SAN FRANCISCO — Late Tuesday night, as the victorious Lakers left the Chase Center floor after downing the defending champion Golden State Warriors in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals, the much-maligned head of their front office, Rob Pelinka, didn’t look particularly focused on the Executive of the Year award that would be announced the following day.
Little did he know he’d be honored with an 11th-place finish in a matter of hours — right behind Sean Marks, whose Brooklyn Nets super team fell into the East River and floated away some time ago.
No, Pelinka’s gaze was on the Lakers folks who were quite pleased after pulling off the kind of playoff feat that seemed so wildly unlikely earlier this season. He gave a hearty handshake and half hug to nearly every member of the staff, many of them players who came their way during a flurry of trajectory-changing moves that he made at the trade deadline. But the loudest exchange took place when first-year coach Darvin Ham came barreling his way.
The two men embraced as if they hadn’t seen each other in months, and Pelinka even growled for good measure. Only he knows if he was trolling Mr. I-Poke-Bears, Dillon Brooks, the exiled Memphis Grizzlies guard who had angered all of these Lakers and inspired this surge with his ill-advised criticism of LeBron James nearly two weeks before.
If you told any of these Lakers people just a few months ago that this would be how they spent their evening on May 2, they may have sent you straight to the league’s drug testing lab. Or, as better put by Lakers small forward Austin Reaves when asked how he might have reacted to this sort of crystal ball prediction back then, “Hell, yeah!”
With a massive smile sparked, he elaborated from there.
“I mean, we went 2-10 to start the year,” Reaves recalled to The Athletic. “Darv wrote it on the board the other day, where I think they gave us like a 0.3 percent chance of making the playoffs at that time. For us to really just keep our head down and grind through it, like you said — it’s felt like a long year. But you look up, and you’re 1-0 against the defending champs. Anybody in the world would take that scenario.”
As Ham had shared with his team after its April 11 win over Minnesota in the play-in game, the team’s own analytics department gave scant reason for hope after their awful start. But now that they had reached the second season…
“Let’s get ready to dance!” Ham yelled.
Oh, they’re boogying now.
But the Lakers’ problems, as you remember, were far more complicated than that brutal start. They had a record of 26-32 four days after the trade deadline and didn’t get above .500 until … March 31. They survived the disastrous Russell Westbrook experiment that was so toxic at the end, before finally ending that ill-fated era with the three-team trade that landed them D’Angelo Russell, Jared Vanderbilt and Malik Beasley.
They faced the kinds of organizational pressure that might have burst the purple-and-gold pipes if it continued, with LeBron James himself declaring that “Y’all know what the f— should be happening” in regards to the need for roster upgrades back on Jan. 7. Pelinka and his front office that includes Kurt Rambis, Joey Buss and Jesse Buss answered that call, building this deep collection of talent that is so much more reminiscent of their title team’s makeup in 2020. And now, even after James missed 13 late-season games with a foot injury so serious that he was told he should have surgery, these Lakers somehow find themselves back in the title-contending mix. As in-season turnarounds go, this is as memorable — and potentially historic — as it gets.
Just think, for a moment, about the alternate universe where the Lakers might have missed the playoffs for the third time in James’ five seasons with the team. It’s no secret that Lakers owner Jeanie Buss has a title-or-bust mentality that is born out of her late father’s winning legacy, but the prospect of missing the postseason altogether has always — and will always — invite uncomfortable questions about personnel when it comes to this storied franchise and its future. For all the recent focus on the Warriors and their “Last Dance”-esque fork in the road at the moment, the Lakers’ stakes have been pretty high here too.
Take Anthony Davis’ situation, for example. The big man who has been seen as the Lakers’ heir apparent since arriving from New Orleans in June of 2019, but whose annual struggles with health and inconsistency had sparked questions around the league about his long-term Lakers future as his possible free agency nears in the summer of 2024, has now quieted that noise with the kind of postseason performance that reaffirms his place in their plans.
Even with his offensive inconsistency in the first round series against Memphis, his defensive presence played a massive part in the Lakers’ ability to advance. It certainly helped that two of the players acquired midseason, Russell and Rui Hachimura, were among the Lakers’ top four scorers in the series, and that another, Vanderbilt, was available to help slow the Grizzlies’ Ja Morant. As a quick-but-necessary aside, the Lakers will always appreciate the added fuel that Brooks provided. To the surprise of no one, team sources say the entire Lakers roster took Brooks’ comment personally in defense of James and was determined to exact revenge from there.
“For him to say that to someone whose main goal is to win, and who is arguably the greatest player ever, I thought it was very, like, laughable,” Reaves told The Athletic after Game 1. “I took it as, ‘You can’t be serious. You look like a fool.’
“But hey, people talk. …It wasn’t really spoken on amongst the group, but it was really just kind of a known thing. We’re gonna do what we’ve got to do to handle business.”
But back to Davis and the ripple effect of his revived greatness. His Game 1 against Golden State, that glorious 30-point, 23-rebound, five-assist, four-block outing that set such an empathic tone in this compelling series, was the kind of thing that brightens the Lakers outlook for those days ahead when James rides off into the (SpringHill) sunset. His health will likely always be a point of concern, but the Lakers’ vision gets more clear when he plays like this.
For James’ part, he has made it clear all along that he wants to continue contending until he’s done — whenever that might be. He’s on the same contractual timeline as Davis, and has openly shared his plans of playing with his son, Bronny, if he enters the 2024 draft as is widely expected. In the here and now, though, it’s a massive stress reliever for all involved that this Lakers team is still alive and well.
No wonder Pelinka, outside approval rating be damned, looked so happy Tuesday night.
(Photo of Darvin Ham and Rob Pelinka: Allen Berezovsky / Getty Images)