Rob Pelinka is a lawyer. There is a famous lawyer joke. What do you call a bunch of lawyers at the bottom of the ocean? A good start. That is what Pelinka did for his reputation, and his career as a NBA General Manager. Whereas once he was at the bottom, a perception accepted by many, by pulling off the Anthony Davis deal he has resurrected his elite position as the head of basketball operations. It was a good start. With one successful deal, he shifted himself away from the regurgitated characterization of Kobe agent and Magic Johnson back stabber. He did something Jerry West and Mitch Kupchak were applauded for. He chased a superstar. He won.
As recently as last week, the neophyte Pelinka was bashed around the league hard enough to leak blood. The perception of Pelinka as a social climber and hanger on, not to mention manipulator of Jeanie Buss, became the reality of Pelinka. Accepting a narrative is what you do with the largely unknown. Pelinka doesn’t have a social media presence and prefers to operate away from the limelight so he can only be judged by his decisions. As an agent, it is one player, one team. As a GM, it is one team, many players.
Because Pelinka was determined to get Anthony Davis, he sweetened the deal with two additional draft picks. It is when David Griffin perked up, as he should. Draft picks are gold. Even if the Lakers are picking at the bottom, a good organization (scouting department) spots talent. Kyle Kuzma and Pascal Siakam were 27th picks. Jimmy Butler was a 30th pick. But at the end of the day, Pelinka delivered to Los Angeles a big man who was a star somewhere else. Anthony Davis now follows in the path of Pau Gasol, Shaquille O’Neal, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Anthony Davis is 26 years old. When Gasol came to the Lakers he was 27 years old. Shaq was 24 years old when he came to the Lakers. Abdul-Jabaar was 28 years old. Wilt was 32 years old.
Though the optics are similar, this is not a Steve Nash situation. Nash had a history of back problems and he was 38 years old when the Lakers traded for him. Davis is not in his prime yet. Although he finds a way to get injured often- he has never played a 80 game season and has only played 70+ games twice- he has been an All-Star every year except his rookie season. His career averages of 24 and 11 are something the Lakers haven’t seen since Shaq.
Davis averaged 28 and 12 in back to back years (2016-18). Last season, a difficult year because he wanted out, his offensive rating was 122 and his PER was 30.3. Even when things are going south, he delivers.
Against Dallas last season, he had 48 and 17. In Toronto, he had 25 points and 20 rebounds. His career defensive rating is 103. He is a difference maker and although he and DeMarcus Cousins struggled with chemistry, it often felt like your turn, my turn, LeBron is talented at using the skill of his teammates to better the sum.
LeBron has never played with a talented big man the caliber of a Davis and his assist totals will go way up and his minutes should decrease some. Davis creates so many different scenarios that a defensive coach like Frank Vogel just hit the lottery with a shot blocker and rebounder and defender like Davis.
The theater of the Magic Johnson era behind him, the nuts and bolts of the GM job takes center stage. Sure, surrounding the game is endless tediousness on social media platforms but the bottom line for a front office executive is did you deliver talent? Did you complete a roster? Is there financial flexibility? Is the team set for the future?
To those who say Pelinka finished the job Magic Johnson started, well you can say the same thing about Steve Kerr. He finished the job that Mark Jackson started. And Kawhi Leonard finished the job that DeMar DeRozan started. The end of the beginning, as Winston Churchill put it, matters way more than the beginning of the beginning.
What Pelinka does next- spend all the money or parcel it up to create depth- establishes how he will run the Lakers (or ruin them) in the next few years. Whether Kobe Bryant is his shadow assistant or not, it’s Pelinka’s job. He took ownership of it with the Davis trade. He has his first win and in the process he put all the Magic vitriol and the ensuing media backlash behind him.
However, we are creatures of the moment. The last thing is the important thing. What Pelinka does in the following week(s) will determine if he has the capacity to do the guts and glory of the job. Can he build a team? Create a culture? Establish his legacy for the better?