Los Angeles Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka, with all due respect to local suffering L.A. Rams fans following their Super Bowl defeat, thinks his team has some similarities to the world champion New England Patriots.
“I think early on they were facing a ton of adversity,” Pelinka said on a conference call with reporters Friday to discuss his team’s trade deadline deals. “There were lots of stories being told about fractured relationships but what did they do? They kind of came together. …
“My hope is our story is a little bit, maybe, like that where we’re on the outside but we find a way to get in the playoffs with the skillsets we’ve added. And then much like [Tom] Brady did, we let one of the all-time greats — LeBron [James] – take the helm for this team and make some noise.”
The Pats started the season 1-2 and had a two-game losing streak in December to drop their record to 9-5, causing some to question whether it was the beginning of the end of their dynasty, before rallying to win their sixth Lombardi Trophy. The Lakers are currently 28-27, holding the No. 10 spot in the Western Conference, but only three games behind the No. 6 Utah Jazz.
L.A. attempted to completely overhaul its roster this week by offering a robust package of players and picks to the New Orleans Pelicans, hoping to pry superstar Anthony Davis from Bourbon Street to the South Bay. The Pelicans resisted, leaving the Lakers to settle for two minor moves at the deadline; sending Svi Mykhailiuk to the Detroit Pistons for sharp shooter Reggie Bullock on Tuesday and trading Michael Beasley and Ivica Zubac to the Los Angeles Clippers on Thursday for floor-spacing big man Mike Muscala. The Clippers deal opened up a roster spot and Pelinka said the team is evaluating “a handful” of players to fill it — either now or closer to the March 1 deadline to add a player and have him be playoff eligible.
Continuing the Patriots parallel, Pelinka compared Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman to the pieces he’s added, noting how New England found its rhythm after the slot receiver returned from a suspension this season, much the same way he hopes the Lakers find their stride now.
“I almost look at Bullock and Muscala, my hope is, much like Edelman was,” he said. “It’s just one player, but that can have such a big impact on overall chemistry and I hope those two guys can come in and have that impact.”
The two players fit more of the shooter specialist mold that surrounded James in Cleveland than the intended playmaker-clad roster that Pelinka and Lakers president Magic Johnson built in the offseason, however the GM bucked against the insinuation that these moves were made to correct personnel mistakes made in the summer.
“I don’t think there’s been a shift at all. Our identity’s still playmakers,” Pelinka said. “It’s definitely not a shift from our, sort of, how we built and tooled this roster. I think it’s probably just a tweak on it given the circumstances — the unexpected circumstances — that we don’t control that came up. I think it’s a smart response to the events that unfolded and we’re exciting to see how it works.”
Pelinka dubbed James, who missed 18 games because of a groin injury, and Rondo, who has missed 34 games for various reasons, the Lakers’ “engine drivers,” and their absences caused a change of course.
Then again, the Lakers would have been navigating an entirely different map had the Davis deal gone through.
Citing league tampering rules, Pelinka would not address specific talks with New Orleans but provided L.A.’s perspective when targeting deals.
“The thing I’ve learned in negotiating is you can only control your own tenor and your own discussions on your side,” he said. “And try to approach everything to be smartly aggressive and treat every negotiation with dignity and professionalism. And I think in general, around the league, that’s what you get. These teams are all represented by really smart, really good general managers. And I think the negotiations in general have that spirit and that feel, and that’s the expectation of all the teams. In terms of is there a jealousy because of the Lakers’ success over the years or because of perceived advantage because of the city that we’re in, that’s probably a better question for you to ask the other teams. I’d rather not sit in a seat of judgment on what other people might think.”
All of the trade speculation took its toll, culminating in an embarrassing 42-point loss to the Indiana Pacers prior to the deadline, but Pelinka sees sunnier skies ahead. Pelinka confirmed a Los Angeles Times report that detailed Johnson’s plan to meet the team Philadelphia – Pelinka said Johnson is attending a reunion celebrating the 1979 Michigan State men’s basketball team’s NCAA championship first as he makes his way west to east. The L.A. Times said Johnson will have an open forum for Lakers players to address any unrest that might exist within the team stemming from the trade deadline when his visits with them.
It was Johnson expressing his unrest to Lakers coach Luke Walton just seven games into the season after L.A.’s 2-5 start. Pelinka endorsed Walton for how he’s handled the season since then.
“I think Luke has done a great job of battling through some of the circumstances we’ve faced as a team with the injuries this year, holding things together,” Pelinka said. “I think Luke’s the leader. I think he has done a really good job.”
Success, for a franchise like the Lakers which hangs 16 championship banners in its arena, is defined beyond “really good,” however. It’s certainly a critical juncture in the Lakers season. Will Thursday’s thrilling buzzer-beating win over the rival Boston Celtics be the spark that gets the Lakers back on track, or was it a temporary respite from all the noise that will certainly resurface if the team struggles and the conversation shifts from trade deadline deals to offseason maneuvers and free agency targets?
“I think when you go through anything as a team, if you go through adversity, you can choose how to respond,” Pelinka said. “Does it draw you closer together or does it push you further apart?”