The Lakers and the Jeanie Buss Question

Andrew Sharp
Sports Illustrated

On Monday morning in New York City, Magic Johnson appeared on ESPN’s First Take and spent roughly an hour talking candidly about everyone from GM Rob Pelinka to COO Tim Harris to departed Lakers like Brook Lopez, Julius Randle and Ivica Zubac. Monday afternoon in L.A., Pelinka formally introduced new head coach Frank Vogel and spent most of the press conference fielding questions about the chaos that has consumed this team over the past few months. At one point Magic said, “Listen, you can't run a corporation like this.” Later, in L.A., Pelinka said, “I think people can look at this as an opportunity to win a championship possibly next year.”

None of Monday’s Lakers news was particularly surprising, but at the same time, all of this should be a little bit shocking. Monday wasn’t surprising because this is the Lakers, and we’ve come to expect this kind of roving nonsense all year-round. Monday should be shocking because when Magic resigned at the end of the season, that moment was supposed to be a wake-up call. Magic’s exit was an opportunity to start fresh for a team that needed to make healthier choices and smarter investments. The prevailing takeaway among smart NBA people was that those 24 hours were rock bottom, and the entire episode could eventually be the best thing to happen to the team.

Instead, we’re here. The Lakers changed very little from the front office regime that oversaw last year’s nightmare of a season, they have apparently empowered new voices from the fringe of the organization, and most incredible of all, they decided not to hire anyone to replace Magic as President of Basketball Operations. No Bob Myers, no Pat Riley, no David Griffin, no Masai Ujiri. The Lakers are sticking with Rob Pelinka (last seen badly miscalculating his leverage in Ty Lue negotiations) and Kurt Rambis (in fairness to Rambis, last seen successfully staving off any attempt to hire a credible president of the Lakers who might undermine his influence). Worst of all, or at least worst on Monday, the team failed to communicate with Magic before he resigned, and the failed to broker a truce before he went on national TV to spend an hour sharing his thoughts on why he left.

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The question now is how much longer the Lakers can continue on their current trajectory before the world begins to look harder at Jeanie Buss, the owner who has empowered all of these people. The Lakers appear to be an organization in which chaos pervades and accountability is limited. Isn't there one person who is technically responsible for all of this? 

It was Buss who installed Magic as President when she took over the team back in 2017. It was Buss who hired Pelinka. It was Buss who apparently spent the past six months listening to Kurt Rambis, Linda Rambis and Harris. It was Buss who watched the season go down in flames, watched Magic abruptly leave the team without any leadership, and decided to respond by changing almost nothing.

Allen Berezovsky/Getty Images
Allen Berezovsky/Getty Images

Pelinka is Kobe’s former agent. He may grow into his role as GM, but thus far there hasn’t been much evidence that he’s qualified to run a basketball team. The Lakers never got a meeting with Paul George and then botched every free agent signing they made after signing LeBron. They miscalculated their bargaining power with the Pelicans in February and then again with Lue in May. They were incapable of controlling the leaks surrounding either of those deals. In theory, all of those failures should fall to the man who was hired in 2017 to manage the day-to-day operations under Magic. If the Lakers had fired Pelinka and pushed for a comprehensive overhaul in April, no one around the NBA would have called the decision unfair. Instead, Magic is gone, but virtually everyone else remains and any notions of a comprehensive change were shortlived. We’ve been left with a month of Lakers Kremlinology starring Pelinka, various Buss siblings, Kurt and Linda Rambis, and now someone named Tim Harris.

It would be unfair to blame Jeanie for everything that’s gone wrong or gotten weird, and it’s unfair to ignore some of what the Lakers have gotten right. First and foremost: They signed LeBron, and that alone gives them a real chance at a title as soon as Kevin Durant leaves Golden State. Also: The team was aggressive in clearing cap space for last summer and management seemed to spend a full two years diligently pursuing LeBron via back-channels and KCP golden parachutes. Last season, doomed AD power plays aside, they deserve credit for not doing anything too crazy like cashing in all their young assets for an extra seven wins with Jimmy Butler or Tobias Harris. All of those decisions were smart.

Meanwhile, Buss seems affable, intelligent, and exactly as ambitious and grandiose as you’d want any Lakers owner to be. Back in 2014, she won me over for life when she went to ESPN and responded to a True Hoop article by saying that anyone who wouldn’t want to play with Kobe Bryant is a loser. That claim is a) obviously not true, but b) a great take, and one that was characteristic of the kind of imperious impulses that have always made the Lakers great villains.

What’s frustrating about the current state of the Lakers is that they are no longer imperious and entertaining but now just seem oblivious and depressing. That transformation starts with the owner. Many around the media are rooting for Buss to succeed; she is more likable than her brother Jim was, and yet she continues to empower the wrong people, say strange things and slowly forfeit the benefit of the doubt.

Imagine if LeBron James had signed with the Knicks last summer and then we all watched them a) surround him with a laughably misfit supporting cast, b) undermine the coach within three weeks of opening night, c) sabotage their locker room and season with overzealous trade pursuits, d) push the team president resign in disgrace on the final night of the regular season, and e) change almost nothing before Year 2 and decide to further empower everyone who was responsible for Year 1. It would be incredible. The failure of the ownership group would be one of the biggest stories in sports. You would have journalists calling for the league office to seize the Knicks from James Dolan.

I’m not here to argue that the Lakers should be seized from anyone. Owners can do what they want, and Jeanie Buss is easier to root for than most of her peers. For that matter, Pelinka wasn’t wrong when said the Lakers could have a chance at a championship next year. The situation isn’t as hopeless as it may have seemed during Magic’s appearance on First Take. If the past month has been rock bottom, July is only six weeks away, and superstars can change the entire story. Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, or Kyrie Irving could join LeBron and bring the Lakers right back to the top of the league.

Still, free agency possibilities and the potential for a 2020 Finals run shouldn’t insulate Lakers management from criticism for the state of the team and its infrastructure. Magic is not the world's most reliable narrator, but he was absolutely right when he said that the past year of Lakers decisions is not how a mutli-billion dollar corporation should be conducting its business. 

The Lakers shouldn’t be getting played by the Pelicans in trade negotiations, they shouldn’t be paying free agents like KCP and Rajon Rondo on deals that looked disastrous the day they were signed, and they shouldn’t be working with a medical staff and development staff that has seen several young players struggle with nagging injuries before going elsewhere to fulfill their potential. This is the highest profile team in the NBA, with the greatest player of his generation. It’s bad for basketball fans when the Lakers look this dysfunctional. Coverage becomes repetitive and the jokes get old. Nobody needs a West Coast version of what the Knicks have been for the past 20 years.

In April I wrote that the Buss children, in handing the franchise to Magic, failed to recognize that Laker dynasties were generally built by being more calculating than the rest of the league, not just more famous. I wondered whether they had learned the wrong lessons from the success over the past several decades. Now that the dust has settled on phase one of the offseason—retaining Pelinka, empowering Rambis, hiring Vogel and Kidd, opting to forgo any replacement for Magic—it’s hard not to wonder whether Jeanie and her siblings have stopped trying to learn at all.

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