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Agent Rob Pelinka Is a Shrewd Gamble for Los Angeles Lakers General Manager Job

Eric Pincus@@EricPincusLA Lakers Lead WriterFebruary 28, 2017

Sacramento Kings guard Buddy Hield is a client of new L.A. Lakers GM Rob Pelinka.
Sacramento Kings guard Buddy Hield is a client of new L.A. Lakers GM Rob Pelinka.Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES — As president of the National Basketball Players Association, Derek Fisher was tasked with guiding his constituents through a difficult battle.

With the NBA locked out from July to December of 2011, Fisher spent hours huddling at his agent's Southern California office, poring through the various iterations of legalese until a deal was eventually hashed out with the league. Fisher has since retired as a player, and after a stint as head coach of the New York Knicks, he is working as a Lakers analyst on Spectrum SportsNet.

His agent has a new job as well, or will in a matter of days. Rob Pelinka is expected to leave his firm (Landmark Sports Agency) to serve as the Lakers' next general manager.

Last Tuesday, team executive and part owner Jeanie Buss relieved her brother Jim Buss (also a co-owner) of his duties as basketball operations chief and fired longtime general manager Mitch Kupchak. Magic Johnson, recently hired by Jeanie Buss as an advisor, was named the team's president of basketball operations. Pelinka has been tabbed to run the team under Johnson's leadership.

It was a bold move by Buss, and a risky one, given neither Johnson nor Pelinka has any specific experience in their new roles.

Pelinka will join the team once he divests himself from his boutique agency, where he's guided the careers of Kobe Bryant, James Harden, Trevor Ariza, Avery Bradley, Andre Iguodala, Eric Gordon and Buddy Hield, to name a few.

Alex Kennedy @AlexKennedyNBA

The Lakers' new general manager, Rob Pelinka, was previously an NBA agent. He represented Kobe Bryant, plus these 15 players: https://t.co/7j8IJhld6T

Pelinka has years of experience sitting on the opposite side of the negotiating table, both battling and collaborating with NBA executives on behalf of his clients. The time spent helping Fisher resolve the 2011 lockout gave him a deeper understanding of the league's complex collective bargaining agreement.

"Rob is a master at understanding the CBA. That is the first step of being a quality GM in this league," said former Los Angeles Clippers forward Corey Maggette, now an analyst for Fox Sports. "If he continues to be the person he's always been, a high-character guy, full of integrity and love for the game, he will do fine."

In July, Pelinka used an obscure rule with the Houston Rockets to renegotiate and extend Harden's contract. Originally scheduled to earn $16.8 million for the 2016-17 season, Harden received an immediate raise to $26.5 million under his new deal.

The Rockets were able to restructure Harden's contract, which was originally scheduled to run through 2017-18, because the team was under the NBA's $94.1 million salary cap and three years had elapsed since the All-Star guard signed his original extension with the team after a trade from the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2012.

Now Harden is inked through the 2019-20 season at $118 million with a player option in the final year.

Representing Bryant had to have been an education unto itself. Pelinka's relationship with Bryant, who remains one of the NBA's biggest stars worldwide even in retirement, dates back to Pelinka's years at the SFX agency.

Pelinka helped Bryant get through some of the most difficult years of his career, including the Colorado sexual assault allegations in 2003 (that resulted in a settlement), Bryant's free-agent decision in 2004 and trade demands in 2007. Ultimately, Bryant finished his 20-year career as a Laker and stayed loyal to Pelinka when he branched out to form his own agency.

"He truly cared about his guys, as if he was in their shoes," Maggette said. "When things weren't going right for you, he took it hard."

Pelinka was also responsible for getting Bryant a two-year, $48.5 million extension with the Lakers in 2013 before the now-retired guard had fully recovered from a torn Achilles.

Pelinka was a regular at Staples Center while representing Bryant. He also brought clients to the Lakers, often at discount prices: Ed Davis, Wesley Johnson and Chris Kaman. (Both Davis and Johnson have since moved on to different agents. Kaman hasn’t played since last season’s stint with the Portland Trail Blazers.)

Pelinka isn't one to shy away from making difficult decisions. While at SFX, he negotiated an agreement in 2004 with the Cleveland Cavaliers to decline the option year on Carlos Boozer's contract, with the understanding that the forward would re-sign with the Cavs.

