The Los Angeles Lakers have operated and showcased themselves as the utmost brand in the NBA, which has been fine as, for the vast majority of its existence, that’s been true. Those are, however, days of the past.
Magic Johnson’s arrival is so obvious, and if it’s what Lakers fans have to look forward to, it’s hard not to feel disappointed in the move. The Lakers could hire just about anyone, yet they continue to fall back on the same tendencies. Where’s the imagination?
Let’s take a look at what this might mean from all possible angles. Get comfortable.
How did we get here? Let’s start with coaches
One can’t help but feel like this is yet another desperate return to the glory days long since gone, not unlike the hiring of Magic’s close personal friend, Byron Scott.
We saw how that worked out.
It’s absolutely fair to question those responsible for Scott’s hiring, along with Mike D’Antoni and Mike Brown. D’Antoni is only this year’s leading coach of the year candidate, but hey, details. Brown was laughably bad for most of his tenure, Byron is arguably the worst coach in NBA history and D’Antoni’s style clashed with the roster makeup almost as soon as he arrived in L.A.
All that said, it’s hard to find a negative word about Luke Walton’s time as the head coach from just about anyone, and that’s as he guides a team that might win 27-ish games if it’s lucky. So if you’re going to crush Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss for their head coach hiring practices, you should probably take Walton into account.
Passing on Phil Jackson for D’Antoni feels like the first domino in a string of occurrences that finally got the Lakers here. Jeanie Buss has on many occasions spoken about how that night hurt. In terms of basketball sense, Jackson made more sense for the roster he would’ve been taking over. What we don’t know about that situation was what he might’ve been demanding to come back.
The late Dr. Jerry Buss also supported the D’Antoni decision, but it’s hard not to think ownership’s relationship with each other never recovered. Magic being brought back after speaking ill of Jim Buss feels like a shot fired across the Lakers’ offices to match how Jeanie felt the night D’Antoni was brought on in Jackson’s stead.
Just for a refresher, here’s what Magic had to say to the L.A. Times in 2015 about Jim’s abilities as team president:
"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.
It isn’t like Magic has completely walked those statements back, either. You don’t hire someone who’s gone that strong at someone unless you are legitimately unhappy with the job that person has done. This brings us to the next point.
The Lakers have been about as successful in free agency as Charles Barkley’s been at saying smart things on TNT.
The process in trying to convince LaMarcus Aldridge to come to L.A. was hilarious on several levels. Kevin Durant didn’t even take a meeting with the Lakers. Carmelo Anthony reportedly thought long and hard about becoming a Laker, but eventually decided he was better off a New York Knick.
In terms of guys who the front office has been successful in bringing out here, the picture doesn’t look much brighter. Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov are in the first season of four-year deals worth a combined zillion dollars (rough estimate). Now, those guys reportedly would not have come to L.A. if not for the incredible amount of money, so it says something about the state of the Lakers that they would have to overpay guys obviously past their prime.
This coming offseason might be the Lakers’ last real chance at having legitimate cap room before the young core starts signing extensions, so if a move in the front office is coming, whoever steps in will have their work cut out for them.
But again I ask: Does Magic’s incredible legacy with the Lakers change the collective bargaining agreement that’s in place? Does his undeniable charisma change how much money superstars stand to lose by leaving their current teams? The answer to both those questions is obviously no, so what is the purpose of the move in that respect? Yes, based on his Twitter timeline he apparently knows who the Lakers should target, but I’m sure that Jim Buss knew Durant would help his team at the time.
Let’s say Jim Buss is let go and just assumes an ownership role as Magic’s arrival might hint at. Shouldn’t it worry fans that Jeanie’s first move as she assumes more power within the organization was simply to bring back an old Laker? Byron Scott was an unmitigated disaster and has shown zero aptitude to accept accountability.
During his tenure, James Worthy couldn’t find it within himself to criticize one of his oldest and closest friends. This is fine in the role of analyst, but it’s also fair to wonder if Magic would have been similarly biased if he was advising the Lakers on what to do with Byron.
What is put out to the public compared to actions behind closed doors might differ, but what Magic continuously said about Byron’s job never inspired very much trust in his objectivity, which matters when actual decisions have to be made and his input is valued.
If Magic is the first step in “getting the band back together” it’s very fair to ask why that would be something anyone outside of casual fans would want in the first place. The organization has finally started thinking about how to fit in the modern NBA and has a pretty clear path ahead on how to make that work. Introducing someone who harkens back to when jumpers couldn’t win championships just doesn’t make sense.
Magic’s front office experience
There is none. Moving on.
The league was different back when Showtime was the best show in the NBA, and hoping habits they had back then are all that’s missing from this current iteration will leave everyone involved sadly mistaken. The game has evolved. The business surrounding the game has gone even further. Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss have obviously done an imperfect job running this organization, but consider what they’ve accomplished.
Fans wanted Kobe Bryant to contend for championships at the end of his career; they acquired Dwight Howard and Steve Nash to go with Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace. At the time, that was seen as one of the best starting fives ever assembled. Injuries, man.
The NBA has increasingly moved toward rewarding teams for tanking; they turned a single lottery pick when the aforementioned era ended into Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, D’Angelo Russell, Larry Nance, Jr., Brandon Ingram and now Ivica Zubac. If the ping pong balls land the right way, they could have yet another top-three pick to go with that already pretty impressive list of young talent.
So, does Magic’s arrival and, by extension, Jim Buss’ impending departure signal the end of a multi-year rebuild that is undeniably heading in the right direction? Will large chunks of the young talent listed above be shipped out in the hopes of acquiring an unhappy superstar from elsewhere? We don’t know. We want to say it won’t, but there’s no way of knowing.
Which brings us to the final topic.
Jeanie Buss’ front office basketball background
See Magic Johnson’s.
So if Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak are shown the door, the Lakers will start again from essentially scratch, with two people who have no experience in an NBA front office. Not great.
If this is just another voice to improve the currently non-existent communication between the business and basketball operations teams, that’s fine. If it’s anything more, fans have reason to worry.