Since Magic Johnson stepped down as president of the Los Angeles Lakers on the final night of the regular season, there were rumors of a report coming from ESPN that would paint him in a negative light.
That report has dropped now, and it’s clear that — if it wasn’t obvious before — Johnson leaving didn’t solve all of the team’s credibility issues.
Anyone who reads this site or cares about the Lakers should check the story out — Baxter Holmes of ESPN extensively detailed issue after issue with the front office, giving us explicit, written and vetted confirmation of whispers that had been out there for months, some publicly, and some not.
But if you cut through the noise, what did we really learn? That Magic Johnson doesn’t seem to have been a great boss? That Rich Paul and Klutch Sports appear to have power within the Lakers? That Rob Pelinka doesn’t seem to be the most trustworthy figure, something that has been reported for months?
Sure, some of the details are fascinating, and are certainly worth knowing and exposing, but did we really expect LeBron James’ camp to not have power? Did anyone really think that the Lakers’ moves under Johnson were evidence of some grand, well-thought out plan?
The most explosive thing about all this is that, in broad outlines, we knew about all of these problems — if not their specifics — and the team has continued apace as if nothing is wrong.
In the wake of the allegations leveled at Johnson in the report — the most explosive being his treatment of employees, which seems genuinely pretty awful — it is at least eminently clear that the Lakers are better off without him, if that wasn’t obvious already. It confirms that he was mostly an absentee boss (something Johnson has admitted on his own on “First Take” in saying that Buss knew he was “going to be in and out”), which can’t work when a decision-maker is making the sort of unilateral choices outlined in Holmes’ piece.
Still, even if the Lakers are at least marginally better off without one of the sources of the problems within the team, that doesn’t mean that everything is fixed. It’s clear from the stories in the piece that Pelinka appears to have a major credibility problem both within the team, and now publicly, if he didn’t already. Having him in charge could prove to work out better than Johnson, but the possibility of incremental progress isn’t necessarily worth cheering.
There is also the matter that all of these leaks — many of which are attributed to anonymous employees that remain within the organization — still paint a picture of internal power struggles that the team’s botched coaching search and Johnson’s “First Take” appearance laid bare for the world.
The Lakers evidently do not consider all this worth fixing, or think it’s all solved, a mindset evidenced by them not commenting on any of the events of the last several weeks publicly, and most of all by leaving Pelinka in charge in the wake of Johnson’s resignation. Throughout Holmes’ piece, there are comments from Lakers spokespeople, which in journalism parlance means that these concerns were brought to the team for comment, so they’ve been aware of all of these accusations and stories — probably since before Johnson even resigned, given the pervasive rumors then that this piece was coming — and Jeanie Buss and the rest of the front office have chosen to stay the course instead of making any changes in the aftermath of them.
That’s not great, even if we sort of knew about it already. It’s also not clear how the team can get better from here, beyond extensive changes to the organization’s staffing. Sure, the caveat with all of this is that the team still has max cap space, promising young players, the No. 4 pick, LeBron James and Southern California to sell to free agents and use as fuel for a rebuild, but on the other hand, what part of the last few weeks, and this report, makes it seem like this is the type of place a player would want to trust the next four years or so to their career to? Yes, the Lakers got LeBron James last summer, but the rumors of this level of dysfunction weren’t this prevalent then, and with star free agents this year having so many other options, it’s hard to believe any of them would want to come and voluntarily sign on for more of this.
The main other thing that is clear right now is that Jeanie Buss, at this point, has to bear some accountability for all of this. Her reaction, so far, has been to continue to trust all the same people that were around for the debacle detailed in Holmes’ piece. That can’t be the only fallout from this if the Lakers actually want to fix things.
Until we hear that changes are being made, though, it’s hard not to feel like things will just stay the same. The team will call this “fake news,” or ignore it entirely, and continue to putter along and keep it in the Lakers family. The problem with that is the same problem that’s the case across industries and throughout history when heirs are put in charge. Generally the person at the start of the line fought their way up, earning everything they got on the sheer force of their talent, decision-making and will. Their heirs, no matter how much the forebear of the family attempted to prepare them, are not always as naturally well-suited to run the same company or country simply on the strength of their blood.
Maybe Buss proves history wrong in this respect, but right now, it’s just hard to have a lot of faith that anything is changing. Even if we already knew about a lot of the broad strokes of the dysfunction that are becoming specifically clear today, that stagnation is more worth worrying about than any of the individual details that have come to light.