If your friends are anything like mine, you probably got a lot of messages on Tuesday about how the Lakers are an embarrassment, and Magic Johnson should be ashamed of how he conducted himself by hanging Jeanie Buss out to dry.
And yes, perhaps Johnson’s stunning resignation wasn’t the finest hour in this organization’s history. But compared to some of the other episodes that the Lakers have been through, it didn’t feel entirely out of character for this franchise. Los Angeles is all about entertainment, and Magic was just supplying the latest dose of it.
This is the same front office that axed Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak out of nowhere one Monday morning two years ago, and had replacements lined up by lunchtime. The same Lakers who fired Mike Brown five games into a season, allegedly offered the head coaching job to Phil Jackson, and then pivoted to hire Mike D’Antoni within the same weekend. The same Lakers who thought posting a picture of Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard pretending to come to blows with each other over D’Antoni lying on a training table was a good way to diffuse tension.
Magic Johnson deciding to leave his job pregame isn’t the most absurd thing to happen to the Lakers in my lifetime (the Chris Paul veto is still the most ridiculous for me), though it is close to the top of the list. This is just how things are done in Los Angeles, whether Magic is around or not.
All of this is to say that even if Buss conducts a comprehensive search for Magic’s replacement, and finds some well-respected, no-nonsense candidate to become the next President of Basketball Operations (and ideally, another one to be the new general manager), I wouldn’t expect the drama to just disappear from Lakerland.
That’s why it’s a good thing that so many young Lakers acknowledged the toll that the drama took on the team over this past season during their exit interviews, and vowed to learn how to deal with it moving forward.
“We knew the scrutiny we were going to be in, no matter if we won or loss, we were going to be talked about the next day,” Josh Hart said. “This season, (and) how it was tough, I think it kind of reinforced a lot of that.
“I think that his team and the individuals on it will be stronger from this year.”
The Lakers will have to be more resilient, because the drama is far from over. Buss and Rob Pelinka have yet to comment on the front-office shakeup, and despite some reporting that Pelinka will simply assume a larger role in Johnson’s absence, there are likely to be more changes on the horizon. And since Los Angeles can’t just hire people normally, that figures to be a production as well.
Furthermore, the Lakers are still actively pursuing a second star. Free agency would be the ideal avenue for acquiring that player, but if that doesn’t pan out, then the young core will once again be subject to persistent rumors about trading for Anthony Davis, or some other max-level player who becomes available over the course of the summer or next season.
That means another offseason of players wondering which uniform they’ll don in 2019-20, and if recent reports are to be believed, they can’t even trust their current general manager to give them accurate information about their status.
There’s also instability with regards to coaching, given that Luke Walton was all-but-certain to be fired before Magic decided he would rather quit than do that. Now, he’s being targeted by other teams, and Los Angeles is unsure about his ability to lead them going forward unless he hires a strong staff around him. As long as Buss lets Walton’s job security dangle in the wind, other coaches will openly express their interest in the position, which is thoroughly unpleasant for both Walton and his advocates, even if most know that all this drama comes with the territory of playing for the Lakers.
“There’s a lot of distractions, obviously. We’re in the media every day, good or bad. That said, as long as you’re close with your teammates in the locker room, that’s all that matters. The outside noise doesn’t really mean much, so, for whoever is might come or is coming, I would say that. Just stay close-knit no matter what, through it all, Kuzma said Wednesday.
“Just keep your head up. A lot of things are going to happen that you can’t necessarily control all the time, but you can control what you do after it happens,” Kuzma continued. “That’s what I’m trying to do. Keep my head up, keep moving forward, stay positive, and just work hard.”
One way to drown out the outside noise next year would simply be for the Lakers be a good basketball team. When the team was on its 18-9 stretch spanning November and December, there was little talk of who wanted to play next to LeBron James, or how Walton was handling coaching a superstar — all of the attention was on how Los Angeles was succeeding on the defensive end, or what a monumental addition Tyson Chandler had been.
There is assuredly enough oxygen around the Lakers to cover every possible story, and the team provides plenty, but if they want to power through the off-court drama, they’ll have to be more compelling on the court. Even if they don’t know who will be on said court.
“I’m not sure who’s going to return, I’m not sure who’s going to be here. But for the guys who are, I know that feeling of we could’ve won games, the feeling we could’ve done better,” Ingram said in his exit interview. “Because of what went on throughout this year, which was crazy, I think that ultimately helps us out and brings us even closer for next year.”
It’s promising that the core players are recognizing that the pressure of playing in this media market affected them this year, and they’re gearing themselves up to deal with that noise next year. Again, the drama isn’t going anywhere. This is a byproduct of playing for the Lakers, and it would be unreasonable to expect a different type of atmosphere just because there are different faces in the front office.
What happened Tuesday isn’t so strange for the purple and gold. The players just have to be better at rolling with the punches.