Pelinka's New Job: When Preparation Meets Humanity
What Rob Pelinka misses most about his old job as a player representative is how deeply connected he felt to individual players—"and their families," he added—as he served on their behalf.
The most pleasant surprise about his new job as Lakers general manager, though, is being linked with the other hundred-plus employees in the Lakers' new headquarters.
"I love the continuity and team building and all working together for a common purpose," Pelinka said. "When you're an agent, you're really focused on an individual's brand. It's a very supporting endeavor. This has that team feel, collaborating with all the folks around here. That part I love."
Rob congratulates Kobe Bryant on his jersey retirement night
Pelinka's value for such real, human ties—even in the oft-cutthroat business of sports agents—has shaped his career arc and is a core part how he now does his new job.
Contagious charisma from Pelinka can't possibly exude as naturally as it does from Magic Johnson, whom Pelinka refers to as a ".001 percenter" in leadership and galvanizing people's force.
Yet it's actually more impressive in some ways for a fantastically academic guy to appreciate street smarts with others are needed to complement book smarts in one's self.
Pelinka won the NCAA's top male scholar-athlete award, got his bachelor's degree in business with a 3.9 grade-point average and then graduated from the University of Michigan Law School with honors. Pelinka's the guy Chris Webber said could be found "only in the gym or at the library" when they were making Final Four runs at Michigan.
But Pelinka got into the sports agent business because being a corporate lawyer didn't satisfy the human connections he sought.
What he didn't quite realize amid all his success as a sports agent was how much he missed the togetherness from all those years on the basketball team.
With the Lakers, Pelinka is finally back on the team.
It's easy to view Pelinka's first trade and biggest move to date in a purely analytical sense.
After all, trading for cap flexibility is about as hard core as it comes.
So it's illuminating to understand all the facets of humanity that went into the Lakers' June trade of D'Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov for Brook Lopez and the draft pick that became Kyle Kuzma.
How did the trade come to be? Only through real human interaction in this era of shortcut communication.
Pelinka actually met with Brooklyn Nets general manager Sean Marks in person three times over the course of the off-season deal-building process.
"I enjoy that human interaction," Pelinka said. "I think that was a key component for this to come together.
"You have to have a consistent thread in your relationship building in life. Of course I dealt with Sean when I was a player representative and he was in the front office both in San Antonio and Brooklyn. I had a really good rapport with him. Both he and I value human interactions. It can't just be a text; it can't just be a phone call."
For taking on Mozgov's contract, Marks got the considerable upside of Russell's potential, and Pelinka saw it as a nice byproduct that the Lakers were setting Russell up in a good situation.
"The overwhelming driving force behind any trade is 100 percent what's best for the Lakers," Pelinka said. "But we're all human. There is a human element through every decision that's made in life.
Magic and I, with this one, were particularly happy D'Angelo was getting traded to a great franchise in the Brooklyn Nets in a big market with a great opportunity for him to lead the team.
"It is an example of a trade that really, really was a win-win. At least the human side of it, you feel good about it. That's not always the case."
The overwhelming driving force behind any trade is 100 percent what's best for the Lakers. But we're all human. There is a human element through every decision that's made in life.Rob Pelinka
Pelinka was thinking of accommodating far more people than just Russell, obviously.
The deal got done two days before the NBA draft, with the Lakers having zeroed in on point guard Lonzo Ball and cognizant of positional duplication with Ball and Russell.
"As the picture started to become clearer closer to the draft," Pelinka said, "you take that into account."
Pelinka was also considering Ball's and Brandon Ingram's feelings in acquiring Lopez, a floor-spreading center with such shooting ability that he hit three of four three-point attempts in the first seven minutes of the victory Sunday against New York. Pelinka wanted to give Luke Walton's offense more open lanes to maximize Ball and Ingram.
Those were extra boxes the Lakers could check beyond meeting Johnson's mandated vision for more youth-oriented assets and future cap flexibility. With the No. 27 overall pick coming from Brooklyn, the Lakers would flip their No. 28 overall pick for Nos. 30 (Josh Hart) and 42 (Thomas Bryant).
But the casual fan might not understand Pelinka is no rookie in the trade game. Agents often are the lead brokers on trades behind the scenes, trying to serve many puppet masters besides their clients.
"I've been involved in many, many trades," Pelinka acknowledged.
He will also acknowledge that researching trade scenarios is among the more fun aspects of both his former job and current job—particularly given how his mind works.
