The Los Angeles Lakers’ 2021-22 season basically couldn’t have gone worse.
Their colossal failure, one that saw the team fall wildly short of their preseason championship expectations by missing the playoffs altogether, inevitably led to heads on the chopping block. And a few of those heads have already rolled, as team majority owner and governor Jeanie Buss ultimately green-lit the firing of head coach Frank Vogel as well as the release of most of his staff.
And although Vogel and his staff deserve some blame along with nearly every single member of the basketball operations team, just as much, if not way more should go to the Lakers’ front office members. They were the ones who assembled a roster of name-brand veterans long past their sell-by date, including the likes of Trevor Ariza, Dwight Howard, Avery Bradley, and a few others who have yet to find a new home this upcoming season, and might never even play in the NBA again.
However, even after Rob Pelinka and his front office assembled one of the worst teams in the NBA this past season, Jeanie Buss still seems to believe in them. She emphatically confirmed this recently to Mark Medina of NBA.com in an interview covering a wide array of topics.
“And so even with last season, do you still have full confidence in your basketball operations?
What do you see in them that gives you that?
A championship ring from 2020 [laughs]. Not so bad. That tied us with the Celtics [for most NBA championships] which, for me, is important. My dad bought the Lakers with the idea of being able to compete with the Celtics and make the Lakers relevant in the NBA. I feel like I lived up to his legacy with moving us one step closer. But you can’t win another championship if we don’t make the playoffs. You’re not even in competition for it. Last year was a huge disappointment. But again, I have faith in our basketball operations and the people that we have that we will do better than we did last year.”
Although Buss paints a picture of the team’s inner workings that is probably much rosier than reality, she does have a point that the front office deserves some credit for helping construct a team that won the 2020 NBA Championship. But the pain of the Lakers’ recent failures has eroded whatever slack was earned from the team’s success in the Orlando Bubble.
Buss goes on to say she believes the basketball operations team will put the Lakers in a position to “do better than we did last year,” but what if they don’t?
Well, if reports from after the season’s conclusion are to be believed, then Rob Pelinka may be looking for a new job in the NBA if the Lakers can’t right the ship this coming season.
Below, Buss indirectly sets the bare minimum expected of Pelinka for him to have a chance of staying in his current position (emphasis mine).
And if things don’t proceed the way you expect moving forward, would you make changes?
It’s on me to provide the Laker fans the product they’re used to seeing. They want to see great Lakers basketball. Nobody in my position can promise a championship every year. It’s really hard to put all the pieces together, avoid injuries and get to the top. But you can’t start the journey if you’re not even invited to the dance and you’re not in the playoffs. We have to get there. That’s up to the coaching staff and up to the players. We give them all of the tools they need to be successful.
Of course, much of the Lakers’ fall from grace can be chalked up to the decision to purge their depth for Russell Westbrook, a move that proved ill-advised on both fronts as their shallow roster lacked credible role players and Westbrook radically underperformed.
Pointing out the elephant in the room, Medina charged Buss with answering for the decision that ultimately left the team in shambles.
Injuries were a huge factor. But several, including myself, also argued last season’s shortcomings stemmed from the roster construction with the Westbrook trade, the depth required to make that happen and having a veteran-heavy team. How did you view that part?
Many members of the media, when that trade was made, thought it was going to put us in the top of the conference. We didn’t live up to our expectations. The injury to Anthony Davis changes your whole dynamic because so much of our team depends on him. Now you’re missing a vital piece. Everything else gets thrown off.
I’m not here to make excuses. It wasn’t acceptable. We have to get better. Hopefully, injuries will not devastate us the way they did this past season. We’ve made significant changes. But we’re operating in a salary-cap system. So there are not a lot of tools that we have to make changes to our roster. As time goes on, you do your best. That’s what our basketball operations is doing.
With a statement that is as ironic as it is predictable, Buss followed a bevy of excuses with a claim that she wouldn’t be making any excuses.
Citing the legitimate reason of “injuries” along with an ill-founded jab at the league’s “salary-cap system,” Buss seems to think that the Lakers’ season from hell and currently constricted pathways towards improvement have more to do with bad luck than bad decision-making.
This isn’t the first instance of Buss crying poor, nor will it likely be the last, as she already voiced her displeasure with paying the luxury tax for a team that didn’t make the playoffs when she last did a wide-ranging interview with the L.A. Times’ Bill Plaschke.
So Jeanie Buss has faith in Rob Pelinka and the rest of her front office... for now, though we all know how quickly things change in the NBA. I don’t think anyone, not even Pelinka himself, could say with confidence that he will still be the president of basketball operations for the Lakers come this time next summer.
If he is to stay in that position by putting together a playoff-caliber roster, he will almost certainly have to complete a trade or two between now and the 2022-23 season. He definitely seems hard at work in trying to do so. However, even if the Lakers can execute their Plan A and trade for Kyrie Irving, they could be too far gone from having a championship-level roster to ever get back there with LeBron James and Anthony Davis in the middle of it.
If that proves to be true, then Buss’ faith will almost certainly wane, and with it, perhaps Pelinka’s head will be the next to roll.