There are precious few examples of those tasked with following in their brilliant parents’ footsteps actually living up to those expectations. To listen to Mitch Kupchak’s retelling, the Los Angeles Lakers after the passing of Dr. Jerrys Buss was no outlier to that rule.
As Kupchak prepares for All-Star Weekend in his newest home city of Charlotte, he sat down with Bill Oram of The Athletic for a sprawling feature in which Kupchak was incredibly forthcoming, potentially most notably about the leadership void left behind by arguably the greatest owner in the history of American professional sports:
In the four years after Dr. Jerry Buss died in 2013, the Lakers had made the playoffs just once, and the organization was splintered at the top. Dr. Buss’ wishes of having Jim run basketball and Jeanie be in charge of business were not working. The siblings did not speak. Jeanie did not trust Jim to make the right decisions.
And Kupchak was caught in the middle.
“I think everybody knows, when Dr. Buss passed away, everything changed,” Kupchak said. “And, quite frankly, the further away we got from his passing, the worse it got.”
Kupchak worked with Jim Buss, whose path to the top of the Lakers ladder featured a stint at the horse races, and believed a bartender named Chaz from that period of his life was equipped with the skills to operate as an NBA scout. They had some success together, obviously, but it’s also easy to see why Kupchak might’ve been concerned with some of the habits and thought processes of his boss.
On the business side of things was Jeanie, who by all accounts is very good in her role. She also sold Kupchak out at the first opportunity she was given, firing both him and her brother and replacing them with Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka. To this day, she has separated herself (mostly to her credit) from the basketball operations of things, though if the Lakers fail to make the playoffs with LeBron James on the roster, that might have to change.
Kupchak isn’t blameless here, either. That fateful summer of 2016 in which he and Jim signed Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov will go down as one of the worst in franchise history. Those signings led directly to the need to trade D’Angelo Russell, whom Kupchak drafted and now will have a front-row seat to watch in Sunday’s All-Star Game. Deng is also on the Lakers’ books for another couple seasons beyond this one, despite being bought out and now playing for the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Those signings alone were enough to warrant the pink slips they were handed, but still, Kupchak’s point about the leadership void left behind by Dr. Jerry Buss’ passing remains perfectly relevant. This isn’t even a knock against any of the Buss siblings he left behind, either. Shoes like those are impossible to fill. Combine that leadership void with an increasingly competitive league, and it’s easy to see how the Lakers might’ve fallen a bit behind over these last few years.
With Kupchak and Jim Buss out of the picture, it falls on Jeanie to help this franchise catch up. She has the aid of her other siblings (both by blood and however she considers Magic Johnson). At the very least, the Lakers will have to buck the trend Kupchak noticed. Things can’t be allowed to continue to get worse as they get further and further from Dr. Jerry Buss’ influence.