It has been over three weeks since Magic Johnson abruptly resigned as President of Basketball Operations for the Lakers. In that time, owner Jeanie Buss and general manager Rob Pelinka have yet to make any public comments about their reaction to what happened, other than a brief statement by the organization wishing Magic well upon his departure.
There has also been no official clarity about how Los Angeles will proceed in filling that position, or if the team even plans on doing so.
While the rest of the league moves ahead to prepare for the 2019-20 season — at least those teams who aren’t still playing in the playoffs, that is — the Lakers remain stuck in the mud. Not only are they unwilling to make basic decisions about the direction of their franchise, but they won’t even shine a light on the process.
In this case, no news is most definitely not good news.
First of all, as long as Los Angeles is operating in silence, that gives people outside the organization a chance to tell the team’s story. Our Anthony Irwin likes to bring this up from his PR background — if you aren’t crafting your own narrative, others will fill the vacuum, and that is exactly what has been happening for the Lakers.
No one knows if Pelinka will actually be promoted to President of Basketball Operations, but as long as the team leaves that position vacant and seemingly doesn’t acknowledge its existence, that’s how others around the league will perceive the team’s front office structure. That uncertainty could affect the opinion of the organization when free agency rolls around.
The lack of any public statements is how absurd theories like the Lakers having a “shadow executive” from a playoff team lined up, signing off on all their moves, get floated around. When there isn’t any direct knowledge of what the Lakers are doing, people seize on rumors and create ridiculous conspiracies. Although the idea of a “shadow executive” is hilarious, it paints Los Angeles in an unflattering light, either because it would mean the team is tampering, or because it would imply they don’t know how to conduct a normal interview process, or both.
Even now, as the Lakers interview to find their next head coach, reporters close to the team and the players are filling in the radio silence with what they believe ownership is looking for. Whether Buss is uncomfortable with Ty Lue’s affiliation with LeBron James is almost besides the point, for example, because that’s the speculation that is out there. If Buss wants to project more confidence in her ability to run a team, she has to make that the narrative. Instead, the media gets to report about how the team is flailing around like chickens with their heads cut off, and there is nothing to counter that.
Jeanie Buss said the major problem the Lakers faced at the trade deadline this year was an abundance of “fake news” regarding the trade discussions for Anthony Davis. To avoid rehashing that situation, she needs to provide real news. By avoiding the spotlight, Buss is allowing stories like Linda and Kurt Rambis being included in coaching interviews to take up air space. Let’s assume that Linda has been involved in Jeanie’s business decisions for several years, which people around the franchise believe to be true. Wouldn’t it be better to hear that from Jeanie herself, rather than see the team get ridiculed for it by people who are unfamiliar of the normalcy of that dynamic now that it’s being mentioned for the first time in many corners?
The other issue with the Lakers conducting their business in the shadows is the difficulty that doing so creates in hiring new people. Let’s assume that Rob Pelinka takes Magic’s job — that still leaves an opening at general manager, but no one around the league really knows if that job, or any role within the L.A. front office, is available.
If the Lakers wanted to hire the best people, they would let it be known that they were looking for a new executive and start the process as soon as possible. None of that has happened. In the past few weeks since the regular season ended, a number of top candidates have already gone off the market, including Gersson Rosas and David Griffin. In the process, Griffin also swiped away trainer Aaron Nelson from the Phoenix Suns, which incidentally, is another position that remains vacant in Los Angeles.
It’s not uncommon for a front office to find itself a few executives short at this time of the year. The season ends, expectations are not met, and the axe falls on some unfortunate souls. Sometimes, people choose to retire or move on from jobs that aren’t a good fit. The logical next step, though, is for the organization to try to fill those positions, ideally top down, not pretend nothing happened and refuse to acknowledge the elephant in the room. Even if the Lakers can’t reveal their every plan and process, for obvious reasons, they need to let people know the skeleton of how they plan to proceed, if for no other reason than to quell all the speculation that makes the franchise look rudderless.
To that point: As the Lakers try to move forward in their coaching search, there remains confusion over who is making that decision. There’s a reason why every other NBA franchise has a president of basketball operations — or equivalent — and it’s because an established hierarchy helps to clarify these processes.
Think about what is to come, fairly soon, for the Lakers. The NBA draft lottery is in two weeks, and with that comes draft workouts, scouting and interviews. There is an infrastructure in place that has handled the draft process in previous years, but with reports that Pelinka has marginalized the roles of Jesse Buss and Ryan West in recent months, it becomes less clear who is running the show. Agents have the power to influence where their players get drafted by withholding availability and medical information, and instability could cause players to avoid Los Angeles.
And that’s before even getting to free agency, and implicitly, a referendum on the D’Angelo Russell trade, because this is the last summer to take advantage of the cap space the Lakers created by dumping Timofey Mozgov, whose contract would expire after next season anyway. Why create the extra obstacle of a perception of instability when there is so much riding on this offseason already?
A hugely critical time is approaching for this franchise, and the most notable thing happening for the Lakers is that nothing is happening. The team needs to be building relationships around the league right now. Instead, they’ve been pouting ever since Magic left, locked themselves into their room, and shut everyone else out.
Even as the Lakers have taken front-office dysfunction to a new level in recent years, taking a public vow of silence is something I never expected. While it may have been prudent to withhold information at other points in the regular season — shouts to the trade deadline — now is not the time.
Jeanie Buss and Rob Pelinka need to present a public face. After almost a month of being quiet, it’s time they start doing their jobs, and letting people know exactly what those jobs are.