Well, that didn’t take long.
Less than three weeks after the announcement of his return to the Los Angeles Lakers as an adviser in “all areas of basketball and business,” Magic Johnson has now assumed control of the organization’s on-court arm, ascending to the role of president of basketball operations and prompting the ouster of longtime general manager Mitch Kupchak and executive vice president of basketball operations Jim Buss — the son of former Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss, and the brother of team president and governor Jeanie Buss.
The stunning decision comes with the Lakers sitting at 19-39, in the midst of their fourth straight losing season, on the heels of posting the worst record in franchise history last year. Just two days before the trade deadline (Thursday, 3 p.m. ET), the Lakers do not have a general manager, and just handed total control of their basketball operations department to someone who has never served in that capacity.
The Lakers decided to completely clean house with 24 games left in the season. What a mess. Team employees are shell-shocked.
— Arash Markazi (@ArashMarkazi) February 21, 2017
Does anyone left on the Lakers staff know how to actually conduct a trade call with two days left before the trade deadline?
— Arash Markazi (@ArashMarkazi) February 21, 2017
That’s not to denigrate Johnson’s resume. One of the greatest basketball players in NBA history, Johnson has become a remarkably successful entrepreneur since his retirement in 1996, heading a business conglomerate worth hundreds of millions of dollars. He has been part of the ownership groups of several professional sports franchises, including the Lakers and Los Angeles Dodgers, as well as a philanthropist who has raised millions for HIV/AIDS research, among other causes.
From the team’s Tuesday announcement:
“Today I took a series of actions I believe will return the Lakers to the heights Dr. Jerry Buss demanded and our fans rightly expect,” Jeanie Buss said. “Effective immediately, Earvin Johnson will be in charge of all basketball operations and will report directly to me. Our search for a new General Manager to work with Earvin and Coach Luke Walton is well underway and we hope to announce a new General Manager in short order. Together, Earvin, Luke and our new General Manager will establish the foundation for the next generation of Los Angeles Lakers greatness.” […]
Jeanie Buss added, “I took these actions today to achieve one goal: Everyone associated with the Lakers will now be pulling in the same direction, the direction established by Earvin and myself. We are determined to get back to competing to win NBA championships again.”
Johnson said last week that if he was to take control of the organization he once led to five NBA championships, the first call he’d make would be to fellow franchise legend and retired ex-player Kobe Bryant. We now wait with bated breath to find out if the Mamba’s phone is ringing, and what other surprises are in store for one of the league’s marquee franchises, which has fallen deep, deep into disrepair over the past half-decade.
Johnson’s return to the fold comes one month after he met with Jeanie Buss prior to taking in a game between the Lakers and Denver Nuggets. ESPN.com’s Ramona Shelburne reported that “the exact nature of the meeting was not immediately clear,” but noted that “Buss has been soliciting opinions on the direction the franchise should take moving forward” as the Lakers continue to scuffle through life at the bottom of the NBA.
— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) January 18, 2017
The shakeup also comes some three weeks after the Lakers’ 122-73 decimation at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks, the worst defeat in franchise history — a mark the Lakers have set, re-set and now set again under the leadership of Jim Buss.
Johnson had made it clear in years past that he hasn’t been the biggest fan of Jim Buss’ work as a personnel boss during a four-year stretch that has seen the Lakers plummet from the ranks of the NBA’s elite to one of its least successful teams. From January of 2014:
“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 [Los Angeles] Times between [Los Angeles] 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.'”
From December of 2015:
“I’m going to say it again: I love Jim Buss. He should just be the owner, like his dad was just the owner,” Johnson said. “Let’s go back with facts, so I can back this up with facts: 27 wins a couple years ago, 21 wins last year. Three summers now, we haven’t signed anybody. I am backing this up with facts. We haven’t signed any superstar. We’ve had cap space. We had cap space last summer. We’re going to have more this summer.” […]
“You’ve got to get somebody to help [Buss] out,” said Johnson, an unpaid Lakers vice president. “Just play your role. There’s nothing wrong with being a great owner.
“Just like me — I didn’t try to get involved in [the Dodgers’ hiring] process, because I don’t know anything about the manager [Dave Roberts]. That’s not what I know, so I stay out of the way. I want to sit down there and cheer for my Dodgers. I’m happy with that. That is what I want him to do. Just let somebody else help him to achieve his goal, which is to get the Lakers back to being great again.”
Jim Buss, as you might expect, has not appreciated Magic’s point of view. From an October 2015 feature by USA TODAY’s Sam Amick:
Jim doesn’t mention the pointed words that have come from Bryant, but it’s clear that he hasn’t forgotten about the other Laker great who has repeatedly called him out: Magic Johnson. From Johnson’s angry tweets about the D’Antoni decision to the television tour eight months ago when he raised serious questions about Buss’ ability as an executive, Johnson has made his feelings known. Buss, who has chosen to avoid discussing the situation with Johnson personally, is clearly bothered by this recurring matter.
“Magic Johnson going nuts on me?” he says with a laugh. “It’s like, ‘Really, dude? My dad [the late Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss] made you a billionaire almost. Really? Where are you coming from?” […]
When asked about Buss’ comment, Johnson issued a statement to USA TODAY Sports in response.
“It’s all about winning, Jim,” Johnson said.
After Johnson’s return as an adviser, Jim Buss quickly reached out to find out what kind of changes Magic had in mind, according to Shelburne:
Magic told Jim he was there to help, that he stood by his criticisms from the past but hoped they could move forward without that baggage. The answer and Johnson’s tone disarmed Buss. It was as close to a détente as the two men, both 57 years old, had reached in years.
Buss agreed and asked to schedule a meeting after the All-Star break where he and general manager Mitch Kupchak could explain their decision-making over the past few seasons.
“I’m taking Magic at face value, that he’s here to help,” Jim Buss told ESPN. “He’s one of the greatest basketball players of all time. Who wouldn’t value his opinion? I’m excited to work with Magic for years to come.”
And yet, just one week later, Johnson made clear he had a larger role in mind in an interview with Amick:
“Working to call the shots, because it only works that way,’’ Johnson told USA TODAY Sports when asked what he hopes his role with the franchise will be. “Right now I’m advising. I get that. But at the end of the day, then we all got to come together and somebody’s got to say, ‘I’m making the final call,’ all right? And who’s that going to be?
“So, we’ll see what happens.’’ […]
“Look, Jim knows where we are, Jeanie knows where we are, as a franchise, and so some decisions have to be made,’’ Johnson said, adding that he thinks his role will be determined by the end of the season. “I may only be in this role for a short term, I may be here for a long time. We’ll just have to wait and see what happens. I can’t tell you that right now.’’
Johnson, Kupchak and Jim Buss were scheduled to have a meeting Monday to “review their job performance,” according to Bleacher Report’s Kevin Ding. That never happened — “a scheduling issue,” according to Shelburne — but the performance review came Tuesday, in the dropping of the hammer and the elevation of Johnson to the head of the basketball operations department.
Ultimately, after years of failed attempts to land franchise-shifting free agents, Jim Buss (and Kupchak) ran out of time to turn the Lakers around … and here’s where we remind you that Jim Buss set the timetable himself.
He said in April of 2014 that if “in three or four years” the Lakers weren’t “back on the top — and the definition of top means contending for the Western Conference, contending for a championship — then I will step down because that means I have failed.” Jeanie Buss later said — in no uncertain terms, on multiple occasions — that she intended to hold her brother to that standard.
“My brother assured me that by the summer of 2017 that we would be back in contention,” she said during a December 2015 interview on the Sports Business Radio podcast (as transcribed by Harrison Faigen of Silver Screen and Roll). “‘If I can’t do that then I’m not the right person for the job.’ So he even acknowledged that a change would need to be made.”
Jeanie Buss made that change on Tuesday.
“Jim loves the Lakers,” Jeanie Buss said in the team’s statement. “Although he will no longer be responsible for basketball personnel decisions, he is an owner of this team and we share the same goal: returning the Lakers to the level of greatness our father demanded. Our fans deserve no less.”
In the process, she also jettisoned Kupchak, who had been with the organization in one form or another for nearly 36 years, winning two NBA championships as a Lakers player (and Johnson’s teammate) and serving as the architect of four more as the team’s general manager since 2000.
“We are grateful for the many contributions Mitch has made to the Lakers over the years and we wish him all the best,” she said in the team’s statement.
It’s ironic, given the way things have played out here, that Johnson last week laid out the same sort of timeline for getting the Lakers back to contention that Jim Buss did back in 2014.
“It’s going to take three to five years to get them back rolling again,” Johnson said in an interview on “CBS This Morning,” according to Medina. “If we’re patient and we develop our own players, in today’s NBA it’s different than when I played. You have to develop your own players because free-agent movement is not like it used to be. You have to make sure you hit a home run with the players you do draft and keep the players you have on your roster.”
What comes next for the Lakers’ front office remains to be seen. Finding a general manager with mastery over the minutiae of basketball operations — a strong understanding of the rules of the new collective-bargaining agreement and how to navigate the salary cap, the value of college, international and pro scouting, relationships that can give you a leg up in negotiation with agents and other teams’ front offices, etc. — will be critical for Johnson, who has stayed close to the league over the years as a ceremonial team vice president and an analyst on ESPN’s “NBA Countdown,” but who hasn’t yet had to delve deep into the nitty-gritty of running a club.
Whatever challenges might come, the Lakers enter the future led by a franchise legend who calls the opportunity to run the show “a dream come true.”
“Since 1979, I’ve been a part of the Laker Nation and I’m passionate about this organization,” Johnson said in the team’s statement. “I will do everything I can to build a winning culture on and off the court. We have a great coach in Luke Walton and good young players. We will work tirelessly to return our Los Angeles Lakers to NBA champions.”
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