In 2010, prior to Phil Jackson’s final season with the Los Angeles Lakers, former Laker star, interim coach, and part-owner Magic Johnson sold his shares in the legendary franchise. The move allowed Johnson to potentially take controlling interest in running another NBA team, while acting as the go-to man for key basketball personnel duties, a job he’d long claimed to have sought.
Instead of going that route, though, Johnson glommed onto the ABC/ESPN NBA studio show set, before quitting that gig in the summer of 2013 to focus on his part-ownership of the Los Angeles Dodgers. All along the way, as the Lakers went from champions in 2010 to second round embarrassments in 2011 to second and then first round flameouts in the next two seasons, Johnson never held back on his criticism of the team.
Now, with seemingly every Laker walking with a limp and the team battling the Utah Jazz to avoid the worst record in the Western Conference, Johnson is tearing into the team’s part-owner and de facto personnel chief, Jim Buss. From the Los Angeles Times:
“This is what happens when you make the wrong decisions, two coaching wrong decisions, giving Steve Nash that deal, it’s backfired,” Johnson said during a meeting at The Times between Dodgers officials and Times writers and editors. Johnson is a part owner of the Dodgers.
“The biggest problem they’re going to have right now … you’ve got to get a guy like Jerry West to be the face of the team. ...
“You’ve got to have someone helping Jim. He’s got to quit trying to prove a point to everybody that he can do it on his own, get his ego out of it, and just say, ‘Let me get someone beside me to help achieve the goals I want.' "
Technically, general manager Mitch Kupchak is in charge of the Lakers, and the public face of the franchise – doling out interviews and acting as the lead man at the podium when moves are announced. Buss’ role in making personnel decisions isn’t as clearly defined, and it’s very much possible that he signs off on the bigger moves, while Kupchak takes on the less-splashy hires.
Mitch has been in charge since Jerry West stepped down after the Lakers won their first championship with Jackson in 2000, and though he is to be credited for sound timing in dealing for Pau Gasol and bringing back Derek Fisher for the 2007-08 season, Kupchak’s tinkering with the team around the superstar core has been called into question dating back to his first season with Los Angeles.
Besides the Gasol deal, the best move the Lakers have made during the Kupchak (who studied under West for years) era was the drafting of Andrew Bynum in 2005. That move was mostly spearheaded by Jim Buss, and allowed him some basketball capital to increase his involvement with the team in the years that followed. Reportedly, it was Buss and his father – the late Laker owner Dr. Jerry Buss – that wanted Jackson out in 2011, and passed on re-hiring Jackson in the fall of 2012 – much to the surprise and bewilderment of both Jackson and his fiancée, Jim’s sister Jeanie Buss.
In his comments, Magic leaned heavily on the star ideal, pointing out that players would want to work for a legend like Jerry West, referencing Pat Riley’s fine work as Miami Heat boss as something that influenced “LeBron to buy in.”
Magic is not exactly at the top of his game, here.
LeBron James bought into the Miami Heat because Pat Riley was smart enough to clear the books save for one salary in the summer of 2010, allowing the Heat to sign three All-Stars (that already liked hanging out with each other) to near-maximum deals, a move no other team could pull off during that summer.
Jerry West? It wasn’t his presence that influenced Andre Iguodala to decline offers from other teams and sign with West’s newest team, the Golden State Warriors. No, it was the behind the scenes machinations of Golden State’s very good GM Bob Myers that cleared enough cap space in a three-way sign-and-trade that secured Dre.
And West’s top triumph, the 1996 summer that netted both Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, was set into action with a series of ahead-of-its-time salary clearing maneuvers (dumping role players onto the Vancouver Grizzlies for second round picks) and trading starting centers (making starting salaries) for a high schooler in Bryant during an era that still saw most teams looking at preps-to-pros prospects with a dubious eye.
Riley and West created their own fortune with shrewd executive moves. They didn’t woo superstars by flashing championship rings or listing off career achievements. They took huge risks in clearing roster and salary space, and pounced.
While we’re not exactly Kupchak’s biggest fans – he seemed to continually bring in players that seemed like the exact worst fit for Jackson’s triangle offense, and his work in the years prior to the Gasol trade was a little sketchy – one can’t go over the top in blaming him for the Lakers’ current woes. And while we’re incredibly dubious about Buss as an executive – he nailed the Bynum selection, but too often he lets petty personality issues get in the way of making the sound basketball move – it’s not his fault that Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash, amongst scores of other Lakers, are injured.
Jim Buss may ruin these Lakers yet, but not for the reasons Magic Johnson listed off.
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