Steve Ballmer ran Microsoft as CEO from 2000-2014. During his time as CEO, Microsoft's annual revenue surged from $25 billion to $70 billion. Ballmer oversaw the successful acquisition of Skype, expanded Microsoft's lead in various enterprise business areas, unveiled the first generation of the successful Surface line of laptops, and maintained the profitability of the Windows and Office brands at impressive rates. Yet, by 2014, it was clear that Steve Ballmer had to resign for the company to move forward. Satya Nadella has taken the company into a fresh, new direction, with a focus on cloud computing - a new area of growth that leverages all of Microsoft's strengths in a very compelling way.
Was Steve Ballmer a bad CEO? Not at all. Microsoft did very well under his stewardship and Ballmer did very well taking the reins of a proud organization from a giant in Bill Gates that ran it before. Yet, it was clear that for the organization, Steve Ballmer's time of being the cutting edge CEO that the tech industry required was over. Is it a fate that Steve Ballmer could have avoided? Perhaps, but sometimes an organization needs a fresh leader to view tough situations in a completely new way.
This, of course, leads me to the entire point of this piece. I believe, for the first time, that it is time for the Lakers to move on from the current front office leadership of Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss.
Like Steve Ballmer, Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss have done plenty of good over the course of their tenure. While it is uncertain that a superstar is a part of their current young core, they have drafted extremely well. They navigated a very difficult situation with Kobe Bryant's career ending, combined with tough draft protections, and ended up keeping their first-round picks (yes, with some lottery luck). They swung for the fences to try to take one or two more shots at a title with Kobe in trading for Dwight Howard and Steve Nash in the summer of 2012. I find that aggression admirable despite it ending up not working out, at all.
The NBA has changed a lot in the last few years in terms of ways that organizations build their team. Drafting has never been more important, and the value of strong assets in the form of good players on good contracts has never been higher. The Lakers have certainly done well on the former, but in my opinion have miserably failed on the latter. Chasing Carmelo Anthony and LaMarcus Aldridge in summers that, even had they joined the team, it was unclear how much better it would have made the Lakers versus attracting good second-tier players on strong contracts shows a free agency approach that is drastically out of touch. Letting Kent Bazemore go to sign Nick Young to a deal that was widely mocked are things that can't be classified as "hindsight is 20/20" because the analysis of that decision was bad from the moment it was made.
Again, mistakes happen. Having Kobe Bryant on your roster is a unique challenge and I respect their decision to go big with the risk of coming up empty in that context. But what happened last summer? Luol Deng is a contract that wasn't widely panned, and I will accept that any huge criticism of that deal now is hindsight, but it currently looks like a mistake. Deng rejuvenated his career by becoming a full time power forward for the Miami Heat, and the Lakers signed him at a time that they are developing Julius Randle and Larry Nance Jr. In addition, Brandon Ingram was just drafted, and Luol Deng can be a very good mentor — but at what cost? And for four years?
Now, the real blunder. Timofey Mozgov's deal was not only mocked by experts, but fans alike. He is currently ranked 69th out of 70 qualified centers in RPM (real plus-minus), and 61st in Defensive RPM, presumably the reason he was signed to the roster. The basketball fit for a big, largely immobile, center in a modern offense that Luke Walton is trying to implement is nebulous at best. From a financial and cap perspective, this deal is an outright disaster. I'd rather not hear about cap flexibility from a GM who so badly misjudged the market for their 12:01AM acquisition.
These deals are difficult, and every single transaction analyzed under a microscope like I admittedly am doing is unfair. Mozgov and Deng were signed at a time where the Lakers had no free agency luck and with the growth of the youth, by the time the Lakers are ready to take the next step, it's possible those deals aren't as big of a suck on the financial flexibility of the team as it feels like right now. At the same time, a front office's job is to make efficient decisions and analyze the market for free agents. An idiot on Twitter (me) shouldn't be able to hate a contract decision and actually be right. Somebody who probably knows five percent about basketball (me) compared to Mitch Kupchak shouldn't be able to see this as a disaster before they are.
What I love about both business and sports is that it's cutthroat. If you're not at your best, your most efficient, your most cutting edge, there are companies and teams ready to eat your lunch. LeBron James has made six straight NBA Finals but we hear about him going 3-3 more than the fact that he's accomplished so much just by getting there so often. Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss have done a damn good job in many ways, but in a cutthroat environment, even a B+ front office can be perceived as unsatisfactory.
Another area in which the current front office has failed is media relations. Yes, Mitch Kupchak is speaking to the media more this year, but for years the front office has let their head coaches take too many shots. You'll never hear me defend Byron Scott, but last year there was not enough outreach from Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss to national outlets that relentlessly mocked the team's direction. How can you expect to attract free agents when you're unwilling or incapable of changing the narrative around your team? As a front office, it has never been more important to embrace being open with the media and crafting your narrative yourself, and the current front office has let that narrative gone too far without pushing back. Now, it is too little, too late.
I have engaged in some nit-picking, and the Lakers are not a disaster. They have a stable of young players that are coming along nicely, with some understandable bumps in the road that come with young teams. What the Lakers need, however, is a truly fresh vision to solidify the next great Lakers team. Hiring Luke Walton was a great step in the right direction, but it feels like it’s time to have fresh eyes in the front office as well.
So what's next? Moving on from a front office in the middle of a rebuild is not an easy task, and given the years that Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss have put in it is easy to be intimidated by change. Dr. Jerry Buss has created an environment where the team is owned by family and run by family, whether biological family or the "Lakers Family" as a whole. I don't think that needs to change.
It has always felt strange to me to see Jerry West as part of an organization other than the Lakers. Jerry West's son, Ryan West has been working under Mitch Kupchak for years now and has a very good reputation. Jesse Buss has been working in the scouting department, arguably one of the strongest parts of the current Lakers organization, and is worthy of a promotion. Why not move everybody up with Jerry West serving in the "Pat Riley" role as the overall culture creator?
This is just one suggestion, of course. But for the first time as a Lakers fan, I am ready for the front office to look a little different. Is it unfair to Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss? Possibly. And if the Lakers succeed it will be in part due to the work of Mitch and Jim, just as Microsoft's current success is in part Steve Ballmer's. Sometime's it's just time for a change, and I think everybody will be the better for it.