A lack of role definition and trust has been an ongoing issue within the Los Angeles Lakers front office. Apparently, that was exceedingly true during the 2018 NBA Draft.
According to ESPN’s Baxter Holmes, the Lakers set up two “war rooms” during the draft. One was for just Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka. The other was for the rest of the staff working on that process.
As foreshadowed by that decision, the Lakers’ top two decision makers went against the wishes of their staff with their lone first-round pick:
As the Lakers neared their 25th pick in the first round, staff members in the second war room expected — and, according to one basketball operations staffer present, were excited — that they would select Villanova power forward Omari Spellman, who was the highest-ranked remaining player on the Lakers’ draft board, according to multiple team staffers present. Instead, the Lakers took Wagner, the forward from Michigan. Sources said that inside the second war room, scouts and other staff members watched the pick on television and were shocked.
The shock from team staffers was not unique to this decision as Pelinka and Johnson repeatedly went against the wishes of others within the organization to do what they believed was best.
However, the way in which the decision was made, with staffers only learning of the pick from Adam Silver on television just exemplifies that lack of trust.
Magic has been widely reported as the person who made the decision to select Moritz Wagner with the 25th overall pick in the draft. But according to Holmes, Pelinka went around the office telling people why they did not draft Spellman:
Later, Pelinka told staffers he had heard negatives about Spellman and that he had discussed the issues with Lakers forward Josh Hart, who had played at Villanova before Spellman. Hart, he said, agreed there were concerns. Staffers were taken aback, and some said it represented another instance of a unilateral decision being made by Pelinka or Johnson without the involvement of key figures who would normally be central to the decision. “For him to covertly go to a player and go behind everybody’s else’s back, that’s the problem,” one coaching staff member said.
It also represented what multiple basketball operations staffers said was one of several instances in which Pelinka was quick to say that others — such as agents or players — were at least partly if not wholly responsible for certain decisions, which staffers believe was Pelinka’s way of deflecting blame and from taking ownership or responsibility.
Some staffers have even sought out those whom Pelinka has said he has spoken with, just to confirm whether such conversations took place. In this instance, a source close to Hart said the two spoke briefly, for less than a minute, and Hart offered that Spellman had a great work ethic, but he was concerned about his fitness. (A Lakers spokesperson said Pelinka and Johnson consulted with everyone in the front office but that the decision on whom to draft ultimately rested with them.)
A lack of trust in the employees tasked to spend all their time on a noted subject is already a major problem, especially given Magic’s reported propensity for not showing up to work. But it is only amplified when regarding the draft, something that the Lakers have excelled at despite all the other issues within the organization. Notably, the team has routinely found diamonds in the rough late in the first round or early in the second round of the draft for the past five years.
Both Johnson and Pelinka have tried to swing the narrative to their own sides and deflect blame. Who knows who truly made this pick. But it seems clear that both decision makers continuously erred in not listening to input from scouts and coaches and it very often led to them making the incorrect move. Even if the results of this specific decision pan out (Omari Spellman had a fairly comparable season to Moritz Wagner albeit with more playing time), the process to get there is emblematic of all the issues surrounding the organization.