New GM Rob Pelinka on turning around Lakers: 'That will happen'

ByBaxter Holmes ESPN logo
Saturday, March 11, 2017

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- With his longtime client Kobe Bryant looking on from a front-row seat Friday, former sports agent Rob Pelinka was introduced as the Los Angeles Lakers' general manager, a position he said was a "true calling" while vowing to be "aggressive" in helping the struggling franchise return to prominence after falling to its lowest period in history.

"We are going to deliver on Jeanie's challenge to us all to make the Lakers the greatest sports franchise in the world," Pelinka said at the team's practice facility, referencing Lakers' governor and president Jeanie Buss. "That will happen."

At 20-45, the Lakers have the Western Conference's worst record and will miss the playoffs for the fourth straight season. They have also been turned down by all their big-name free agent targets in the past four offseasons. Pelinka, 47, joins the team after divesting himself of his clients at Landmark Sports Agency, where he recently represented, among others, Houston Rockets star James Harden.

Pelinka was hesitant to pinpoint how long it would take for the Lakers to become contenders again.

"I'm hesitant to paint timelines, but what I'm not hesitant to do is say that we're going to come committed to excellence every day," he said. "We are implementing a plan as we speak, to making moves to have the best talent in the league in this building. It won't stop until we accomplish the goal, but to predict whether that's one year or five years, is impossible. What we can predict is the hard work that we're going to put in to make sure it happens."

Pelinka added, "We have to get better talent for Luke [Walton] to coach. So we have to develop our young players and there [are] some extraordinary young players, but we have to add to that core, too. Our timeline is to be aggressive and to grow with quality players, so we'll develop our young guys."

Pelinka was asked if the team's young core -- comprising recent lottery picks in forwards Brandon Ingram and Julius Randle as well as guard D'Angelo Russell -- could form a championship foundation.

"I don't know, but I do know this -- we have a championship coach," Pelinka said, speaking of Walton, who's in his first year coaching the Lakers, "and [team president Earvin "Magic" Johnson] and I are going put in a championship accountability system to make sure that any player that has the honor to put that jersey on is striving for greatness and is working hard and is a person of integrity and all of those players are inspired by what he did and what Kobe did and what [other Lakers legends did]. We have a championship heritage. We have championship ownership. We have a championship coach. We have a championship president. We've got all the pieces in place."

Pelinka sat beside Johnson, who recently became the team's president of basketball operations after Buss fired longtime general manager Mitch Kupchak and her brother Jim from his role as an executive. While Pelinka has no NBA front-office experience, he's not the first agent to make such a transition, as Lon Babby, Jason Levien, Justin Zanik, Arn Tellem and Bob Myers all made similar movies.

Johnson called the Pelinka hire an "out-of-the-box" move but said he believed in that thinking and that the league was trending in that direction, too.

"What I like about Rob, he's competitive like I am," Johnson said. "He wants to win. He knows how to win. He's an expert at the new [NBA collective bargaining agreement]. He's teaching me the CBA right now as we speak. He understands the salary cap. He has relationships throughout the league, which is very important. He understands college talent, because he's been recruiting them for many, many years to represent them. He understands the new-age [NBA] player, because he's represented so many of them.

"And so when I thought about who I wanted to really start this journey with and who could I pick that would compliment my style and the way I am and also who was also strong where I'm weak. It was [none] other than Rob. And we have the same personality. We have just a passionate love for this franchise. I wanted somebody who understood the Lakers. And Rob knows that better than anybody out here."

When asked how his experience as a sports agent would benefit him in his new role, Pelinka said, "I've gotten to know what is important for a player when they sign to go to a franchise. And as we said at the onset, we have to deliver on those expectations and then become the leader of delivering that to players around the league.

"When players talk about the Lakers, we want that to be what everyone is chasing in terms of how they're treated, how they're coached, how their front office deals with them. I've had a unique lens into all 30 [NBA] franchises, because I've had players on each and every team. So I think Earvin pointed out, we can take bits and pieces from the good in all 29 other teams and add them to what we do, but we're not stopping there. We're not trying to replicate anything. We're trying to create our own identity here. So we will take bits of pieces, but we're also going to have a very unique way of doing things."

Seated beside his wife Vanessa, Bryant made his first public appearance around the Lakers since scoring 60 points in his final game last April, after which the five-time champion retired after 20 seasons with the team.

"There's a verse in scripture that talks about true friends being more precious than gold," Pelinka said, referencing Bryant and his wife, Vanessa. "That is so the case with you guys. Kobe -- what Michaelangelo is to art, what Beethoven is to music, what Shakespeare is to words, you are to me as a friend."

Pelinka said Bryant would still be involved with the team but didn't give specifics on his role.

"There's no way to separate Kobe's impact from the Lakers," Pelinka said. "From everything we do, it's like the sugar that dissolves in your coffee in the morning. Once it's together, it's there forever. So he's a 100 percent behind everything Laker and will continue to be and is in the DNA here and clearly drives Earvin and I and Jeanie and the rest of leadership as a North Star."

In terms of luring star free agents to the Lakers again, especially after striking out on top targets in recent years, Pelinka said, "Every single agent in the NBA knows that this platform is the best platform for their client, in terms of marketing, in terms of the relationships in L.A. We're in a city that has a powder keg of relationships and Earvin and I, we want to tap into all that is Los Angeles."

But Pelinka said that his steepest learning curve is to make sure everyone in the organization is functioning "as a well-oiled machine and working together." His comments came a week after Jeanie Buss filed a temporary restraining order against her older brothers and fellow co-owners, Jim and Johnny, after they tried to potentially oust her from her seat of power within the team.

"That's a big task but something that's so important to Earvin and Jeanie," Pelinka said, "that we are functioning as a unit and getting everyone working together, passionate about caring, doing the same thing, sharing the same message. I would say that's the biggest hill to climb, but it's also one of the exciting ones."

Johnson praised Pelinka's business acumen, the fact that he represented Bryant and more, calling Pelinka his "running mate."

"Rob, I love you man," Johnson added, "and we're about to embark on something that only God could bless us to do together."

Related Video