Rob Pelinka's ego not getting in the way of LeBron's team-building clout

Comparison might not truly be the thief of joy if Rob Pelinka was injected with truth serum, as he watched the opening moments of free agency.

The Los Angeles Lakers have been the home of perpetual drama, even following Larry O’Brien runs, but they’re the picture of physical and mental stability relative to their biggest competitors.

Who knows if the Golden State Warriors could’ve mustered enough championship mettle to send fear the Lakers’ way this coming season. If a healthy Steph Curry and Klay Thompson would’ve tricked the math so much that it negated the Lakers’ size advantage.

But, Thompson’s cruel stroke of bad luck very well could’ve eliminated any chance of these Warriors being championship-caliber again. At worst, they’re not a problem the Lakers don’t have to lose sleep over in the next six months.

The Houston Rockets, as usual, imploded from the inside. It’s doubtful the Lakers ever truly worried about a James Harden-Russell Westbrook combo moving forward, but even if the Rockets hold onto them to get the best deal, the writing is all over Texas.

The Lakers’ zip code neighbors, the Clippers, could very well be lurking and waiting for the right time to pounce with another blockbuster move, but the bad taste from their bubble experience still lingers and the questions we’ve had about that collective unit weren’t going to be solved by simply re-upping with the dependable Marcus Morris and moving Tyronn Lue to the first chair on the sidelines.

In short, had the Lakers simply done nothing in free agency, the gap would’ve been widened between themselves and the field.

Oh, speaking of the field — the Milwaukee Bucks had the most incentive to gain ground, if for no other reason than self-preservation to keep Giannis Antetokounmpo. But however it happened, there was a little too much holleration, i.e. possible wink-wink tampering in their sign-and-trade to acquire Bogdan Bogdanovic from Sacramento.

So of course, the hateration from a few ticked-off clubs or those simply wanting a chance at chasing Antetokounmpo next summer has led to a league investigation and surely, closed the door at the Bucks getting an impact player who at the very least would’ve made them formidable in getting out of the East this coming season.

Meanwhile, the Lakers’ biggest battle will be bubble fatigue — to which Pelinka has remedied that by bringing in fresh bodies and more importantly, not being blinded by the gold trophy they left Orlando with.

LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers and Anthony Davis #3 of the Los Angeles Lakers react after winning the 2020 NBA Championship in Game Six of the 2020 NBA Finals.
LeBron James will all but likely be reunited with Anthony Davis next season. (Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images)

Were these Lakers a championship team?

Yes, the 16 wins say so.

But the moves the Lakers general manager has made illustrates in no way did he believe they were historic, or that if a few things broke differently they would still be hunting for their first title since 2010 as opposed to defending it.

Sentiment could’ve kept Pelinka from mining the league and coming up with Dennis Schroder in a trade with Oklahoma City, instead offering Rajon Rondo a contract lucrative enough to keep him from permanently sampling Lou Williams’ lemon pepper wings in Atlanta.

Ego could’ve kept Pelinka from apparently surrendering to the best team-builder in the last decade, LeBron James, and making sure everyone knew the roster moves were his to cement his own standing in the league.

At James’ other stops, the men in charge used to bristle at the notion that the best player actually ran things, sometimes making moves without his blessing or even his outright wishes — perhaps out of resentment or traditional basketball norms.

But bringing in James comes with an unspoken covenant, so long as he’s near the top of the individual mountain. You deal with everything that comes with him, like it or not, and the rewards are usually worth the hassle if you understand the pecking order.

Talk to enough folks around the league, you’ll realize it’s not as simple a task as it appears.

Instead, the Lakers took advantage of the Clippers’ misfortune to acquire James’ fellow Klutch Sports client Montrezl Harrell for a modest number given his Sixth Man of the Year award — a player whose playoff performance against the Denver Nuggets could be a harbinger for things to come, or merely a blip that James and coach Frank Vogel won’t allow to repeat itself.

It takes a while to remember Anthony Davis is actually a free agent, but we all know he’s not going anywhere, and any haggling over what deal he takes is minor.

Having James and Davis at the top of your balance sheets certainly makes things easier, let’s not get crazy here. And when you’re in Los Angeles, even amidst a pandemic, it’s still a place free agents want to play so the sell job isn’t as tough as recruiting a blue-chipper to a mid-major.

But at least to this point, the Lakers aren’t plagued by a term coined by former Lakers coach Pat Riley — “The disease of me.”

More shots, more minutes, more money.

There are executives who get so infatuated with their own mythology that they let players walk to Charlotte without compensation or merely overplay their hand — here’s looking at you, Danny Ainge — that it gets in the way of team-building, obscuring the goal of actually winning a title.

The Lakers didn’t have to make cold-blooded basketball decisions, and even operating in this sterile environment makes it easier to remove emotion considering there’s little worry about fan favorites leaving the nest.

 Los Angeles Lakers Rob Pelinka before the Milwaukee Bucks vs Los Angeles Lakers game on March 06, 2020, at Staples Center
Los Angeles Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka has improved his roster this offseason. (Jevone Moore/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

But they had to make prudent ones, because partnering with a player like James — or honestly, any superstar in today’s game — almost makes it feel like the stars are up for free agency every year because they wield so much power in the game and public opinion.

If it means you’re the Klutch Sports Lakers with a third of the roster being from that camp by bringing back Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, so be it.

Even the most dominant champions go from romping through the playoffs to dogfights in a year’s time. James’ 2013 Miami Heat won 66 games but barely escaped from the conference finals and Finals in their second title run.

The 2017 Golden State Warriors are probably the greatest collection of talent ever assembled, nearly going undefeated before hitting the snooze button in Game 4 of the Finals. The next year, the same team with the same headliners got by the West finals on the skin of their chinny-chin-chin, and you’ll find many who believe Chris Paul’s hamstring was the only reason they emerged with another Finals trip, and subsequently another title (they’re wrong, though).

The Lakers are used to being targets, whether they’re champions or not.

But they can sit back and chuckle for a moment, watching the rest of the league trip over its shoelaces while they polish up Larry O’Brien, making room in the trophy case for another one.

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