On Tuesday morning, thundering news boomed out of the NBA world – as Los Angeles Lakers team President Jeanie Buss announced that Magic Johnson would become the President of Basketball Operations. This decision ended the longstanding tenures of both general manager Mitch Kupchak and her brother, Jim. Both were effectively relieved of their respective duties.
The wielding of power by Jeanie certainly was not an easy decision. It was her father’s dying wish for her brother to run the franchise from a basketball standpoint. Additionally, the rather unconventional set-up within the front office brought up this uncomfortable – and constant question: Would Jeanie ever be able to fire her brother?
The lack of an amicable relationship between the two siblings has certainly contributed to the Lakers’ standing over the past three and a half seasons. Since last making the playoffs in the 2012-13 season, the team is a combined 84-220. With virtually no shot at making the playoffs in this current year, it will unequivocally be the worst four-year span in the history of the franchise.
Jim has been said to be frosty when dealing with his sister. Insistent on putting his stamp on the front office, there’s been reportedly a severe lack of communication – which has directly been to the detriment of the franchise.
When it looked like the Lakers were primed to bring Phil Jackson back as a means to revitalize the prospects of the team, Buss pivoted – literally in the middle of the night – and instead hired Mike D’Antoni. This move furthered the divide between himself and his sister – whom at the time was dating Jackson.
While Kupchak has had success as a general manager in the past, he’s been recently beset by antiquated methods. Los Angeles has been unable to woo any major free agent in recent years. As opposed to showcasing the future direction of the team, the Kupchak-Buss duo focused on the glitz and glamour of the city – often neglecting the basketball-side of things. Sure, LA does open up plenty of doors from a business and marketing standpoint. But for any serious basketball player, the prospect of playing in a rebuilding situation with no direction – and one desperately latching onto the past – certainly isn’t appealing.
To make matters worse, Kupchak wasn’t known for being a gregarious individual. He was quiet, and often bordered on awkward. Both he and Jim reportedly were closed off with other members of the front office. This demeanor didn’t help to foster much in the way of communication or camaraderie.
There was a lot of pressure on Jeanie. Her father had hoped his son/her brother would thrive in his leadership role with the Lakers. She was respectful of this wish, and surely the internal battle on whether to pull the plug on this experiment had to have been a tough one.
With the franchise floundering within a severe malaise of obscurity, Jeanie finally wielded the power given to her by her late father – tabbing a Laker (and NBA) icon to rescue this proud entity.
Johnson does not have front office experience in this capacity. He has never worked in player personnel, and until recently, has focused on his extensive interests in the business world.
With that said, Johnson and the Lakers are truly synonymous with one another. He started his playing career with the franchise in 1979. He led the Lakers to five titles – not to mention the vast amount of individual accolades he’s accrued. In 1994, he became a minority owner next to Dr. Jerry Buss. He even acted as an interim head coach during the 1993-94 season – before fully immersing himself in the front office.
Johnson has also established himself as a tremendously successful entrepreneur – having his fingers in the realm of entertainment, television, Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer, and other outlets. His company – Magic Johnson Enterprises – is valued at over $700 million.
His charisma, savvy, and intelligence are core pillars for his success as both an athlete and as a mogul. With that said, his former owner played arguably as great of a role.
Buss has been a father figure to Johnson ever since he was drafted. The two gravitated towards each other as truly revolutionary individuals. Buss turned basketball from a sport into pure entertainment. He bridged the gap between the players and the fans, and truly made The Great Western Forum into the most electric spot in a city chock-full of fireworks.
And then there’s Johnson, who epitomized the term “entertainment” with his play. He was the straw that stirred the proverbial drink for the “Showtime” era. Next to Michael Jordan, there wasn’t a more exciting player to watch perform than Johnson.
The relationship between the two continued to grow and grow. Johnson was seen as a family member. In fact, he called Jeanie “his sister” during an interview on Tuesday. His business knowledge and acumen grew with this pseudo-mentorship courtesy of Jerry, and Johnson began making the foray into avenues outside of basketball.
Whilst Buss was on his deathbed, Johnson came to visit him in the hospital. The two spent hours together – reliving stories from the past. The bond between Buss and Johnson was understandably immense.
Johnson may be the most beloved athlete in Los Angeles sports history. It’s quite a statement – considering the likes of Fernando Valenzuela, Wayne Gretzky, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Kobe Bryant also played in LA.
However, there’s a magnetic quality surrounding Johnson making him a highly appealing and loved guy.
When looking at the current standing of the Lakers, there’s a lot of work to be done. Johnson has inherited a young roster full of question marks. Will D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle develop into All-Stars? Can Brandon Ingram gain enough weight and strength to be an effective player?
Johnson already was busy on his first day. He executed his first trade – shipping sixth-man extraordinaire Lou Williams to the Houston Rockets for Corey Brewer and a first-round pick.
He also appointed Rob Pelinka as the team’s general manager. This is fascinating on a number of fronts. For one, Pelinka is an agent. He’s long known for being Kobe Bryant’s agent, and also currently represents the likes of James Harden and Trevor Ariza, among others.
ESPN analyst Chad Ford had this to say on Pelinka:
“I’ve dealt with Rob Pelinka a lot covering the draft. Very smart. Excellent talent evaluator. His clients love him. Good hire for Lakers.”
Ariza followed up with more effusive praise:
“I think he’ll be unbelievable in that role. He knows basketball. He has a really, really good eye for talent.”
Lastly, NBA guru Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted this:
Pelinka's been prominent agent for years, holds strong relationships w/ league execs, engineered deals, recruiting in deep '17 draft class.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojVerticalNBA) February 21, 2017
Like Johnson, Pelinka is inexperienced in this capacity. He’s never worked as a front office executive. With that said, Golden State Warriors general manager Bob Myers was once an agent before making a foray into an assistant general manager role with the Warriors in 2011. He’s now considered one of the best in the league at his position.
Johnson’s business experience may come into play here. It would be prudent to surround himself – and Pelinka – with experienced, intelligent evaluators of talent. In essence, bringing in people with a background in player personnel. Based upon his obvious means of delegating responsibilities within his businesses, one would think he’d surely opt to employ a similar method.
Appointing Pelinka as the man in charge also stems from the fact he understands the current Collective Bargaining Agreement – which has changed the landscape of the NBA. With Pelinka being an experienced agent, this likely won’t be an issue.
There’s no question Johnson will be a major factor when it comes to attracting free agents. Not only is he highly respected in basketball circles, but he’s also a gregarious personality.
Johnson is an individual rooted in success. In all honesty, he owes a lot of that to the Lakers franchise – something he’ll readily admit. Buss took him under his wing in a number of ways, and Johnson wonderfully took advantage of the platform offered by Los Angeles.
In a rudimentary way of putting it, losing is simply not in his vocabulary. He will do anything and everything to bring the Lakers back to championship contention.
He’s won at the highest level — as a college player, an NBA player, and as an Olympian. Johnson will now embark on this new journey as an executive.
After all, he’s got a vested interest in this job. While he may not say this publicly, being able to restore the prestige largely built by his mentor and father figure must be a motivating factor.
This alone will likely be the biggest bargaining chip he’ll use when attempting to reload the roster.
The latest Johnson-led journey in Los Angeles will certainly be one full of interest and intrigue.
Image Source: Los Angeles Times