With each mounting loss in Los Angeles, the noise around the Lakers' future only grows louder, despite LeBron James dismissing the recent furor from his public flirtation with the Cavaliers and Oklahoma City Thunder general manager Sam Presti, and even with Rich Paul's clearing-the-air sit down with Lakers owner Jeanie Buss and Vice President Rob Pelinka last week.
The Lakers' struggles may ultimately have ramifications for several key Los Angeles actors. League insiders remain dubious that Pelinka is truly entrenched as Los Angeles' lead executive beyond this season. The same doubt extends to the futures of embattled head coach Frank Vogel and Russell Westbrook.
Vogel's job security has been in question since he was awarded a one-year contract extension in August, just a year after leading the Lakers to a championship. In January, Vogel's job was reportedly in jeopardy, and he continues to endure rampant speculation. Few coaching figures hold optimism Vogel will still be manning the Lakers sideline come 2022-23.
The whispers have been quiet on who could serve as Los Angeles' next play-caller. Previous preferred candidates such as Tyronn Lue and Jason Kidd have found success with the Clippers and Mavericks, respectively, and the only word in coaching circles so far is the Lakers will likely prioritize finding an experienced coach rather than a first-timer for the job. That calculus would seem to align with Los Angeles' never-ending title quest around James.
Pelinka's circumstances are far cloudier than Vogel's. A franchise so rooted in its history, with a management focused on upholding a familial feel, deeply values its connection with the man who long represented Kobe Bryant. Former players, not just Magic Johnson, and other Lakers power brokers such as Kurt and Linda Rambis have always held prominent voices in Los Angeles' decision making. Pelinka is said to still have strong support from those Lakers figures.
"His relationship with Kurt and Linda and Jeanie, it is very much a mom and pop shop," one assistant general manager told B/R.
There has been growing speculation about one name to replace Pelinka as Lakers general manager: Omar Wilkes, the current head of basketball operations for Paul's agency, Klutch Sports. Wilkes has been described as somewhat of a compromise between that ironclad Lakers family and Klutch's operation. His father, Jamaal Wilkes, played eight seasons with the franchise and won three championships alongside Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Jordan Wilkes, Omar's younger brother, spent six years in the Lakers' front office before joining the Hornets as a scout in 2019.
However, multiple sources with knowledge of the situation strongly denied Wilkes' candidacy to replace Pelinka, citing his hands-on role within Klutch's collegiate recruiting efforts. To be clear, the Lakers have not contacted him for any position. Wilkes has already landed an impressive client list starring Trae Young and Anthony Edwards, and has long been courting talented Duke forward Paolo Banchero, widely considered a top-three prospect in the 2022 NBA Draft. Wilkes and Paul were seen courtside at the Blue Devils' Las Vegas game against fellow top prospect Chet Holmgren and Gonzaga earlier this season.
Banchero is currently signed with CAA for NIL marketing deals this season. And what seems indicative of a larger battle brewing between Klutch Sports and CAA, three people familiar with the matter told B/R that the speculation about Wilkes overtaking the Lakers front office has been fueled in part by CAA personnel, in the agency's effort to retain Banchero for the NBA Draft. One person with knowledge of CAA's dealings refuted that claim. But what's clear is Banchero's NBA representation appears to be a sensitive dynamic among player agent figures circling Banchero, although the Duke phenom's family is said to be pleased with his current CAA arrangement.
Perhaps there's an alternative avenue in Los Angeles, where the franchise retains Pelinka under his current title of vice president of basketball operations and general manager, and hires another executive as president, similar to how Magic Johnson originally held the president position alongside Pelinka. That arrangement has become increasingly common in NBA front offices, like how Philadelphia anointed Daryl Morey atop the Sixers' front office, previously helmed by general manager Elton Brand. Or how Danny Ainge was named Utah Jazz CEO despite having Justin Zanik operating as general manager. Along those lines, league sources continue mentioning the possibility Minnesota brings in a president above interim general manager Sachin Gupta.
The Argument Against Pelinka
While Pelinka's acquisition of Anthony Davis certainly helped power the Lakers to the 2020 NBA championship, his tenure leading Los Angeles has been checkered with costly decision-making. When the Lakers first acquired Davis, Pelinka's front office almost forfeited valuable cap room for a third max contract by not waiting to acquire Davis from the Pelicans ahead of the new league calendar year. The Lakers ultimately had to spend additional draft capital and young prospects to make it a larger three-team deal with the Wizards, all for an attempt to then sign Kawhi Leonard.
