the person who chooses the players a team drafts, trades for, cuts or signs in free agency; they think of the person who hires or fires a head coach. And while this is, of course, correct, their actual job is so much more than that.
The GM is the person who sets the tone for your entire basketball operations, leading a group of people across a multitude of titles and roles, and ultimately serves as the final link in the chain below the organization’s owner/governor (who typically has final say in any decision they want). So, the GM has to manage down to their subordinates, up to their boss(es), and — when others have a certain influence over the decision-making process too (regardless of their title) — they have to manage sideways to those “peers.”
There’s a reason why they call the position what they do. If all this person did was choose players, they’d be the vice president of player picking, or the senior contract negotiator, or the chief coach hirer and firer.
The job is so much more than that, though. The best general managers have a keen understanding of the entire organization, and a handle on what strings to pull in any of those areas to help get the team on the floor closer to their ultimate goal.
General Manager. It just fits so perfectly.
I bring all of this up because understanding the nature of the job is important contextual information as we get back to Rob Pelinka and his stewardship of the Lakers. Pelinka sits in the middle of a closely knit web of power brokers within an organization where multiple stakeholders carry influence beyond their technical titles in regards to how decisions are made and what those decisions ultimately are. Whether it’s executive director of special projects Linda Rambis, senior basketball advisor Kurt Rambis, unofficial advisor Phil Jackson, Klutch Sports CEO Rich Paul, or star players like LeBron James and Anthony Davis, there are a lot of people who have desires for specific outcomes with the team, and the influence to make them happen.
One of the more important parts of Pelinka’s job, then, is herding those potentially disparate positions and competing interests into a cohesive vision while also ensuring that vision is in the best interests of the organization in both the short and long term. This requires a deft hand, skill at building consensus, and, maybe more than anything else, the ability to speak truth to power. Said another way, it’s Pelinka’s job to absorb every opinion he has to take into account, to know what the right answer is, and then execute implementing that solution all while having enough buy-in from everyone who provided input to keep them on your side.
It is increasingly hard to argue that Pelinka was effective at this part of his job this past season.
When his superstars reportedly pushed for the acquisition of Russell Westbrook instead of a deal for a better fitting player that was likely cost the team fewer of their assets and salary paid out, he — if we are to believe reports — succumbed to his stars and traded for Russ without his own sincere desire to do so. When the super agent of those same star players had another client who played point guard and was framed as a viable (and cheaper) replacement for Alex Caruso (hello there, Kendrick Nunn), he succumbed to that point of view too. And then when it was time to sign the younger (and greener) second-round pick — who is represented by that same agent — to a contract extension even larger than what Caruso got, Pelinka again chose the path of keeping those within that web of influence happy when faced with a self-imposed choice between the two players due to ownership’s spending limits.
His job, however, isn’t to keep those people happy. His job is to know better than them when it’s time to make decisions that are supposed to help the team win basketball games, both now and in the future.
And, if Pelinka actually didn’t know that trading for Westbrook and treating him like a positive asset was a bad decision, or that choosing Nunn over Alex Caruso — and ditto for THT — were bad basketball decisions... that’s an indictment of his own talent evaluation prowess, independent of whatever influencers try to shape his view.
And, if he actually did know better, but didn’t have the ability to get those same people back on his side or to see things his way — or to just plain go against them, knowing it was what’s best for the team he’s in charge of managing — then that’s just a demerit of a different type.
Either way, then, Pelinka failed. And, with that, the team he built failed too.
And now, as he enters one of the more important off-seasons of his tenure as a Lakers executive, it’s increasingly clear that Rob Pelinka is embattled in his role. LeBron and AD cannot be happy that they’ve been so publicly blamed for the Westbrook trade, when it’s still Rob who had to make the final call. Rich Paul was likely equally unhappy that the team stood pat at the deadline, particularly when reports say there was not alignment between the Lakers’ stars and Pelinka in the wake of the team’s lack of moves. Pelinka has fired a head coach that won a title just two seasons ago, and the process of replacing him has many of those same powerbrokers within the organization looking to wield influence over the final decision.
Meanwhile, Pelinka is publicly positioning himself as the person who has final say over any and all basketball decisions, which feels both like an attempt to insulate his stars and ownership from taking heat over past moves, and a way to consolidate power as all the same influencers lurk. It all feels messier than it needs to be, and rooted in the idea that the person who needs to manage so much doesn’t quite have a handle on how exactly to be inclusive in a way that is both accepting of others’ ideas while not totally giving into their whims, all as they also getting them on his side.
It’s a fine line to walk for sure, and speaks to the nature of being a GM and all that goes into effectively doing the job. But if Pelinka doesn’t find that path, and quickly, he may find himself on the outside looking in when it comes the power he so clearly seeks to hold onto within the organization. And if things keep going the same way, for the same reasons, and he ends up no longer listed in the team’s media guide... well, it will be hard to argue he didn’t earn that fate.