Instead, Boozer accepted a $68 million offer from the Utah Jazz, one Cleveland was unable to legally match. The NBA has since fixed that loophole, providing for the so-called "Arenas Rule" to protect teams from losing second-round picks to teams with greater spending power.

Boozer even made his way to Los Angeles at the tail end of his career when the Lakers claimed him off amnesty waivers from the Chicago Bulls in 2014.

EL SEGUNDO, CA - JULY 25:  Carlos Boozer of the Los Angeles Lakers and Rob Pelinka after a press conference at the Toyota Sports Center on July 25, 2014 in El Segundo, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading a
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Both Pelinka and Magic Johnson will need to learn the job on the fly. That will come with challenges.

A rival agent believes the Lakers are trying to model their front office after the Golden State Warriors, who have Bob Myers, another former agent, as general manager.

"Everybody respects Bob Myers," the agent said. "But Bob has Jerry West, Larry Harris and Travis [Schlenk] to rely on, experienced executives [in the Warriors organization]."

The rival, who preferred to keep his name and affiliation off the record, expressed concerns about Pelinka's participation in the 2011 labor negotiation that saw the players' share of basketball-related income drop from 57 percent to roughly 51 percent.

The agent also cited the Boozer exit from Cleveland as a mark against Pelinka's record. It remains to be seen if other agents hold similar grudges.

An agent who has a boutique firm, similar in size to Landmark Sports, said he has nothing but respect for Pelinka and that he’s happy to see the trend of agents growing in prominence within teams. Others who have followed a similar path include Justin Zanik, who has a prominent role within the Milwaukee Bucks, and Pelinka's former mentor, Arn Tellem, who is now an executive with the Detroit Pistons.

Pelinka has had a long relationship with the Lakers. His role will change, but he won't come in blindly—he's been a power player in the NBA for a long time.

"Rob's life as an agent has been to sell people on why he can do the best job for you. A general manager is similar in a lot of ways," said an NBA executive within the Western Conference. "He understands being an agent, understands the cap, and Magic brings the star power and the credibility that not a lot of people can bring."

The Lakers have flatlined in recent years, piling up losses, but the team can boast a list of talented, young prospects in Brandon Ingram, D'Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr. and Ivica Zubac.

The rebuild will take some time, but the latest Lakers rookies come in as heavy hitters, with most of their lives dedicated to basketball. Together, Johnson and Pelinka have the opportunity to turn one of the NBA's marquee franchises around.

After just 17 wins last year and this season's lottery-bound struggle, the only way to go is up.

Meanwhile, Magic Johnson's credentials are harder to define, but his resume screams winner. He has a long history with the Lakers as a five-time champion and pioneering 6'9" point guard, and he has gone on to success in business, investing in underserved (but well-deserved) areas of Los Angeles, while also helping turn the Los Angeles Dodgers and Sparks around. (While the Dodgers have flourished, they have yet to reach the World Series with Johnson as a part owner. The Sparks are the reigning WNBA champions.)

Perhaps Johnson will find the business of running an NBA franchise daunting. But based on his lifetime track record, who wants to bet against him?

Lakers Insider Notebook

Lou Williams Will Be Missed

PORTLAND, OR - JANUARY 5:  Louis Williams #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers reacts to a play against the Portland Trail Blazers during the game on January 5, 2017 at the Moda Center in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees tha
Sam Forencich/Getty Images

Just a few hours into the job, Johnson made his first transaction, agreeing to trade Lou Williams to the Rockets for Corey Brewer and a 2017 first-round pick. Soon after, he sent Marcelo Huertas to Houston for Tyler Ennis.

The Williams move is about building for the future, given the Lakers' present is relatively bleak (19-41).

Williams was extremely liked in the locker room by young players and veterans alike. Although he has a quiet demeanor, he had evolved into one of the Lakers' vocal leaders. Williams also provided some of the season's brightest fireworks with scoring jaunts of 40, 38 and 35 while averaging 18.6 points a night.

Serena Winters @SerenaWinters

Definitely a sentiment around the Lakers facility that Lou Williams will be very missed amongst the coaching staff and players.

L.A. lost all three of Williams' highest-scoring games and went just 1-8 when he scored at least 25 points, but his minus-1.3 net rating was second-best on the roster, according to NBA.com. Yes, the Lakers were outscored when Williams was on the floor, but for comparison's sake, Jose Calderon has a minus-23.2 net rating.

