Opinion: Lakers’ GM Rob Pelinka fulfills his promise to make championship roster even better

Nearly nine months await before the Los Angeles Lakers can prove whether they can defend their NBA championship.

If they do, the reasons will go beyond LeBron James and Anthony Davis maintaining their greatness. It will also point to Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka, the man responsible for assembling a roster that will make life easier for James and Anthony.

On the weekend before Thanksgiving, Pelinka gave the Lakers plenty to feel grateful for entering the 2020-21 season that begins in just about a month.

Pelinka acquired last year’s NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year (Montrezl Harrell) that will ensure the offensive burden does not rest solely on James and Davis. Pelinka landed a former Defensive Player of the Year (Marc Gasol) that will ensure Davis does not have to solely protect the rim. Pelinka rewarded an improving role player (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope) with a handsome contract because he has become more dependable for his clutch moments than his Klutch representation. Before free agency began, Pelinka also bolstered the bench by acquiring another Sixth Man of the Year candidate (Dennis Schröder) from Oklahoma City for Danny Green and the No. 28 pick.

Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka acquired last year’s NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year (Montrezl Harrell) and also landed Marc Gasol as free agency got under way. (Photo: Robert Hanashiro, USA TODAY Sports)

Granted, it remains premature to hand Pelinka the NBA’s executive of the year award just as it is way too early to crown the Lakers champions. Portland Trail Blazers general manager Neil Olshey and Atlanta Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk upgraded their rosters, too. Thunder general manager Sam Presti has collected too many draft picks to count. Perhaps an executive somehow entices the Milwaukee Bucks to trade Giannis Antetokounmpo or the Houston Rockets to deal James Harden. But Pelinka bolstered his resume this past weekend, and demonstrated he deserves more credit among his peers that did not offer a single vote for last season’s executive of the year award.

Among the criticisms that Pelinka faced last year? That he just benefitted from Davis’ agent, Rich Paul, publicly vouching for the Pelicans to trade his client to the Lakers. That he gave up too much when he dealt Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart and three draft picks to New Orleans for Davis. That he does not understand the salary cap after needing to make cost-cutting moves following the Davis trade to ensure they had enough room for another max-roster slot. That he is “a backstabber,” as Magic Johnson charged after quitting abruptly as the Lakers’ president of basketball operations.

All of those criticisms were overblown, even at the time.

Sure, the Lakers have always benefited from their brand. But the Pelicans were never going to trade Davis to the Lakers just because he wanted that. It would have to benefit them. Though the Lakers gave up plenty to acquire Davis, Pelinka offered enough to secure Davis without hurting the team’s foundation.

As a former longtime agent, Pelinka understands the salary cap. But he also understood the need to agree to the Davis deal well before the free agency moratorium was lifted since New Orleans wanted to use its No. 4 pick in a trade before the draft. And as much as Pelinka has his detractors, former clients and current employees swear by him and respect his dogged work ethic.

Those qualities emerged during this past week. Pelinka threaded the balance perfectly between keeping the team’s championship core while upgrading on the margins.

Pelinka chose a younger and more dependable scorer (Schroder) over an inconsistent shooter (Green) and an unpredictable No. 28 pick. He did not fret over losing Dwight Howard since his hopes for a larger role contradicted the team’s plans to use him only when the matchups called for it. Nor did Pelinka fret over losing a wing defender (Avery Bradley) since the Lakers won an NBA title just fine without him, partly because of Caldwell-Pope’s presence.

The Lakers still still need to address their backcourt with Rajon Rondo’s departure. But they added another trusted veteran in Gasol. And they would not have landed him if not for Pelinka’s prudence with avoiding to match Rondo’s market value and with performing a sign-and-trade to Cleveland.

Pelinka won’t lack interest for landing the remaining spots on veteran’s minimum contracts because of the moves he just made to complement James and Davis. Soon, Davis will be ready to sign his deal, too. He has not decided yet simply because he wanted to mull over the length of his Lakers’ contract.

“It’s easy to fall in complacency when you win a title. You can just say, “Let’s just run it back.’’” Pelinka said last week. “But at the same time, I think my school of thinking is always ‘Let’s find ways to get better. Every offseason, ‘Let’s get better.’ We never want to just settle.”

Pelinka refused to do that to open the weekend. As a result, he boosted the chances both for the Lakers and himself to bring home some hardware next summer.

Follow USA TODAY NBA writer Mark Medina on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.  

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