GM Rob Pelinka strongly believes Lakers are still a top free agency destination
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GM Rob Pelinka strongly believes Lakers are still a top free agency destination

The Los Angeles Lakers have a lot going for them.

There’s the history of 16 NBA championships coupled with the stature of some of the franchise’s greats like Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. The Lakers also play in Los Angeles, a major city in the country with abundant sunshine and nightlife. They also have a talented, young core with D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson and Brandon Ingram. Yet for the last couple of seasons, the Lakers have been unable to woo marquee free agents to their team.

In 2015, the Lakers made two different pitches to LaMarcus Aldridge, yet he decided to join the San Antonio Spurs instead, where he is a clear No. 2 player next to Kawhi Leonard, not the No. 1 he would’ve been in Los Angeles. And despite their overtures last summer, Kevin Durant didn’t even want to meet with the Lakers during his free agency. In fact in the last two years, the Lakers have only been able to get non-superstar players like Lou Williams, Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov to join their team in free agency. And for both Deng and Mozgov, the Lakers had to outbid themselves, paying both players well more than their market price in order for them to sign.

Despite these setbacks, new Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka believes that the team is still a marquee destination for free agents and he isn’t too worried about their past failures in free agency. As Pelinka told The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski on his podcast, the Lakers brand is still quite strong.

Pelinka’s appearance on the podcast was transcribed by Silver Screen & Roll’s Harrison Faigen:

“This analytic was compelling,” Pelinka said. “More Lakers jerseys have been sold in the world than all other 29 teams combined. Listen, if I’m a player and I’m thinking about my future, and I’m thinking about the megawatt power of the Lakers’ brand, all the powder keg of relationships you can form in LA, with entertainment moguls, the legacy of excellence and championships here that the Buss family is going to continue to provide, Magic Johnson’s vision, hopefully some of my expertise in trades and managing the cap.

“All of those things combined, I think if I’m an NBA player and I’m seeing that, I think ‘Wow that’s a package that I could put my trust in. That’s a promise that looks really, really promising,’” Pelinka continued. “We’ve got to do the work, we’ve got to continue to create that platform. But we feel strong that we’re already doing that and that it’s headed in the direction it needs to be.”

“The first two or three weeks have been so encouraging, because both Magic and I have talked to most of the top agents, and the feedback we’re getting is there feels like a fresh start,” Pelinka said. “It feels like a new leadership team with a new vision and people are excited about hopefully becoming a part of that.

“At the end of the day, we know how important it is to have good relationships with these agents that represent these players and we want to build really strong bridges. I think having done that for almost 20 years, the word I keep coming back to is the word empathy. I’ve walked in their shoes, I know what it’s like, I know what their clients are looking for in a team to partner with and that’s helpful for us to meet those needs,” Pelinka continued “So far, we’re very optimistic that those relationships are being strengthened and that we’re going to have a shot to change what’s happened in the last two or three seasons with future free agent classes.”

As he himself notes, Pelinka’s experience as an agent and Johnson’s stature in the league, could very likely help the Lakers sign key free agents in the coming years. That’s also the main reason the Lakers made a drastic change in their front office by firing Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak and hiring Pelinka and Johnson. Vice president of business operations Jeannie Buss simply grew tired of the years of malaise and wanted the team to have some new energy in the front office and believes Pelinka and Johnson can help build the Lakers back into an elite team.

Pelinka seems to be suggesting that one way the Lakers can get back on track in free agency is through a more marketing-based focused approach. Since the Lakers play in Los Angeles and are still one of the most popular teams in the world, players would be attracted to signing with them since they will have the opportunity to earn a lot of money on and off the court. This could be very well be true. But as Durant and Aldridge have shown, superstar players want to play where they feel they have the best chance of winning a championship and the Lakers simply aren’t that right now.

So while the Lakers brand itself is still strong in terms of marketability, the team itself is still just not good. They are one of the worst teams in the league record-wise and in various teams stats like defensive rating.

That’s not to say they can’t turn things around. The Lakers have superb young talent and a smart coach in Luke Walton. But it will just take some time and also some serious work from Pelinka and Johnson to turn the Lakers around.

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