NEW YORK — Years ago, during his first visit to New York City as an agent representing players in the NBA draft, Rob Pelinka decided to go for an early morning run through Central Park. He began before sunrise, striding alongside the park’s reservoir, by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the miles adding up before everything was alight. And that night, Pelinka’s clients did well; they were selected high or landed in promising situations. Every year since, Pelinka continued that ritual, those pre-dawn runs in the park, and every year, it seemed that things worked in his favor.
Around 6 a.m. Tuesday, Pelinka arrived in the park, again hoping for luck but needing it more than ever. No longer did his focus center on his clients’ futures, having left his post as a powerhouse agent, famously representing Kobe Bryant. Now, as the Lakers’ general manager, Pelinka oversaw a rebuilding franchise miles away from its past success, one that, hours later, at the New York Hilton Midtown, faced utter catastrophe at its most crucial crossroads yet.
Either the 2017 draft lottery’s pingpong balls would reward the Lakers’ 26-56 season with a top-three pick, or the team would fall out of the top three and lose the pick to the Philadelphia 76ers — and if that happened, the Lakers would also lose their 2019 first-round pick to the Orlando Magic. Both obligations were owed to the Lakers’ 2012 deals for Steve Nash and Dwight Howard, moves made in pursuit of a title that failed then and continue to fail the Lakers now.
Many bring lucky trinkets to the lottery, but Pelinka brought none, relying on his run. He clocked about eight miles, following his familiar path. Later, Pelinka and Lakers’ president of basketball operations Earvin “Magic” Johnson met with agents. They Facetimed with Lakers president and owner Jeanie Buss. They took a call from Kobe Bryant, who wished them luck. Then on their drive to the hotel, Pelinka and Johnson prayed.
And at 7:46 p.m., in a sequestered room where the drawing is held, Pelinka stared straight ahead into a watercooler-sized plexiglass drum, watching 14 whizzing pingpong balls that held his team’s fate. In a slender blue suit and a purple tie, Pelinka sat as still as a stone, leaning forward — “very nervous,” said Boston Celtics co-owner Steve Pagliuca, who sat to Pelinka’s right. Like Pelinka, this marked Pagliuca’s first visit to the drawing room, but their moods stood at opposite ends, with Pagliuca leaning back, one arm draped over a nearby chair, smiling.
The first four balls were drawn from the drum — 7-1-9-10 — and read aloud. Then Jamin Dershowitz, assistant general counsel for the NBA, scanned nearby whiteboards to see which team owned that combination for the top pick. “Boston,” Dershowitz announced, drawing fist pumps and a “Woo!” from Pagliuca. “I was shocked,” Pagliuca would later add. He recalled the team’s past lottery failings, costing them Tim Duncan and Kevin Durant. “We’ve lost so much,” Pagliuca said. “You hope for the best but prepare for the worst. We got the best this time.”
The Celtics’ lottery win was ever more striking considering it came less than 24 hours after the team’s thrilling Game 7 playoff win over Washington, advancing Boston to the Eastern Conference finals, where it opens the series at home against Cleveland on Wednesday. “If we beat Cleveland tomorrow, I might get on a flight straight to Las Vegas,” Pagliuca later joked.
The next two combinations also favored the Celtics, forcing a do-over at each turn. On the fourth try, 14, 5, 3 and 12 arrived in succession. Again, Dershowitz scanned the whiteboards. “Lakers,” he said after a beat. At 7:50 p.m., Pelinka clasped his hands together, as if in prayer, looked up to the heavens and quietly said “Yes!” after releasing a breath that he seemed to have been holding all night.
“I just thanked God,” he said.
After the Lakers secured the No. 2 overall pick for the third straight year, Pelinka leaned back into his chair for the first time all night. He shook his head over and over, as if in disbelief, and held an ear-to-ear smile for a long moment. The Lakers had a plan no matter the outcome, Pelinka had preached for weeks, but now they didn’t have to fear the worst.
“I think it’s great for the Lakers,” Pagliuca said, “and great for the NBA.”
Johnson, meanwhile, was less cordial about Boston’s landing the top pick ahead of the Lakers.
“I still hate them,” Johnson said. “That’s never going to change. I’m not going to ever like the Celtics.”
The Lakers will work out top prospects in the weeks to come, and speculation will swirl that Boston will draft Washington guard Markelle Fultz, leaving the Lakers to select UCLA guard Lonzo Ball. But Pelinka and Johnson were noncommittal about leaning one way or another. Pelinka said he believed there was no clear-cut No. 1 pick — a LeBron James or Anthony Davis — and that four or five players could be drafted at the top.
Pelinka intimated that the Lakers, who also hold the No. 28 pick, are unlikely to trade their No. 2 pick. “That doesn’t mean we don’t explore it,” he said. “But this pick has extraordinary value.”
What Pelinka did make clear is that he is more focused on maintaining a core of young talent that can grow and, perhaps one day, win together. “We have as good a young core — once we add this pick — as any [team] in the league,” he said. “Even the great teams that are dominant — like Golden State — they grew through the draft. We feel like we have that type of core, for sure.”
Many crucial decisions remain, as well as a long road toward prominence, but for now, the Lakers will enjoy their relief. After months of worry from both the team and their fans, and after another wretched season in which the lottery was often the sole topic of discussion, the Lakers avoided disaster. When Pelinka left the sequestered room and found Johnson, the two shared a long embrace. The nightmare they feared had passed. “Everybody’s been talking about it,” Johnson said. “Now it’s finally over and we can get to work.”