Each morning during the NBA draft combine, Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka rose before dawn for a swim and a run along Lake Michigan. This city’s streets are familiar — as a high school student in suburban Chicago, Pelinka had a job delivering packages on a bicycle for a law firm in the city.
The morning cardio is a habit from his playing days at Michigan. In the past week it afforded him a chance to reset before busy days of meetings with players, agents and other teams’ decision-makers.
On Tuesday, Pelinka will take the next step in the Lakers’ offseason process. He’ll be in a sequestered drawing room for the NBA draft lottery at the New York Hilton Midtown, where he’ll learn the Lakers’ fate before those outside the room, including President of Basketball Operations Magic Johnson and others in the Lakers’ organization. It’s not superstition or symbolism that made Pelinka want to be there. He sees a strategic opportunity.
“One of the great things is most of the players that are lottery candidates attend,” Pelinka told The Times during a brief break in a busy day. “It’s a really good time to get to have some social interaction with the players and understand what type of people they are, what their character is.
“Magic and I really wanted to be there and felt like it was smartest for him to have a presence at the podium. It’s kind of how we work a little bit. He’s definitely the face and he’s so great at his leadership and lighting up the room. I like to be more behind the scenes and in the details.”
The Lakers have a 46.92% chance of keeping their lottery pick for next month’s draft. Having finished 26-56, the third-worst record in the NBA, they have a 15.6% chance to get the first overall pick, a 15.74% chance to get the second overall pick and a 15.58% chance to get the third pick.
The Boston Celtics have the best chance of securing the first overall pick because of a trade with the bottom-dwelling Brooklyn Nets, and the Phoenix Suns have the second-best chance. Philadelphia, Orlando, Minnesota, New York, Sacramento, Dallas, New Orleans, Charlotte, Detroit, Denver and Miami are all in the lottery as well. Of those, Philadelphia and Orlando have the best odds of sneaking into the top three.
If the Lakers’ pick drops out of the top three, they must surrender it to the Philadelphia 76ers and an unprotected 2019 first-rounder to the Orlando Magic. If the pick stays in the top three, the Lakers will have a shot at one of the top players in the draft. That could be a wing player like Duke’s Jayson Tatum or Kansas’ Josh Jackson. Or perhaps one of the top point guards, UCLA’s Lonzo Ball, Washington’s Markelle Fultz or Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox.
Fox will attend the draft lottery. It will be his third chance to impress the Lakers’ decision-makers. He was among their interviews at the combine, as was Fultz. And Johnson and Pelinka both saw him live against UCLA in the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16 two months ago. Kentucky beat UCLA and Fox outscored Ball, who played through a hamstring injury, 39-10.
If it added pressure, that only emboldened Fox.
“I live for the big moment,” he said.
The boom-or-bust potential for the Lakers in the lottery has grown familiar in recent years.
They owed a protected 2015 first-round pick to the Philadelphia 76ers as part of a trade made by former general manager Mitch Kupchak and former executive vice president of basketball operations Jim Buss that brought Steve Nash to the Lakers in 2012. The Lakers got the second overall pick in 2015, and kept their lottery pick. They won the second overall pick in 2016, after the worst season in franchise history, and kept their pick again.
In both 2015 and 2016, former Lakers vice president of public relations John Black was the team’s representative in the drawing room. He wore the same suit, tie and championship ring (from 2001) both times. The Lakers fired Black in February when they demoted Buss and fired Kupchak.
The protections that allowed the Lakers to keep their last two lottery picks end after this year.
If Los Angeles keeps this year’s pick, next year’s goes to Philadelphia unprotected. If that happens, instead of owing Orlando a 2019 first-round pick, they’ll owe the Magic only two second-round picks as part of the trade that began Dwight Howard’s ill-fated tenure in Los Angeles.
Philadelphia received the pick the Lakers sent for Nash in a subsequent trade with the Suns.
It’s a deal that predates the tenure of 76ers President of Basketball Operations Bryan Colangelo, though he stands to gain from it. He has some experience with lottery success. He was the president and general manager of the Toronto Raptors in 2006 and represented the team on stage.
“I remember winning it one year and all these people had good luck charms and I didn’t,” Colangelo said. “I said to myself, ‘Maybe there’s something to this.’”
The Raptors selected Andrea Bargnani with the first overall pick. Colangelo smiled when asked if he’d rather have the Lakers’ first-round pick this year or next year.
“We’ll wait for the results,” he said.
The order is determined by a random drawing of ping-pong balls. The lottery machine has 14 balls numbered 1 through 14 that are drawn in combinations of four at a time. (The four are then placed back with the others.) There are 1,001 possible combinations and 1,000 of them are assigned to teams, reflecting their odds. The Celtics are assigned 250 combinations. The Suns have 199, the Lakers have 156, Philadelphia has 119 and Orlando has 88.
The sequestered drawing room can be tense. Pelinka doesn’t expect to feel nervous there.
“Magic and I just have a real level of confidence and optimism,” Pelinka said. “Our trust is in hard work and kind of just the pursuit of excellence with everything we do. It’s not contingent on getting the pick or not getting the pick.”
He won’t be taking any good-luck charms. As he sees it, his and Johnson’s job since taking over this spring has been to reduce their dependence on the lottery. Once they know where they’ll pick, they can set to work on that much-talked-about plan.
Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli