In a stunning move to shake up their front office, the Lakers announced Tuesday morning that they have cleaned house of their top two basketball decision makers and elevated Magic Johnson from “advisor” to Jeanie Buss to the President of Basketball Operations. From the team’s press release:
Los Angeles Lakers Governor Jeanie Buss announced today that the team has named Earvin “Magic” Johnson as President of Basketball Operations. In addition, General Manager Mitch Kupchak has been relieved of his duties, effective immediately. Furthermore, Jim Buss will no longer hold his role as Lakers Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations.
“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.”
While the move itself should not inspire surprise, the timing of it certainly should. The NBA Trade deadline is only two days away and the team just fired their GM and relieved the final say in basketball decisions. Just Sunday night there were reports that the Lakers were in conversations to acquire DeMarcus Cousins (before he was dealt to the Pelicans) and there have been ongoing rumors about the team being in active discussions about trading Lou Williams in advance of Thursday. Now the people who were on those calls and negotiating compensation are now no longer employed by the team! I am almost speechless.
The next steps here are vital. The release mentions the team has been actively searching for a replacement GM, which implies to me not only have these firings been decided on, but also that Jeanie and Magic have people in mind. My assumption is that this person is not currently employed by an NBA team since you would need to seek permission to even discuss a job with someone who is currently working for another franchise. I guess it’s possible this all happened behind closed doors and without any leaks, but that would surprise me a great deal. Progressing that line of thinking, then, leads me to believe that whoever is named as new GM isn’t some Assistant GM with another team but either someone internal (Ryan West?) or an outsider who is currently not working (Sam Hinkie? Isiah Thomas?? OH MY) but has previous GM/Front Office experience.
That last point is important because Magic Johnson certainly does not possess it. Just a week ago he was giving interviews where he mentioned he is getting up to speed on the nuances of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, learning about salary structure and the other rules which govern the league. Granted, the Lakers have some infrastructure still in place, but Magic will need strong guidance and experience to lean on in these areas to ensure the team is uncovering all stones and not getting out maneuvered.
Moving beyond the boots on the ground, though, this is a massive show of strength and finally a decisive move by Jeanie Buss. This franchise has been plagued by in-fighting, sourced reports pitting Jeanie and Jim against each other, and outright dysfunction between the basketball and business sides of the house. As much as Jim deserves blame for his performance at the top of the basketball decision making tree, Jeanie deserves blame for the ongoing sniping between her and Jim, for the persistent perception that their house was not in order. Allowing those things to fester is a leadership issue and as the final decision maker for the entire organization, that comes back to her as much or more than anyone else.
Now, though, she has moved her cards to the center of the table and gone all-in. She has relieved her brother of his duties, fired Kupchak, and empowered Magic Johnson. She has taken on the mantle of her father and, like or not, is now showing who exactly is in charge. With that comes the spotlight and the lack of a shield to deflect blame onto, but any good leader embraces that. We’ll see how this goes.
Lastly, I want to say thank you to Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss. I know the latter has taken a lot of heat over the years and, from the reports I have read, some of that is very fair. That said, he had his hands in some of the huge successes in the past decade and to ignore that would not be fair. As for Mitch, reports this year have framed him as aloof and difficult to work with. Maybe those things are true. But he’s also been with the team for over 30 years and was one of the key architects (both under Jerry West and after The Logo departed) of multiple championship teams. Mitch often inspired calm in the fan base and his straight to the point approach (even when purposefully keeping information from you) was something I appreciated. I wish both Jim and Mitch nothing but the best moving forward, whatever may happen with them inside or outside of basketball.
Today is a new era, though. Magic Johnson is now the top decision maker for the team he led to 5 championships and 9 NBA Finals as a player. He was the face of Showtime and since then has been a massive success in business and other sports team ownership ventures. This is a new challenge; a different challenge. He can’t simply make a no look pass to Kareem or sink a baby hook to win a championship. He will need to hire the right people, make the right decisions, and leave no stone unturned along the way. I’m neither optimistic or pessimistic about his ability to do this, but I’m willing to give him his chance. He’s Magic Johnson and earned at least that much.