At the 2021 trade deadline, the Lakers retreated from talks with Toronto to acquire Kyle Lowry, both in reticence to the knowledge Lowry sought the exorbitant three-year deal he ultimately secured in free agency, and Los Angeles' resistance to part with Talen Horton-Tucker, sources told B/R. Flash forward to this year's trade deadline, and the Lakers were once again in serious talks that nearly sent Horton-Tucker to those same Raptors.
Pelinka's about-face from negotiations with Sacramento before the 2021 NBA Draft—which would have landed Buddy Hield—to instead acquire Russell Westbrook at a far richer price, has all been well-documented. Pelinka clearly acquiesced to James' and Davis' desire for Westbrook, yet the Lakers' stunned the Kings with their sudden change of tune. Sacramento staffers were largely made aware of the Wizards trade when the deal framework was reported publicly, sources said, rather than being informed by Lakers brass. Several rival front offices have indicated Pelinka has lacked when it comes to working with opposing teams.
"He wasn't returning some teams calls at [this year's] deadline," one general manager told B/R.
"He was an asshole as an agent," said another assistant general manager. "He had the most powerful players and if he wanted the player moved, he would've eviscerated you as a staff to get whatever he wanted. You can't do that to people, and then expect them to work with you when you join their side."
Westbrook OK with a Divorce?
It will be on Pelinka, or whomever is truly spearheading the Lakers' front office, to find a solution for the Westbrook dynamic, who has played his own role in this Los Angeles turbulence.
Whoever's to blame, there's clearly a personality disconnect between Westbrook and the coaching staff. Any suggestion for Westbrook to come off the Lakers' bench would never have been entertained by the guard, sources said, and Vogel's staff never seriously broached the subject with him. Westbrook has started all 59 games he has appeared in. And despite what's been described as a fluid dialogue between Vogel and Westbrook, the former All-Star has publicly chafed about being sidelined during fourth quarter play.
The former MVP gave an impassioned speech to Lakers players prior to the All-Star break, sources told B/R, harping on Los Angeles' need to take a unified direction to their fight for a postseason berth. Westbrook offered similar internal motivations during last season's burst for the 8-seed with Washington.
In any case, there is mutual interest in finding Westbrook a new home this summer, sources said.
The Lakers' trade deadline discussions with the Houston Rockets for a potential Russell Westbrook-John Wall swap didn't generate significant traction, sources said, as the Lakers were resistant to including their 2027 first-round pick in any deal to offload Westbrook's salary. League observers have pointed to this offseason as a greater opportunity for the Lakers to shed Westbrook's contract, when they will be eligible to move their 2029 first-round pick.
But if the Lakers weren't willing to part with one draft selection with Houston, one team strategist told B/R it would require two first-round picks for his front office to take back Westbrook's deal. Other team personnel have optimism Westbrook will become more movable once his contract becomes an expiring contract. Maybe there will be an opportunity to offload Westbrook at the cost of that 2027 first-rounder, when the Lakers would still have the 2029 pick at their disposal heading into the season.
Los Angeles' most realistic option may ultimately be stretching Westbrook's $47 million player option for the 2022-23 season. The Lakers have already shown a willingness to stretch Luol Deng's contract, which finally slips off Los Angeles' books this year, although that came under Mitch Kupchak's stewardship. Stretching Westbrook, according to the strategist, would drop the Lakers to merely $2.5 million above the salary cap, which would allow them to sign a rotation piece to the non-taxpayer mid-level, and another player to the bi-annual exception.
"You'll at least be able to patch something together," said another cap analyst. "It might actually be their best move and puts some pieces around LeBron."
Reading Into LeBron's Future in LA
James does, for now, appear destined to remain in Los Angeles for the coming years. "This is a franchise I see myself being with," he emphatically told reporters Friday, and it does seem that Cleveland's door isn't open as widely as James and others may have believed. Cavaliers personnel have taken great pride in their burgeoning playoff contender, set to make the postseason for the first time without James since 1998. For any reunion to occur, Cleveland appears keen on simply adding veteran talent like James into the roster they've assembled, rather than co-piloting personnel decisions with a superstar.
The Lakers still hold championship aspirations this season. Los Angeles personnel maintain that if they can reach the playoffs, the healthy combination of LeBron James and Anthony Davis is still enough to threaten all comers for the Western Conference crown. Some rival teams have echoed that sentiment as well. If the Lakers fail to advance beyond the play-in tournament, changes within the franchise are surely on the horizon.