Lakers fans may have been up in arms on Friday when this team’s 2020 end of season awards snubs continued with Rob Pelinka finishing seventh in Executive of the Year voting, but there wasn’t always so much faith in Pelinka’s abilities.
Fans literally protested in the streets (in part) over Pelinka’s continued employment and (functional) promotion when he assumed full control over Lakers basketball operations after Magic Johnson stepped down, a decision he made in part because he felt Pelinka was trying to stab him in the back. There was more hope in Pelinka’s abilities after he traded for Anthony Davis and assembled the supporting cast around Davis and LeBron James that has this team in the NBA Finals, but even when he was hired, there were criticisms from the media and members of the fanbase alike over the process that led the Lakers to Pelinka, and whether or not the team cast a wide enough net before deciding to bring him aboard.
In what serve as her most extensive remarks on her reasoning, Lakers governor Jeanie Buss spoke to Howard Beck of Bleacher Report on “The Full 48” podcast about the decision-making process that let to her going with (and keeping faith in) Pelinka. They’re worth noting, because they demonstrate how she thinks about things as the person in charge of this team, what she values, and give insight into some of the reasons for hiring Pelinka that those of us on the outside may not have thought about at the time.
“When Magic Johnson joined us as the head of basketball operations and together, the decision was made to hire Rob Pelinka as the general manager, I think some of the pushback or the questions were about the transparency of the process, and about usually when people go about hiring somebody they interview several candidates and really take their time to hire the right person.
“In our case, what was happening, it was a complicated legal issue that was going on between me and my brother (Jim)… If we had interviewed candidates for the job of general manager, that would have further tipped off my brother, and like I said we were in a legal battle, and things had to be done so swiftly so that the franchise could be stabilized, and that’s the importance of Magic Johnson to be at the helm of the ship while I dealt with the legal battle that was in front of me. It was important that our fans knew that Magic Johnson stands for nothing less than Laker greatness, and that he would not tolerate doing anything that would not be best for the franchise.”
For reference, “the legal battle” Buss is referring to grew out of her firing her brother, former Lakers vice president of basketball operations Jim Buss, and then-general manager Mitch Kupchak, and replacing them with Johnson and Pelinka. After that palace coup, Jim Buss and his and Jeanie’s brother Johnny attempted a power grab of their own, trying to use their spots on the board of directors to unseat Jeanie and re-seize control of the team. Jeanie and her attorney’s responded with swift measures that ultimately stripped Jim of any power with the team, with her attorney telling the Los Angeles Times “The message is clear here: Do not underestimate Jeanie Buss… There is not going to be a palace coup. Not now. Not ever.”
But at the time, things probably didn’t seem so certain, which is why Buss wanted to move quickly on their hires as to not tip off her brother. It also made her want to stabilize things as quickly as possible.
“That’s why (Johnson) was so important at that crucial time, (because of) what was going on in the board room, which really shouldn’t worry the fans. They have enough to worry about, they don’t need to know the infighting that was going on. But it was a serious threat to the franchise, and could have put us into complete chaos.
“So while I was dealing with that, Magic and Rob were taking over the basketball operations, because there was concern that prior to the trade deadline, that trades would be made that we wouldn’t be able to recover from. And that’s why the swift movement had to happen, and that’s why we couldn’t go through a process of interviewing, whereas when the opportunity came to us the last offseason to hire a new coach for the Lakers, we went through that process and we interviewed Monty Williams, Juwan Howard, Ty Lue and Frank Vogel. We went through that transparent process of interview, of gathering information and finding out which candidates would be the right fit for us.”
For context, the trade Jeanie is likely referring to was for DeMarcus Cousins, who Jim tried to pursue at the trade deadline before being fired. The Kings ultimately traded Cousins to the New Orleans Pelicans before Jim could consummate a deal, but Jeanie was reportedly concerned by her brother offering two of the team’s recent lottery picks to the Kings in exchange for Cousins, something that in part led to her dismissing him immediately (apparently before he could make other deals that would damage the franchise’s future).
So between that situation and the legal battle, it’s not incredibly surprising that she opted to close ranks and go with someone familiar, and Pelinka fit the bill. Jeanie explained why to Beck:
“So you can see decisions made with the Lakers weren’t just knee-jerk reactions. There was a specific reason why Rob was the right general manager for us, and certainly you can look that there seems to be (a trend) — if you look at people like Arn Tellem, former agent, now head of basketball for the Detroit Pistons, you look at Bob Meyers, former agent who’s head of the Golden State Warriors — I don’t think it was really out of left field (to hire a former agent). It was something that Rob and I had a good relationship because he was at that time Kobe Bryant’s representative, as well as many other players.”
But despite that hire proving to be the right one more quickly than almost anyone — even Jeanie — expected, she is not looking to take a victory lap, even if the Lakers ultimately raise banner No. 17 just a little over three years later:
“None of the decisions were ever made about ego. I don’t need to be vindicated or validated because if you look for validation from the media, you’re never going to get it. That’s not how we do it. The success comes from the work, and I knew surrounding myself with people who had integrity and would do the work, and who saw Lakers basketball as I saw Lakers basketball (would work), it just takes time to get things going in the right direction.
“When Magic and Rob came in, we had kind of a messy salary cap. We had players under contract that didn’t fit the other players we had on the roster, we just kind of had a mish-mosh… With the way the salary cap works, you can’t solve those problems overnight.
“But to be here this soon, I never thought they could do it as fast as they did. But here we are, and I guess the proof is in that, in the actual success. Not in a press release, not in a press conference where we stood up there and told everybody ‘this is what we’re going to do’ and then expect it to happen because we said it at the press conference six months earlier. We knew we were going to take arrows and a lot of backlash and pushback and hate on social media, but that’s not how you run a team. You don’t run a team by responding to people on social media. You do the work, and the proof is in the work.”
The work has definitely proven itself right at this point. The Lakers may not have gotten many accolades for it from the media, or from Pelinka’s fellow executives, but as Jeanie says, they don’t need that. If they win a title, that’s all that truly matters, and it’s clear that Lakers fans can have faith in Jeanie and Pelinka to keep putting the team in a position to win more moving forward. They’ve officially earned the benefit of the doubt, and — in just a little over 24 hours — possibly a 17th banner.