If you are old enough to remember the University of Michigan Fab Five then you may have glimpsed the white guy surrounded by Jalen Rose, Chris Webber and Juwan Howard. He was the co-captain in 1992-93 and the joke was that Rob Pelinka had a grade point average that rivaled his scoring average.
His famous teammates went to the NBA while Rob Pelinka went to law school, graduating cum laude. He is now the Lakers General Manager, a tough job, as he replaces Mith Kupchak after 17 years.
Because he has never been a General Manager before, it is hard to pinpoint exactly what is Pelinka’s philosophy. As an agent he had as famous as a client as you can get in Kobe Bryant and he delivered on Kobe’s last contract which was a sweetheart of a deal given to Bryant as a thank you for all of his service. Bryant was never able to live up to the deal because he was on the back end of a career that saw him play 20 years. But Pelinka, as his agent, did his job.
When asked what he was looking for in a General Manager, Magic Johnson, who is in charge of Basketball Operations for the Lakers said he wanted someone smarter than him. He got that.
Pelinka graduated with a 3.9 from the University of Michigan’s School of Business Administration. He was the top male scholar athlete in the NCAA in 1993 and was awarded the Walter Byers Scholar Award.
At Michigan Law School, Pelinka graduated cum laude in 1996 and began practicing law, first for Mayer Brown and then for SFX Sports Management. Many of his clients at SFX are his clients today; those relationships have to be severed because of the new gig.
(Pelinka clients: Kobe Bryant, James Harden, Eric Gordon, Andre Iguodala, Channing Frye, Wesley Johnson, Avery Bradley, Ed Davis, Derrick Williams, Dion Waiters, Andre Drumond, Dante Exum, Shabazz Napier, Tyus Jones, Buddy Hield, Marquese Chriss. He represented Kevin Durant from 2012-13).
His most controversial moment came courtesy of Carlos Boozer. Boozer had a handshake deal to re-sign with the Cavs when the team didn’t exercise his option. But as a free agent, Boozer ended up signing with the Utah Jazz who had the ability to give him $25 million more. Pelinka’s name was dragged through the mud and Cav fans never forgave Carlos Boozer for what they thought was a stiff arm. Boozer left a young LeBron James to chase the money and the thought at the time was Pelinka engineered the entire thing. Afterwards, because of the bad press, Pelinka left SFX and went out on his own [Landmark Sports Agency].
But having landed a lot of young talented players doesn’t translate into a successful General Manager. Yes, Pelinka has relationships with General Managers because of free agent negotiations. But that is just one part of the GM’s job. The GM also has to maintain financial flexibility, sign reasonable contracts that he can move if need be. He has to have a backwards and forwards understanding of the CBA. He must have a vision first, a plan and then fit the appropriate pieces in the multiple boxes. He has to be a relationship builder and adapt to the changing landscape. He has to like people but at the same time be both tough and calm. It is the Lakers so there will be storms.
All of a sudden Pelinka is on the other side of things. As an agent, he was trying to get the most money for himself and his client. As a GM he is trying to sign players for the least amount of money so his organization won’t be free agent hell, depending on worthless players to fill roster spots.
The 47 year old Pelinka is 15 years Mitch Kupchak’s junior and the feeling is he brings new ideas, a younger psyche, an aggressive approach to how the Lakers are going to approach the next five years that- face it- has the Lakers in the odd position of being at the bottom of the NBA stratosphere.
Pelinka is smart enough for the job but the job isn’t an intelligence test. It is a job about relationships and guts. There is a level of basketball instinct and acumen that is required, something Pelinka understands from his famous client. It was the instinct of Jerry West that had West trade his center, Valde Divac, for an unproven high schooler who was making history by being the first guard to skip college.
No one yet knows Pelinka’s instincts. Jerry West, the top of the food chain of NBA GM’s had players that failed. When it happens to Pelinka he won’t be given West’s cover. He doesn’t have that kind of capital built up.
Perhaps whatever Pelinka lacks, then Magic, a basketball loyalist, can fill in the blanks and together they can direct the organization which has lacked leadership and answers. What is the strategy? What the hell are the Lakers doing?
Without Magic’s interference, the former regime of Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss tried a Hail Mary over the weekend. They tried to snag DeMarcus Cousins from Sacramento but wouldn’t give up rookie Brandon Ingram to make the deal work. They tried to make a play for Jimmy Butler but were turned down; their pieces not good enough. That Magic, who at that point was just an adviser then, was in the total dark, tells you how dysfunctional the Laker front office was. It was a war against themselves, a self-inflicted wound. Might as well shoot all the bullets in the gun on the way out.
Stability in the form of Magic Johnson, the beloved, and Rob Pelinka, the neophyte, and this new regime built on the fly, is still a giant maybe. Let’s be real here. There will never be a honeymoon period for Rob Pelinka. He is following MItch Kuphak who followed Jerry West. Tired of Kupchak or not, he delivered two titles to the Lakers and Pau Gasol. Pelinka is unproven.
He will sink or swim with his trades, draft picks and signings. Magic Johnson will sink or swim with his leadership and vision. The barbarians will be at the gate sooner rather than later. This is L.A. No one has patience around here for a longer than usual learning curve.