Rob Pelinka-led Lakers have fracture signs at critical time for franchise

By Kyle Goon
Los Angeles Daily News

At the bedrock, when people talk about the prestige of the Los Angeles Lakers, they’re talking about history. In the Staples Center, it’s the banners hanging from the rafters. Outside on the plaza, it’s the statues of legends. In the Lakers’ own team practice facility, it’s the trophies gleaming from a second-floor window.

Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka in 2018.

Like the past itself, the monuments to what the Lakers have achieved are immutable and unyielding. They are what they are. Nothing can change that.

The future is different. But the Lakers tried to project their strength for the future last week with people: As new head coach Frank Vogel was introduced alongside general manager Rob Pelinka, the former Michigan player, virtually every important member of the organization – with the notable exception of Jeanie Buss, who was still in the building – sat or stood by as the Lakers attempted to usher in a new era while clearing the air of the last one. Even LeBron James showed, which reflected that he understood how important the moment was and how his presence would reflect on it.

Unlike jerseys or statues or trophies, those gestures of future stability so far are merely gestures. Every week, it seems that fresh daggers are being unsheathed.

The latest comes from an ESPN report both rehashing the Lakers’ drama from last season as well as revealing some details, including employees saying they were intimidated by former team president Magic Johnson’s fiery management style; that Pelinka overruled his front office evaluators in the draft for vague and possibly trumped-up reasons; that LeBron’s agent Rich Paul actively lobbied Adam Silver to get Luke Walton fired; and other anecdotes from team that is increasingly seen as possibly the most dysfunctional team in the NBA.

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All of this takes place at a vulnerable time for the Lakers, who are trying to get Vogel off to a good start despite an awkward hiring process, might be looking for the appropriate trading partner for their No. 4 draft pick, and have a wish list for NBA free agency that they’ll be tackling in just over a month.

One of the most revealing things about the report isn’t necessarily what’s in it. For everyone who scratched their head last week about why Johnson felt the need to point fingers about his volatile tenure as president of basketball operations, it makes more sense with the context of a report coming out a week later casting a harsh light on his leadership. In stories such as these, it’s common for subjects to learn that publication is forthcoming – it seems possible that Johnson felt a preemptive strike on national TV would be necessary.

In doing so, he damaged Pelinka’s credibility by accusing him of back-stabbing, and that’s hard to imagine how that won’t have an influence on the Lakers’ ability to attract a second star. But the fact that multiple employees also felt the need to reveal Johnson’s conduct is telling about the workplace culture that took place under his management – as ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne put it on Twitter, “happy people don’t leak.”

What’s notable here is the larger view, and how the various pieces that claim to support and care about the Lakers appear to be at war. It doesn’t help Pelinka also that at least one member of the front office is willing to undermine him by questioning the draft choice of Michigan's Moritz Wagner over the reported favored prospect Omari Spellman from Villanova. In the report, Pelinka reportedly cited a conversation with Josh Hart, which is not only partly refuted in the story but now has been publicly refuted by Hart on social media.

It’s worth wondering how these revelations will influence the front office’s relationship with both Wagner and Hart, both first-round picks from each of the last two drafts who happen to share an agency. It’s also going to color the Lakers’ upcoming draft decision, on whether to use or trade the fourth overall pick, in a different light: Various reports have also suggested discord among top officials in other Lakers’ draft choices under Pelinka and Johnson, including Lonzo Ball.

It’s also interesting how Johnson predicted in his infamous “First Take” interview that James, the player he helped recruit, would take the Lakers to another title even as he shared his opinion that Pelinka could not be trusted. There’s no way that Johnson’s unloading on the current GM helps James, who is reportedly reaching out to this summer’s crop of free agents to make the once-effortless pitch to come join the Lakers. It also undermined the credibility of Buss, who Johnson has often referred to as a sister.

In a surreal moment, even at the time, Vogel promised that the team would be “pulling in the same direction” and that it would help them accomplish amazing things. While there are undeniable assets for the Lakers – James, the draft pick, the young core of talent – the continued infighting between the team’s power players continues to tear at the veneer of stability they’ve tried to raise. If the team strikes out this summer and has to reset with more one-year deals to preserve cap space, the stakes will become even higher with the clock ticking on the James era, and with a new power structure, the blame will fall on just a few shoulders.

At some point, the Lakers have to acknowledge that the monuments they’ve surrounded themselves with are merely to the past. The projection of solidarity is not solidarity itself.