In his first game with Houston, Williams scored 27 points in 25 minutes, hitting seven three-pointers. Currently, the Rockets (42-18) have the fourth-best record in the NBA, which would yield the 27th selection in the draft.

    

Does Corey Brewer Fit?

HOUSTON, TX - FEBRUARY 02: Corey Brewer #33 of the Houston Rockets takes the court in the second half against the Atlanta Hawks at Toyota Center on February 2, 2017 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloadi
Tim Warner/Getty Images

In acquiring the 30-year-old Brewer, the Lakers have added a forward who is making $7.6 million both this season and next.

Now in his 10th season, Brewer scored a career high of 51 points just three years ago, with the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2014 against the Rockets—but the 6'9" swingman averaged a career-low 4.2 points a game this season in Houston through 58 appearances.

While he has a reputation as a defender, it remains to be seen if that's still an area of strength. Even if his skills have diminished, the Lakers are such a poor defensive squad that he may already be the team's best stopper. (Yes, that's not saying a lot.)

Corey Brewer @TheCoreyBrewer

https://t.co/mx5eMxqxxI

The Lakers might consider Brewer's contract the price to acquire Houston's draft pick, but maybe he'll find a way to carve out minutes in the team's rotation. Los Angeles made a similar deal two years ago with the Rockets, taking on $15 million owed to Jeremy Lin to land the 27th pick in 2015, which the Lakers used to draft Larry Nance Jr.

Brewer will have to fight for minutes behind rookie Brandon Ingram, veteran Luol Deng and shooter Nick Young. He's played 17 minutes over two games for the team, scoring seven points in two losses.

    

Ennis Makes Lakers Debut

LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 26: Tyler Ennis #11 of the Los Angeles Lakers brings the ball up court during the game against the San Antonio Spurs on February 26, 2017 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges an
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Tyler Ennis made his first appearance with the Lakers on, hitting his first shot attempt and two of three on the night for five points in eight minutes during an 119-98 loss to the San Antonio Spurs on Sunday.

The 22-year-old Syracuse product is already on his fourth team since the Phoenix Suns selected him with the 18th overall pick in the 2014 NBA draft.

The Rockets traded Michael Beasley to the Bucks in September for Ennis but declined the point guard's $2.7 million fourth-year option. Because of Houston's decision, Ennis will not become a restricted free agent this summer. The most the Lakers can pay him is the amount declined.

The team also waived veteran point guard Jose Calderon on Monday. According to Marc Stein of ESPN.com, Calderon may sign with the Golden State Warriors should he and his $7.7 million contract clear waivers.

With Huertas traded to Houston and Calderon expected to leave, the Lakers should have plenty of minutes to try out Ennis throughout the remainder of the season.

    

John Black Also Relieved of Duties

In addition to the firing of Kupchak and Buss, the Lakers let go of longtime PR executive John Black.

Black spent decades fiercely protecting the Lakers name. He often greeted new journalists with roadblocks and skepticism but was very helpful once trust was forged.

A technophobe who carried around a flip phone in 2017, Black scoffed at modern social media, so he will miss out on the flood of tweets that recognize his departure.

He was a voracious reader of traditional media, however. Perhaps Black will get a small glimpse of the outpour in this space:

Howard Beck @HowardBeck

John Black cared deeply about the Lakers, always had their best interests at heart. Enjoyed working with him. He deserved better than this.

Ric Bucher @RicBucher

Nothing saddens me more than the purge including Lakers PR director John Black. For me he was part of the Lakers' lure and the lore.

David Aldridge @daldridgetnt

Lakers axing Jim Buss no shock; it’s why Jeanie brought Magic in. Kupchak mild surprise. Axing longtime PR head John Black a 2x4 to head.

Bill Oram @billoram

On a personal note, seeing John Black go really stings. We argued often, but he is a true pro. A legend in his own right. I don't get it.

Larry Coon @LarryCoon

Wow! Best wishes to John Black -- a true class act -- and everyone else caught up in the Lakers' overhaul.

Bill Plaschke @BillPlaschke

Wrote last week that Lakers would oust Buss and Kupchak for Magic, but never thought it would be this soon...wow..and John Black? Really?

Marc Stein @TheSteinLine

Covered my first John Black press conference (John McEnroe for Forum tennis) in 1988. Warmest wishes to JB ... Laker legend in his own right

     

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Stats are accurate as of February 26. Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @EricPincus.

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