Plaschke: The Lakers' most improved player is…Rob Pelinka? Give that man his flowers!

FILE - Los Angeles Lakers coach Darvin Ham, right, talks with general manager Rob Pelinka.

All the wondrous transformations experienced by the Lakers last season were overshadowed by one massive makeover.

It awakened Los Angeles, rocked the NBA, and stunned a sports world that had long since hardened its opinion.

It didn’t involve the players on a team that went from nearly worst to nearly first. It wasn’t about the rookie coach who led them to within four wins of the NBA Finals.

It was, instead, about the embattled guy who brought them all together.

You know Rob Pelinka, right?

Well not anymore, you don’t.

Read more: Lakers name two starters, and LeBron James 'is preparing for 21 like he's a rookie'

When he was hired six years ago with no previous front-office experience, the Lakers vice president of basketball operations was viewed as a “friends and family” flunky who was employed only because he was Kobe Bryant’s former agent.

Rival executives shunned him. Opinion makers — including this one — ridiculed him. Magic Johnson called him a backstabber. Even when the Lakers won the bubble championship in 2020, most of the credit for the building of that team was given to LeBron James and his associates.

Then, the first chance he got, Pelinka blew up that team and turned it into a drama-filled mess that was out of the playoffs two years later.

Entering last season, the Lakers were on the brink of irrelevance and Pelinka was on the verge of getting fired when something unexpectedly splendid happened.

He evolved. He learned. He grew. His team grew with him. Then he made a dizzying array of summer moves that have placed his Lakers once again on the verge of greatness while pulling him out of the morass of mockery.

Rob Pelinka is nobody’s fool anymore.

He’s the guy who hired Darvin Ham, who arguably has become the league’s most impressive young coach.

He’s the guy who owned up to his mistake of trading for Russell Westbrook by ridding the team of Westbrook for important pieces D’Angelo Russell and Jarred Vanderbilt.

Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka, left, speaks while sitting next to Lakers coach Darvin Ham during a news conference.
Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka, left, speaks while sitting next to Lakers coach Darvin Ham during a news conference in El Segundo on Thursday. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

He’s the guy who acquired huge playoff performer Rui Hachimura for virtually nothing.

He’s the guy who this summer retained Russell, Hachimura, Vanderbilt and breakout star Austin Reaves.

He’s the guy who added tough gamers Gabe Vincent and Taurean Prince.

He’s the guy who gave Anthony Davis a contract that made him the face of the franchise … OK, get back to us on that one.

Pelinka helped turn a 2-10 team into a team that departed the playoffs only when swept by eventual champion Denver in a Western Conference finals that featured four agonizingly close games.

After which, he resisted the urge to chase a star by retaining all the role players on that team, and now the Lakers are serious contenders for the first time in years amid a particularly rewarding revelation.

Rob Pelinka is being publicly praised by Magic Johnson.

“He can be executive of the year,” Johnson told The Times’ Broderick Turner. “He did that type of job.”

Surely bolstered by such words from a former critic, Pelinka took the microphone at Thursday’s preseason news conference with a new air of confidence.

He felt empowered enough to praise his creation.

“We feel like we’re in a position to have a really, really competitive team,” he said.

Yet he also was secure enough to admit his latest mistake, acknowledging that he blew it by sacrificing the likes of Kyle Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope for Westbrook.

“Any championship executive in any sport has done some things perfectly and has done some things where they've taken a risk and it hasn't worked out,” he said. “I think your job as an executive or any sports executive is if you take a risk and it doesn't work out the way you thought, you've got to fix it.”

Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka smile during a news conference in El Segundo on Thursday.
Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka smile during a news conference in El Segundo on Thursday. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

He added, “We changed the way our roster was constructed, and it didn't work but we fixed it. That's our job and I'm grateful that together we were able to get it right last year and hopefully improve on that."

Can you imagine a younger version of Pelinka admitting a mistake? The growth here is obvious. The fix here is clear. The openness is refreshing. Pelinka even asked a Lakers official if they could extend Thursday’s news conference with him and Ham so every media member in attendance had a chance to ask a question. Request granted, and the session extraordinarily lasted a full hour.

“Every offseason, every season you go through is a process of discovering,” Pelinka said.

This offseason also was a moment of discovery for Ham, who was working with Pelinka the way Johnson used to work with Pelinka. But Ham said their collaboration has been a blast.

“This guy right here, you couldn’t ask for a better right-hand man,” Ham said, adding, “I really enjoy the hell out of talking to this guy, man. Not only do we work together, we laugh a lot, we strategize a lot. We have good times in our one-on-ones.”

Read more: Magic Johnson 'just giddy' that Rob Pelinka has made Lakers a title contender

Of course he’s going to say that about his boss, but there is truth in Pelinka’s renovation. Listening to Pelinka talk, he no longer sounds like the starstruck rookie executive looking to make the biggest splash possible. He sounds like a thoughtful executive who appreciates the intangibles.

“The smart part of it is, the head part, do the pieces fit?” he said of his team-building philosophy “Also the emotional part. How do these guys come together as a group? How do they bond together? How do they compete together?”

Then he proceeded to describe some of his stars in terms that had nothing to do with actual basketball talent.

About Reaves, he said, “He uniquely has that sort of Mamba gene, where it’s all about the work, it’s about playing competitive on every play, it’s about being a great teammate, not caring about the personal accolades but just the team winning.”

About Davis, he said, “Character, character, character … we believe in the character of Anthony Davis. Just the person he is. Nobody in life can prevent health stuff from happening unexpectedly. We're all human, we're all subject to that. But we can carry ourselves with character and Anthony Davis stands for that.”

And about James, well, he didn’t talk about his world stardom, he talked about his early mornings.

“It's staggering for a player who has 20 years under the hood already and is preparing for 21 like he's a rookie,” Pelinka said. “He's been doing 6 a.m. workouts. Probably been in our building as much as any player this offseason. Been in the weight room as much as any player. Any team LeBron's played for, it's been pretty uniform that his work sets the tone. There has been nothing but an increase in seeing that here. To me it's, let's be about it, let's not talk about it.”

It turns out, no better tone could be set for this team than the one fashioned by its resilient architect.

Pelinka changed the narrative of a once-struggling reputation. It’s now up to his Lakers to do the same.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.