"My favorite class in high school was my AP [Advanced Placement] Calculus class; I love solving problems," Pelinka said. "This is like putting together a complicated puzzle. It is; it's fun. The misnomer is that people and fans may think a general manager spends 95 percent of his time thinking through trades, but you don't get to do that all day long."
Back in 2007, when the Lakers were also sorting through how to return to the top, there was a meeting at the home of legendary Lakers owner Jerry Buss.
Pelinka and his star client, Kobe Bryant, were invited to huddle with Jeanie's late father, and the three of them shared ideas on what should and would change with the Lakers.
The Lakers were in the NBA Finals by next spring and won it all the year after…and the year after that.
Of those three people, who would've figured Pelinka to be the only one now working doggedly toward bringing the Lakers back again?
It's a testament to Pelinka's commitment to those human relationships.
There's one goal here, and it's to climb to the top of the Larry O'Brien championship trophy mountain. That's the only goal.Rob Pelinka
Pelinka said he was surprised to come up for the Lakers GM job at what he thought would be a casual lunch last year with two longtime friends, Jeanie and Kobe.
But Pelinka was only there at that lunch in Newport Beach at The Resort at Pelican Hill because he had come to be trusted by Bryant as much more than just his agent—and trusted by Buss as much more than just Bryant's agent.
"I had natural connection points with Jeanie that were real," Pelinka said, "and represented 18 years of working together."
So, here he is, taking a corner seat as close as he can to the Lakers' bench at Staples Center in order to maximize his human touch with the team. Pelinka reflects on that 2007 meeting as something that is "embedded in my soul."
Jerry Buss was all about soliciting and respecting opinions, knowing he held the hammer to drop on decisions or break through barriers. Jeanie is trying to recreate that close-knit feel and easy communication with the help of Walton, Johnson and Pelinka.
"We love to bounce ideas and thought-challenge each other," Pelinka said.
Again, it's teamwork.
Steph Curry guards Lonzo in a November matchup from STAPLES Center.
And when it comes to Kuzma, drafted with that No. 27 pick from Brooklyn and now referred to by Pelinka as "a cornerstone for the future," Pelinka deflects credit.
"We had identified Kyle Kuzma early in the draft process: Jesse Buss and his scouts, Magic, and I were all aligned," Pelinka said. "We felt so strongly about him that we knew that Brooklyn Nets trade would increase our mathematical probability of getting him, because we would have a higher pick and we'd have two [picks]. When we were able to call his name on draft night, knowing that was a target, it definitely felt gratifying."
Being able to share victories with an entire organization and even a global fan base is a unique level of influence. (On the flip side, absorbing losses is an atypical source of pain, with Pelinka's wife, Kristin, having noticed how if the Lakers lose, Rob will hardly eat even the lasagna that is his favorite dish she makes.)
Same as Pelinka has become a blend of his mind and his community, the Lakers' basketball future will be a fusion of individual ideas and a greater group.
Whatever happens this summer with the cap space the Lakers can access that almost all other clubs cannot, Pelinka is comfortable with his ability to chart a detailed, productive course—whether it's Plan A, B, or Z.
Pelinka sits with Magic Johnson during his introductory press conference
"Of course the media stories are going to focus on the biggest free-agent names," Pelinka said. "But that's not the only road. We could use the cap space on superstars. We could use it for one star and some of our own players. Or we could just use it on our own free agents: Julius [Randle], Brook, and KCP [Kentavious Caldwell-Pope] are all free agents, and I think we're evaluating all of those things.
There's definitely not a single road we're going down. We're looking at all of those possibilities."
Perhaps the Feb. 8 trade deadline will factor in; perhaps not. Perhaps the Lakers will find a way back into the June draft's first round; perhaps not.
It's Pelinka's job to be prepared for everything.
"There's one goal here, and it's to climb to the top of the Larry O'Brien championship trophy mountain," he said. "That's the only goal. To get there, to climb the mountain, your brain is always processing ways to improve and get better. At any given time, for me, there are more than a hundred scenarios in my head of things I'm thinking through."
Yes, Pelinka was already detail-oriented and thorough as a player agent, but the nature of that work was helping a big fish in a small pond.
As he prepares for the Lakers' everything now, Pelinka knows that everything he prepares will change the fate of far more people than ever before.
He's happy to have that responsibility to share.
Kevin Ding is an independent sports writer, and the statements and views expressed by him do not necessarily represent the views of the Los Angeles Lakers.
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