“They’ll get somebody soon,” says an All-Star due to hit free agency in the near future. “They play hard. They play together. They know their role. And, most important, they’re in Los Angeles.” For years the Lakers sold their town and their tradition, and it was not enough. But the rejections of Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony, Greg Monroe and LaMarcus Aldridge, boosted them as much as any acquisition. They were forced to trust a shrewd scouting department, led by Jesse Buss, and rebuild the same way as their peers, with a pile of picks. Now the sunshine might matter.
Earlier this season, Bryant took Kuzma to dinner at BOA Steakhouse in West Hollywood and told him, “It’s not what you do in the national TV games. It’s what you do on a back-to-back in Minnesota when you’re tired but you’re still trying to dominate, to kill.” Kuzma was at home against the Spurs on April 4, with ESPN broadcasting, but he’d played 36 minutes the night before in Utah and his legs were cooked. “I get through a lot of situations,” Kuzma says, “asking myself what Kobe would do.” He logged another 43 minutes on two bum ankles, scored 30 points and beat San Antonio in overtime.
Because Bryant developed a relationship with Jerry Buss, so did Pelinka, and the three power brokers used to meet at the owner’s home in Playa del Rey. But Buss died in 2013, leaving Pelinka to wonder what the Lakers patriarch would make of their current state. “I think there became a comfort in the banners,” Pelinka concluded. “No one saw the progress, the pioneering of new things, which is what we used to be known for. No one was saying, ‘We want to do what the Lakers are doing.’ It was the opposite. It was, ‘No one wants to go there anymore.’ ” He typed a five-page document under the heading “Pillars of Excellence,” blending Buss’s principles with his own.