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May 28, 2019

What can the Sixers learn from Lakers front office fiasco?

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Pelinka-magic-johnson_052819_usat Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY Sports

Los Angeles Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka (right) speaks with Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson (left) before a game against the Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena.

There is no better time than the offseason to air out your dirty laundry, and the Los Angeles Lakers have done a spectacular job of putting theirs on display for all the world to see. A new report from ESPN's Baxter Holmes detailed an extensive amount of drama within the organization, from Magic Johnson to Rob Pelinka to agent Rich Paul. I would highly recommend reading it if you have the time and interest.

For those that don't, and for those of you who are wondering why I'm writing about a Lakers story for Sixers coverage, wonder no more! There are a few key bits of information I think are worth reflecting on from a Sixers point of view, so run through them with me.

Be wary of Rich Paul

Before we go any further — I don't have anything against Rich Paul personally, and at the end of the day, he is simply an advocate for the interests of his clients. You can trace a lot of the chatter surrounding him back to people's disdain for LeBron James, and Paul has fought hard to become one of the NBA's most well-known agents.

That being said, his appearance within ESPN's big story on Tuesday is something the Sixers should be aware of.

In November, NBA commissioner Adam Silver and Maverick Carter, LeBron's longtime business partner, met for lunch. James' agent, Rich Paul, was seated at a nearby table, and at one point, approached Silver to complain about Walton, multiple sources familiar with the interaction told ESPN. Paul said he didn't believe Walton was the right coach for the Lakers. Silver shrugged off the remark and asked whom Paul thought would be the right coach. Paul suggested Tyronn Lue.

Paul was also letting it be known through back-channel conversations, including those with reporters, that he wasn't on board with Walton. Paul criticized how Walton allotted minutes to players and his inconsistent lineups, which were partly the result of injuries and suspensions. Members of the Lakers' coaching staff became aware of those conversations and wondered whether Johnson's heated meeting with Walton was influenced by Paul.

First of all, Paul pulling the move where you try to pretend you just so happened to be in the same place as the commissioner of the NBA is absolutely hysterical. How nice to see you, Adam, I was just enjoying a nice wedge salad over here, what a pleasant surprise.

That Paul was willing to go through this sort of ridiculous charade in an effort to create as much noise as possible around Walton should give one pause, especially because we know Silver is a commissioner who has proven willing to intervene in team matters when they have come to his attention (more on that later).

This all matters for Philly because Paul represents one of the Sixers' most important players, Ben Simmons. And there are natural seeds for discontent that don't need to be extensively reported on — stylistically, Simmons and Joel Embiid are a tough fit together as franchise cornerstones, and would thrive within different styles of play if you designed a team around either one.

Does that mean Paul is going to try to force Simmons out of town? Absolutely not. Again, these things are ultimately driven by the client, and the focus of Simmons and his inner circle right now is simply on getting better at basketball, as it has been for most of his time in Philly. He has a family that primarily concerns itself with keeping that circle tight, not agitating for any sort of move.

For now, the team's relationship with Paul seems to be fine. But there is a lot of history to point to at this point of Paul stirring the pot. There may be a time where the Sixers are not working from a position of strength, and they need to be prepared for it.

The NBA selectively puts its foot down in toxic situations

This shouldn't be some huge surprise to anyone who has followed the league for a long time. Donald Sterling was a racist slumlord long before he got ousted as the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, but it took a leaked tape in a more media-heavy environment for the league to get him out of the paint.

However, if we sit here and take an honest look at what has reportedly transpired in Los Angeles, it falls under the same criteria many critics used to justify league intervention due to "The Process":

  1. Damaging relationships — This one extends all over the league. Los Angeles' blatant tampering surprised even staffers with the Lakers, and that sort of thing doesn't endear you to executives of other teams around the league. In fact, there have been reports that the Spurs refused to deal Kawhi Leonard to the Lakers specifically, and similar claims have been made about Pelicans ownership and Anthony Davis. Also within Holmes' story: "Rival agents — even those representing players on the roster — said they were wary of allowing young clients to join the Lakers, fearing they'd be recruited or poached." 
  2. Damaging the league's image — Philadelphia people don't necessarily want to hear this, but the Lakers are arguably the glamour franchise in the NBA. They get put on national television even during down periods because the fanbase is enormous, and the health of L.A. is often tied to the league's health. They have pretty nasty mud butt, it appears.
  3. Competitive reasons — As Holmes notes in his story, the Lakers are tied with the Knicks for the most losses in the league since former owner Dr. Jerry Buss passed away six years ago. If you want to argue they were "actually trying to win" unlike the Process Sixers, I would point to Kobe Bryant's retirement tour, signing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in a naked attempt to curry favor with LeBron, and whatever the hell the Lakers thought they were doing last summer after they signed LeBron. 
  4. Unqualified cronies influencing decisions — Remember when the arguments were had about "basketball guys" vs. analytics people and how stupid they were? What the hell does Linda Rambis know about running a basketball team? Apparently, the wife of Kurt Rambis is trusted enough by Jeanie Buss to be referred to as a "shadow owner" by others around the NBA. Seems like a cool gig!
  5. Treating employees/coworkers in inhumane ways — There are stories within the ESPN piece about employees quitting and suffering from panic attacks because of the culture created by Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka. That's pretty bad!

None of this means the Sixers are going to step into a time machine and undo the front office machinations that brought them to where we sit today. But it should be a lesson for how the owners should handle the team moving forward.

The worst criticism you could make of the Sixers under Joshua Harris' ownership is that they have given the appearance of being susceptible to changing their minds based on what person has their ear at the moment. They went all-in on the vision laid out by Sam Hinkie, only to pivot midstream based on external and internal pressure alike. Brett Brown was given effective GM power last summer and was part of the group that helped select Elton Brand as the next GM, only for his job status to be publicly speculated on as the team finished a hard-fought series against Toronto in round two.

With rare exceptions, the best thing you can say about any sports ownership group is that they hire smart people and get the hell out of the way. Where you get into trouble is when ownership can be quickly or easily swayed, undoing or complicating long-term plans.

When you empower people to lead the organization, half-ass commitment to letting them do their job is not going to cut it. Stability is and will always be valuable, and though there are limitations to how valuable, it's something the Sixers should always keep in mind.

Have a nice, hearty laugh at Pelinka's expense

Let's let Holmes' story do the talking here:

"There was one time when Kobe, who I worked with for 18 years, was going back to play in Madison Square Garden, and he had just seen 'The Dark Knight,'" Pelinka said. "Obviously, you guys saw that movie, and he's like, 'Hey, hook me up with dinner with Heath Ledger, because he got so locked into that role. I want to know how he mentally went there.' So, he had dinner with Heath, and he talked about how he locks in for a role.

"And Kobe used some of that in his game against the Knicks."

"The Dark Knight" was released in July 2008, six months after Ledger died. A source with direct knowledge said no such arrangement was made and no dinner ever took place.

In honor of Pelinka, a quote from Heath Ledger's Joker to close it.

"Do I really look like a guy with a plan? Do you know what I am? I'm a dog chasing cars. I wouldn't know what to do with one if I caught it! You know, I just...DO things."


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