Rob Pelinka knows players want to play for Luke Walton: “We’re going to capitalize on that”

Rob Pelinka was introduced as the new general manager of the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday. He joins Magic Johnson and Jeanie Buss as the key decision-makers in the team’s front office, replacing Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak who were removed from their posts in a surprising, if expected, and massive upheaval.

Pelinka spent the majority of his press conference saying what one would expect: the Lakers have a great young core, the Lakers will work to add more talent to that core, and the Lakers will get back to their winning ways.

The most intriguing part of Pelinka’s comments, however, was a focus on free agency. After all, he was, in part, hired due to his connections to players around the league, having worked as an agent for many years.

Pelinka claimed that the Lakers still have intrigue to bring in star free agents, citing one reason in particular:

Walton was hired in the offseason as the Lakers shifted focus entirely on developing young players in the wake of Kobe Bryant’s retirement. But even then, it was assumed that Walton’s ability to connect with players could be an asset in free agency.

Players have sworn by Walton both in Los Angeles and with the Warriors where he served as an assistant coach and a de facto interim head coach last season when Steve Kerr was sidelined due to health issues.

As Walton becomes more and more comfortable in actually coaching, it’s not difficult to envision him being a difference maker in whether a star free agent chooses the Lakers or someone else.

As for which players may consider the Lakers, that’s a much more open-ended question. Pelinka’s connections are likely his former clients which include some of the very best players in the NBA including James Harden and Paul George.

George is the player everyone will immediately think of when dissecting Pelinka’s comments and for good reason. Not only is PG connected to LA and Pelinka, but there have been an increasing number of reports surrounding the Pacers’ star’s future with the Lakers featured prominently in the speculation.

George is a free agent in 2018. The Pacers have not been able to surround him with the necessary talent to win since their run a few years ago as the foil to LeBron James’ Miami Heat teams.

George still has an incentive to stay in Indiana – they can offer him an extra year once he hits free agency and they are clearly a better team right now. But the incentives could be diminishing; if George does not qualify for an All-NBA team this season (a likely scenario), he cannot earn the designated player extension which would in effect be a super max contract that only the Pacers can offer him. If he misses the incentive again next season, he would not be able to earn that contract from the Pacers once he hits free agency either.

It’s a perfect storm that needs to happen for the Lakers to have a shot at Paul George in 2018, but it does not seem impossible. That’s more than what could have been said about any of the star free agents they have been interested in for the past few seasons.

Of course, it all starts with the current on-court product. The Lakers have improved this season and their young players have collectively taken leaps forward since the All-Star break. But they need to be much better to intrigue a player of George’s caliber.

They also still have issues in creating space for George who will command a large salary. The contracts that were given to Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov over the summer have taken a lot of flexibility away from the Lakers making it difficult to add free agents. But it is not impossible.

The Lakers currently have seven players under contract through the 2018 season (assuming options for Russell, Nance, and Ingram are opted into) for a total of roughly 63 million dollars out of a projected $103M salary cap. That’s not including Julius Randle who could be re-signed using his Bird rights which would allow the Lakers to go over the cap to retain the forward but his cap hold of just under six million dollars would take away some flexibility. It is enough money give a max contract to George and another star-level player but it would assume that they do not add any long-term contracts this summer.

The Lakers also have the option to stretch the contracts of Deng and Mozgov, with the potential to clear up another $20 million or so in the summer of 2018 but giving up some future flexibility.

All of this is to say that bringing Paul George (or another star player) to Los Angeles does not seem impossible. Pelinka’s connections and knowledge of the CBA is shaping up to be a real asset in the search for more competency in free agency. Meanwhile, Luke Walton, according to Pelinka, is an asset in how other players view the Lakers’ future.

A lot can change in two years and the Lakers will first have to develop their players in order to showcase a consistent on-court product. But there is reason for cautious optimism in Laker-land.

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