Even though we at FB&G try to focus our attention on the “on-court” happenings with the Lakers, you’d have to live in a cave to not at least be aware of the off-court family drama which persists among the team’s owners. After Jeanie Buss relieved Jim Buss of his duties as VP of Basketball Operations and installed Magic Johnson as the top basketball decision maker, the fallout has been very real.
The inherent drama of these moves and resulting aftershocks is the stuff of tabloids and soap operas. If you would prefer to not even consider these things, I don’t blame you. All of it reeks, a continuation of the dysfunction and in-fighting which plagued the franchise in the immediate aftermath of Dr. Buss’ death through current day. That said, if these things do interest you, Ramon Shelburne of ESPN has a long and worthwhile story up on the behind the scenes activity which got Jim (and the front office) and Jeanie (along with Magic Johnson) to the point they are now.
A few of the more meaningful excerpts — it starts with Jeanie’s decision to bring on Magic as a consultant and how that didn’t have the intended consequence of bridging the communication gap between herself and the basketball ops:
Three weeks before, Buss had installed Magic Johnson, a Lakers legend and one of her oldest friends, as a special adviser — an act she had hoped would be a wake-up call to everyone in the front office. Now, she found out, he wasn’t being integrated or even informed of what Kupchak and Jim Buss were planning.
One day, she found out the team had worked out center Larry Sanders and hadn’t bothered to invite Johnson to watch. Then there were the trade calls Johnson had to inquire about; he was never informed of the prospects — let alone asked his opinion.
So much for working together.
This lack of communication — especially related to Magic in his new role — is a steady theme of Shelburne’s reporting:
From the moment he was hired, Johnson was in the office nearly every day. Kupchak met with him. So did the younger Buss children, Joey and Jesse. Magic started doing corporate events and speaking regularly to head coach Luke Walton.
But he was never invited into the decision-making sanctum, which was picking up in advance of the Feb. 23 trade deadline. Johnson would call Kupchak to ask about trades or strategies that were being considered, but he was always the one reaching out for information. When the Lakers worked out Larry Sanders, a free-agent big man with a history of depression and substance-abuse issues, Johnson wasn’t informed or consulted…
…At one point, he fielded a call from Kings general manager Vlade Divac inquiring about the Lakers’ interest in All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins. Johnson told his former teammate that, as a consultant, he wasn’t empowered to answer that kind of question, and he referred Divac to Kupchak. But Johnson never heard another word from the front office, even when the Lakers engaged in discussions with the Kings on Feb. 19.
Divac, who sources say believed he had a very narrow window to trade Cousins before ownership changed its mind, wanted to act quickly and knew he had ownership approval for trades involving the Pelicans’ Buddy Hield and the Lakers’ Brandon Ingram.
By the time the Lakers got involved, Divac and Pelicans general manager Dell Demps, both in New Orleans for the All-Star Game, had met four or five times in person to discuss a deal, sources told ESPN’s Marc Stein. He was negotiating over the phone with Jim Buss and Kupchak — despite the fact that Johnson was in New Orleans that weekend for ESPN.
Jeanie Buss had previously instructed Kupchak and her brother that she was to be consulted if they discussed trades involving any of the Lakers’ three recent lottery picks. The only word she got of the Lakers discussions with the Kings –which involved two of those three lottery picks — came after Jim Buss called Jesse Buss and pressed him for a recommendation on an offer he said would quickly expire. Jesse Buss tried to text Jeanie Buss, but the deadline was fast approaching. Not long after, before Jeanie Buss or Johnson even knew about the Lakers’ attempts, the Kings finalized the deal with the Pelicans.
The above is portrayed as the final straw for Jim and Mitch, but more as an example of what she could no longer tolerate rather than something out of the blue. Jim and Mitch could not be trusted to communicate clearly and bring items to the table which Jeanie felt she should have information on (even if it’s not clear what role she would take in the final decision making process).
There’s much more in the piece — and I suggest you read it all, but I prefer to focus on these areas because I think they illustrate best what matters now.
While some of Jim and Mitch’s more impactfully negative decisions cannot be ignored (the Mozgov and Deng contracts, for example), the biggest issues cited for their removal wasn’t those mistakes, but rather the process in which those decisions were made and how that impacted relationships between the front office and Jeanie. And while Magic and Rob Pelinka will need to dig themselves out from underneath the rubble some of those decisions have created, the bigger point here is that there are no longer any broken relationships at the top of the organization to sift through in order for everyone to feel comfortable with how the team moves forward.
I said this when Jim and Kupchak were ousted, but it bears repeating: using Jim Buss as a shield is no longer an option. The people Jeanie wants to be in charge are now actually in charge. She hired them. She feels comfortable with this group, knows they will keep her apprised of what she needs to be apprised of, and there is no bad blood from the past to cloud what needs to be a strong working relationship between the basketball and business sides of the house. These are positives.
However, if things go wrong now, it will be on the people who remain in power, not those who were removed. This doesn’t mean we can’t (or shouldn’t) give context to the current environment by citing how present day conditions have been impacted by past decisions. When judging Jim/Mitch, I often went back to how “the veto” (among other things) impacted their landscape, so it would be hypocritical to not lend the same courtesy to Magic/Pelinka when talking about some of the bad contracts which now burden them.
That said, all decisions they make now will have their names on them. From the Lou trade to what happens in the draft and free agency this summer, to what trades are or are not made, the prism through which we evaluate those will be on them.
I, for one, believe a change needed to be made even if I didn’t agree with how it happened. And while I sympathize with Jim and Mitch for those reasons, and can still roll my eyes about the aggressive media ground game which persists against them even now that they are gone, history is written by the winners. Jim and Mitch are on the wrong side of that now and whether you view it as petty, cunning, truthful, smart, somewhere in the middle, or all of the above, the framing of them matters less than the work which lies ahead.
This is something Jeanie must own, now and moving forward. Because if she fails, the history others write about her might end up being just as unkind as what’s being written about her dispatched brother.