On March 7, the Los Angeles Lakers officially hired Rob Pelinka to be their general manager. The 47-year-old will work under Magic Johnson, who serves as the team’s executive vice president of basketball operations.
While Pelinka has never worked in an NBA front office, his name should sound familiar to basketball fans. That’s because he was one of the top NBA agents prior to accepting his new role with the Lakers. As the president and CEO of The Landmark Sports Agency, Pelinka represented many NBA players including Kobe Bryant, James Harden, Kevin Durant (briefly), Chris Bosh, Andre Iguodala, Carlos Boozer, Eric Gordon, Corey Maggette, Gerald Wallace, Derek Fisher and Chris Kaman among others. In recent years, he represented talented young players such as Andre Drummond, Avery Bradley, Dion Waiters, Dante Exum, Buddy Hield and Marquese Chriss.
Pelinka isn’t the first agent to make the transition to an NBA front office. Lon Babby was a long-time agent before he joined the Phoenix Suns’ front office as their president of basketball operations in 2010 (although he no longer works with the franchise). Bob Myers made the agent-to-executive move by joining the Golden State Warriors’ front office in 2011 and climbing the ranks to general manager. Justin Zanik gave up his agent life to become the assistant manager for the Utah Jazz in 2013 and then joined the Milwaukee Bucks in the same capacity. In 2015, Arn Tellem – who was one of the top agents in the business – became the vice chairman of Palace Sports Entertainment, which owns the Detroit Pistons. In other words, this isn’t an unprecedented move.
Still, we have some questions about this transition. HoopsHype talked to a number of current NBA agents about Pelinka’s new role, his interactions with other agents, the trend of agents becoming executives and more. The agents requested anonymity, so we’ll call them Agent No. 1, Agent No. 2, Agent No. 3 and Agent No. 4.
There’s a lot of bad blood between agents, as we recently wrote in our behind-the-scenes look at the lives of NBA agents. Could that cause problems for Pelinka – or just be really awkward – for Pelinka when it comes time to negotiate against his former rivals?
Agent No. 1: “Initially, I thought it was going to be awkward. When they announced that Rob was getting the Lakers’ job, I didn’t know what to think. I had never talked to him – not because there was any bad blood between us, but just because we never had a reason to connect. But ever since the first time that we talked since he took the job, I could not be more of a fan of ‘GM Rob Pelinka.’ He’s amazing. And he’s so considerate because he kind of understands where we’re coming from as agents. He knows our side of the business, and I think actually it gives him a leg up in terms of dealing with all of us. He’s been nothing but professional and has done an excellent job with the transition into his new role. With Bob Myers and Justin Zanik, it was the same way. I’ve talked to them a few times since they made the transition from agent to executive. All of those guys are just extremely understanding and more attuned to what we’re dealing with. They also know the language we use, how we operate and how we think. To be honest, I think it actually helps in certain situations. I’m obviously not saying that you need to have agent experience to be an excellent executive, but I don’t think it’s a hindrance in any way.”
Agent No. 2: “It’ll be awkward at first because Pelinka recruited at the highest level,” another agent said. “If you look at his client list, we’re not talking about minimum guys, he had a lot of All-Star-caliber players. I don’t personally have any bad blood toward him, but when you recruit at that level and land those big names, there’s massive competition and animosity. I can definitely see him running into issues or awkward situations early on. But if you’re an agent, you really just have to get over it. Some may hold a grudge, but I think most will just put it all behind them.”
Agent No. 3: “That’s a great question and the answer is yes: the bad blood may affect him early on. But at the end of the day, he can make right with those guys by doing other things. He may have to do some things for those guys he beat out or the guys he didn’t have a positive relationship with. Some guys may be like, ‘I’m not sending my guy to the Lakers and Rob Pelinka; f*** him.’ But there are things he can do to fix those things. If he says, ‘Hey, I’ll give the guy you’re trying to get exposure a spot on our Summer League team.” Or if he buys out a veteran who’s unhappy and gives him a chance to land in a good situation. Those are things a GM can do to help an agent and improve the relationship. He knows all about those things from being on the other end of those transactions. If he wants to repair the relationships, he knows what to do.”
Agent No. 4: “I think it’s what Rob makes of it. At the end of the day, if he had adversarial relationships with other agents or other executives around the league, everyone can find a way to work together – especially if both sides need or want it to work. I think we all have a tendency to paint other agents as villains because it fits with the competitive environment, but I actually like a lot of the agents I’ve gotten to know. I think a lot of the animosity toward other agents is based on jealousy or thinking that person is cheating, but the truth is you never know exactly what occurred behind the scenes if you weren’t involved. I think Rob can do a great job.”
What are some of the skills that Pelinka displayed as an agent that could translate to his role as general manager of the Lakers?
