During his appearance on ESPN’s “First Take” on Monday morning, Magic Johnson described a chaotic front office filled with far too many voices and not nearly enough leadership. At Frank Vogel’s introductory press conference, Rob Pelinka was asked about organizational structure, and he did his best to dispel that notion.
While Pelinka would never go into absolute full detail — no executive could — he did at least try to offer some clarity about an organization shrouded in legitimate questions (transcribed via Spectrum Sportsnet):
“We can be very clear on that. Jeanie’s vision for the front office is that a couple years ago she created a position that didn’t exist prior to Earvin coming aboard: President of Basketball Operations. She is going to eliminate that position because it was created entirely for Magic and no one can really replace what he does.
“So that would be that, and in terms of our decision processes here, it’s very clear and very simple. Now, when it comes to a basketball decision, I collaborate with the staff, many of whom are at this press conference today, and then I make a recommendation to Jeanie and she blesses that or not. So it’s very clear and very simple.
Kurt Rambis was hired a year ago as an advisor to the front office and to the coaching staff. He remains in that position and was a valuable resource throughout the process (of finding a coach) with his championship experiences of being on many staffs... For the Lakers and other organizations. He was a really valuable resource in choosing Frank to be our next head coach, but his position hasn’t changed.”
Linda Rambis’ name has also come up as part of that power structure fairly pervasively over the last month. It came up once again during this, um, interesting presser as well, as Pelinka was specifically asked to clarify what her role was (her title is officially “Manager of Special Projects,” but the last several weeks have made it clear that her influence is far greater than that):
“You’re right, there is a very clear and simple plan here. I make basketball choices. After collaboration with the staff, I make recommendations to Jeanie. The decision to hire Frank was something that I decided to do and recommended to her, and she agreed with that. That’s how it’ll be going forward.
“Linda Rambis is an incredibly trusted colleague and partner for all the employees with the Lakers. She’s been here for decades. She has wisdom in how this business works, how this town operates, and the relationship capital and experience and knowledge-base that she brings to the table is incredibly helpful to all of us.”
One thing’s for sure: Pelinka definitely knows how to highlight one’s best characteristics. However, that was also another example of him using a lot of words to not say anything, really. Later on, he used similar obfuscation when discussing how things had changed from when Magic Johnson was in charge to now:
“The way it was structured here when Magic was here was he had final basketball authority. That’s the way Jeanie wanted it structured, and the way he did as well. Again, it was similar to the way it is now, there is collaboration on those decisions with the staff, and he ultimately made the final choice on basketball matters.”
Something has to be cleared up here.
While in terms of title, Jeanie Buss might have created the president of basketball operations, Johnson’s role was very similar to what Jim buss was tasked with when he was executive vice president of basketball operations. Functionally things were the same as they were with Magic, even if the titles were different, so the Lakers not having someone above their general manager is a change, no matter how Pelinka spins it.
(Quick side note: Knowing what we know now about the pettiness involved at this level of the Lakers, would you put it past Jeanie and Magic to give him the title of president just as one last shot at Jim? Me neither.)
All right, back to the point at hand... It still sounds like there is plenty of room for all the many voices that concerned Johnson to get in the way of the decision making process. Both Rambii are going to offer their input. Tim Harris never came up at the presser, but according to Johnson, he was involved in at least one major decision (whether or not to fire Luke Walton).
And when you add both younger Buss siblings (Joey and Jesse — whom Johnson said want more power) to all those personalities, well, it’s hard to see how any decisions get made at all.
One thing this does clear up is any last vestige of plausible deniability from Jeanie Buss. She explicitly and on the record has the final say now, and as such must be held fully accountable — or given a large portion of the credit — for any successes or failings on the basketball side in ways she hasn’t been quite yet. Sure, she’s taken a couple hits for hiring Johnson and Pelinka in the first place, but there is now a direct line to trace linking her to basketball decisions.
This is all quite the change from the days of Jim Buss, when Jeanie used to constantly insist that she wasn’t involved in basketball decisions at all. It’s also — again, according to Pelinka, today — a change from how things were under Johnson, when he was supposed to mainly be the final decision maker (even if he, per his “First Take” interview, didn’t quite feel that was the case).
As I said earlier, hoping to get full disclosure from Pelinka on this subject is not wise. No organization offers up all the details of their inner workings, especially at the level the Lakers are at. But there are plenty of holes even in the theoretical explanation Pelinka offered up. We’ll see if we’re given further clarity to fill them in at some point. Given how the last month has gone, that seems doubtful.
All things considered, Vogel’s first press conference as Lakers head coach showed promise. But like his hiring, it was overshadowed by the noise surrounding the organization currently. As Vogel and Pelinka said, the best way to limit that noise is to win. If they hope to succeed enough to shut up critics, they’ll have to resolve some of Johnson’s concerns.