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Season Review: Rob Pelinka

Rob Pelinka did a great job fixing many of the Lakers’ flaws at midseason, but how much credit does he deserve for fixing issues that he helped create?

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How you view or judge Rob Pelinka’s season likely comes down to how much credit you think a person deserves for a massive turnaround... when the need to turn things around was due to choices that person made in the first place. This is the inherent conflict of examining Pelinka’s stewardship over the Lakers’ run to the Western Conference Finals.

On the one hand, Pelinka deftly remade his team’s roster with multiple deals both leading into and at the trade deadline by maximizing the assets he had at his disposal and getting as much return as he could in the process. These deals left the Lakers with a more talented and better-fitting roster that was well-positioned to make push toward the playoffs and, ultimately, once they did, to make a run by winning two rounds.

On the other hand, the Lakers were only in a position to need such deals in the first place because of an unbalanced roster that was overloaded with undersized guards, leaving the team without enough capable forwards to deal with the (now, seemingly, yearly) injury struggles of both LeBron James and Anthony Davis. It’s a problem that was only further exacerbated by the limitations of building a roster without many mid-salaried players or highly desirable assets due to the disintegration of their cap flexibility and viable trade pieces via the deal for Russell Westbrook the previous offseason.

Neither of these perspectives are wrong, of course.

Coming into this season, Pelinka’s bed was an uncomfortable mess of his own creation, and he was forced to lie in it. But, as the season wore on — and in keeping this analogy going — Pelinka was able to wait out the market until supplies went on sale, and furnish his sturdy bed frame with some new prima cotton sheets, a down blanket, and a couple of new foam pillows.... and, suddenly those sleepless nights became much more relaxed.

From my vantage point, then, I think Pelinka deserves a fair amount of credit.

Before the season started, there was little (if any) belief nationally that the Lakers would be able to offload Westbrook’s salary without paying a hefty tax of multiple first round draft picks, to say nothing of getting a deal done that included multiple viable rotation players returning to the team. Reports up until the Lakers actually made the Russ trade cited teams pressing the Lakers for all the draft capital they could trade, and in at least one instance to also include one or both of Austin Reaves and Max Christie to sweeten the pot even further.

With these types of hypothetical Russ deals already costing the farm, the idea that other moves that could net former lottery picks like Rui Hachimura or Mo Bamba were even possible seemed farfetched, to say the least.

But, at the end of the day, the Lakers not only did acquire multiple rotation players in D’Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley and Jared Vanderbilt in the trade that sent Russ to the Jazz, but they only needed to include one of their two coveted future first round picks in that deal. This deal was quickly followed up by other deadline-day transactions that brought in Bamba and three second round picks for Patrick Beverley and Thomas Bryant (respectively). And, of course, all of these deals came on the heels of the pre-deadline move that netted the Lakers Hachimura for Kendrick Nunn and multiple second-rounders (picks that, ironically, actually belonged to the Wizards originally and were sent to the Lakers in the original trade that sent Westbrook to Los Angeles).

This sort of deal-making should be applauded, and Pelinka deserves to reap the praise of being able to pull them off. He showed patience when everyone said he should be panicking, and in holding out for as long as he did he found a willing partner who met the asking price he was looking for in both assets he was willing to send out and what he wanted in return.

In addition to all this, Rob hit on several of his free agent signings over the summer that helped build the foundation that contributed to keeping the team afloat and winning them enough games to stay in the hunt after the team’s 2-10 start. In Dennis Schröder, Thomas Bryant and Troy Brown Jr., the Lakers got vital contributions from multiple minimum salaried signings — a real rarity in today’s NBA. And in Lonnie Walker IV, the Lakers got a key rotation player for their tax-payer mid-level exception that, despite some ups and downs over the course of the regular season, was a critical figure in the playoffs who helped the Lakers advance to the Conference Finals.

And we also mustn’t forget the choice to hire Darvin Ham as the team’s head coach after dismissing Frank Vogel last spring. Ham had his own challenges and learning curve to overcome as a first-time head coach, for sure. But he was also a steadfast leader who was able to connect with and galvanize his players, instilling the toughness and resiliency that embodied the team all season. His communication skills and the faith he showed in players were crucial in keeping them connected and buying in even in times when it would have been easy to fold up shop and let go of the rope.

Of course, even in the face of all these positives, we simply cannot ignore the point we made earlier — that the hole the team dug themselves into and the efforts required to climb out were driven by choices Rob made too. We can’t forget that while his patience paid off in the end, it came with the severe cost of a team that tumbled in the standings early in the season and needed to treat the final six weeks of the regular season like an extended playoff run of its own just to reach the play-in.

And while injuries that were out of his control contributed to the in-season challenges the team faced, a more balanced roster or one with more depth could have better survived some of those more challenging times. It is also not a stretch to believe that sort of roster being better able to support LeBron and AD from the beginning, allowing them to pace themselves through the rigors of the regular season, potentially stave off some of the injuries that plagued them, and could have enabled them to be in better position to peak as the playoffs began rather than exerting so much just to get there at all.

Those roster construction mistakes, made over the course of multiple offseasons after the team won a championship, cannot be swept under the rug just because the team made a really fun run to the Conference Finals when they were counted out.

Moving forward, then, it’s imperative that Pelinka understand that all the work done to get to this point is closer to the beginning than it is to the final product. There are more considerations to account for, and more decisions to make to build a team that can actually win the title. As we’re seeing in the Finals right now — just as in their matchup with the Nuggets themselves — this roster still has needs to address and falling back onto old habits or resting on what was accomplished would be a mistake.

But those are topics for another day. For now, I think Pelinka has earned a certain amount of faith that, with LeBron and AD as the core, he can take the needed steps to build a team that has a deep playoff run in them. And if you’d have asked me if I thought that was possible a year ago, I cannot say for certain I’d have said the same.

You can follow Darius on Twitter at @forumbluegold.

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