Agent No. 2: “His ability to understand and interpret the Collective Bargaining Agreement is huge. As an agent, you have to know all of the different rules, you have to understand the business, you have to be able to communicate with people – from players to families to other people around the NBA – and you have to present information well. There’s a sales element to both jobs. Being a GM, there’s obviously recruiting involved. In free agency, you’re meeting with players and giving them your pitch. Well, Rob has been recruiting guys and meeting with players as an agent for a long time. When you’re a GM and you’re offering the same contract as another team, you have to sell your organization, highlight your strengths and be persuasive. It’s very similar to when agents are meeting with potential clients. I think there are a lot of similarities in terms of the skills you need to be successful. I think that’s why a guy like Justin Zanik, who left the agent business to become an executive and is now with Milwaukee, has done so well. He’s a super smart guy and he does the things I mentioned well.”
Agent No. 1: “There are similarities to both jobs like recruiting players, making pitches, needing relationships and being charismatic. And as an agent, you’re so accustomed to wearing a lot of different hats and dealing with so many different things, so that helps. You obviously need a good scouting eye in order to know which players to pursue, and you have to be able to recruit those guys once you identify them. You have to deal with different personalities and relate to a lot of different people and relay your messages effectively. You need to have a great grasp on the CBA. I think a lot of the characteristics of a good agent and a good executive are similar.”
Agent No. 3: “I think someone like Rob Pelinka is going to do really well because he knows the landscape of the league, knows the agent business, knows how to recruit and knows who you really need to talk to reach a player. He also knows what other agents are like – how they operate, what they’ll try to do, things like that. He’ll also know what it means when a certain player signs with a certain agent. For example, if a player signs with a certain agent, right away I can usually assume some things about the kid. ‘Oh, he’s a good kid.’ Or, ‘Oh, he got paid.’ Or when a player switches agents, we may be able to assume, ‘That player is probably unhappy and looking to change teams.’ If Rob chooses to use it, he could have that kind of intel that other GMs don’t really have. Those things can sometimes reveal things about a player or situation.”
Agent No. 4: “Rob is educated and experienced, so I think he’ll be able to do really well against inexperienced agents. When he’s negotiating against an inexperienced agent, he’ll do really well and have an advantage there. Rob has great experience when it comes to negotiating, deal with salary cap issues and recruiting. The question is, can those experiences turn him from a great agent to a great general manager? I don’t know the answer to that. We’ll see. I hope he does well.”
Do you think Pelinka will be able to attract some of his former clients to Los Angeles?
Agent No. 2: “I really think it’s possible. If you’re one of his former clients and you’re a free agent, who are you going to trust most? When five GMs are giving you their pitch, who do you trust the most and believe in the most? All things being equal, you’re probably going to go with the guy you’ve known for a long time and who helped you throughout your career. Could that be an advantage for him? I definitely think it could. Now, at some point, that’s going to run out. Years from now, he’ll have less and less guys in the league. But in the short-term? That’s absolutely an advantage.”
Is it likely that we’ll continue to see NBA teams hiring agents as executives?
Agent No. 2: “That’s a good question. This may be overly simplistic, but I think there are two kinds of guys in this business. On one hand, there are the guys who are referred to as ‘old-school basketball people.’ On the other hand, there are the guys who are more ‘new-school, CBA-knowledgeable, analytics people.’ I think anyone in that second group, the guys who fully understand the CBA, will get some level of interest from teams. If you couple that knowledge with a successful track record of recruiting really good players, teams notice. That’s the case with Rob. Justin Zanik was the same way; he had a lot of really good players in addition to being really smart. If you’re successful in the agent business, there’s certainly enough overlap with the front-office jobs that there will be interest and opportunities. I don’t know if there will be some mass migration or anything, but I think those opportunities will be there for some guys and they’ll have to decide if they want them.”
Agent No. 4: “The NBA is a copycat league, so if these guys do really well, other teams will take notice and consider making a similar move,” one agent said. “We’ve already seen guys like Zanik and Myers do well. If Pelinka has success too, teams will try to copy the formula. And as agents, these guys know leverage, so you could see some big dollar amounts thrown around when these offers are being made. That could be very attractive, especially to some guys who are on salary with their agency. Some of these guys make less than $500,000 a year – not the millions of dollars you’d think they’re getting based on the huge deals their clients are signing. Usually, they’re getting a percentage of the commission and the rest goes to the agency since the agency covers their expenses, overhead, recruiting costs and all that.”
Agent No. 3: “I think this trend will definitely continue, and I think it’s a good trend,” one agent said. “I’ve been saying for years that agents have the qualities to be a general manager. We know the CBA – which is very important – and we have great communication skills and we know the players and we know other agents. I think we have an ability to see things differently, or see things that other GMs might not see because they haven’t lived in our world.”
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