Jeanie Buss’ power move to take back control of the Lakers is not a new story, even if it’s largely been told in bits in pieces. Whether it was a discussion with Magic Johnson, another with Kobe Bryant or her dissatisfaction with Mitch Kupchak and her brother Jim Buss’ performance, Jeanie has given lots of details for why she ultimately brought in a new regime in Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka.
However, in a recent podcast appearance with Rich Kleiman on “Boardroom: Out of the Office,” Jeanie gave the most comprehensive timeline and specifics yet about the move. Much of it was already known, but hearing it laid out in full from Jeanie herself is noteworthy, as are many of the comments she made as well.
Jeanie started off talking about her father, legendary Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss, and the decision he made to give Jeanie the ultimate power among his children to take care of the Lakers, who she said her father considered his “baby.” She pushed back on the idea that Jerry made a mistake by empowering Jim in basketball operations, because while he clearly wanted Jim to have success in basketball, he also gave Jeanie the power to oust him if it wasn’t working.
“He actually did get it right, because what he did was he left me in charge... He said ‘Jeanie, you will have the hammer if you ever need to use it. I hope you don’t need to use it, but I expect you to if needed.’ And I like to say that my dad had his children, but the Lakers were the baby. And my dad put the baby in my arms to take care of, and you know that you don’t ever cross a mother because she is going to protect her child.
“He wanted my brother to be successful in basketball, but I think my brother wanted to do things his way as opposed to just doing them the way he was taught by my dad.”
Jeanie’s comments about the Lakers being her father’s baby and now her’s are notable. While the Lakers aren’t in any sort of peril right now, that she is willing to do anything to “protect her child” is certainly worth keeping in mind down the road. Tough decisions are commonplace in sports, and even if there may never be a tougher one for Jeanie than ousting her own brother from the front office, it doesn’t mean the ensuing decisions down the road become easier. Someone will have to make them, and Jeanie says she’s willing to.
Jeanie also provided clarity on a meeting with her brother behind closed doors when she pushed for a timeline of when the team would be back in the playoffs. After originally saying one season, Jim gave a larger window of three seasons before then turning around and revealing that timeline publicly without being told to do so.
“So as things are falling apart — like I said, we can’t attract a free agent — I had a family meeting, and I said to my brother, ‘you need to tell me when we’re going to be back in the playoffs, because on the business side, I have to be able to forecast 12 months, 24 months, 36 months out... Just tell me when I can expect to be back in the playoffs.’ And first he said a year, (then) ‘no, it will be three years.’ So we shook on it, and I said ‘if you’re not successful in three years, then you know I’m going to have to make a change.’ And he said ‘absolutely, I’d step down if we’re not back.’
“And what he did was he turned around and spoke to the media about it and he gave his timeline to the media, and so now we’re all on this countdown of ‘we should be back in the playoffs within three years.’ And I really, honestly thought ‘he must know what he’s doing, he’ll really be able to do it.’ Why else would you say that?”
Obviously, that timeline did not work for Jim and Kupchak, with the Lakers instead focusing on tanking and acquiring draft picks. On top of not meeting the self-imposed deadline, it was the constant losing that drove Jeanie — and her close friend and Jim’s eventual replacement, Magic Johnson, who was first empowered as an advisor — to the point of needing to make a change.
“But then as things were going on, and now I don’t have Phil (Jackson) to kind of bounce things off of, and I’m watching what’s happening, and when you’re selling the Lakers, you’re selling the success and the winning and the commitment to excellence, but it seemed like we were doing the opposite. We were trying to be at the bottom, we were trying to amass draft picks. Which I don’t really understand that strategy. My dad never used it and was very successful. So I didn’t understand it, free agents didn’t want to come to a place that was clearly burning things to the ground.
“Finally Magic Johnson came to me and he said ‘I just have to talk to you about this... The Lakers losing affects my life.’ Even though he wasn’t part of the organization, he’d say ‘I’m walking down the street in New York, and people are yelling at me, like, what’s wrong with your Lakers? What are you going to do about it, Magic?’ ... I said ‘well tell me what you see.’ And we had this conversation of January of 2017, and everything he said, I was like ‘that’s what I think, too.’ It’s like we were speaking the same language because we were taught by the same person.”
Is it concerning that the owner of the Lakers doesn’t understand the point of tanking? Probably!
For all the bad Jim and Kupchak did during their tenure, the draft was one of the constant sources of success, wins that came as a result of tanking. There’s a fair counter argument that it was their miscues that led the Lakers to the point they needed to tank, but once they got there, they (mostly) made the right moves.
And it was those series of draft choices that allowed the team to later trade for Anthony Davis — using lottery picks in Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball and a player in Josh Hart that was a late first-round pick turned valuable contributor — to acquire a superstar that led them to a title.
But those draft successes aside, it was trade rumors, deadline negotiations behind Jeanie’s back and the fear of what may happen that served as the final straw leading to Jim and Kupchak’s removal.
“So as February approached, and the trade deadline, I was worried that my brother was going to make trades that would put us further down and take even longer to recover from, so I had to swiftly make a decision, and Magic agreed to come back and head our basketball operations, and I had a meeting with Kobe and told him what I was thinking of doing.
“And Kobe spent two hours going through a strategy for me, like ‘here are the things you’ve got to think of, five steps ahead Jeanie. This is what’s going to happen, this is what’s going to come at you, you need to be prepared.’ Like Kobe was such a strategic thinker and I walked away from that knowing that I’m going in the right direction. So everything had to be done, we had a timeline that day so that we could do it as quickly as possible and let our fans, stakeholders, shareholders, players and coaches know that I was now in charge.
“But my brother took it to court... and the judge looked at the trust, it was very clearly spelled out — and maybe my brother didn’t understand that — that I had the ultimate power, because my dad knew that ultimately there had to be one person in charge that would be accountable, and he put the baby in my arms. And I was going to fight for it. I was going to protect it, and Magic was the right person to come in and help me, and I don’t regret that decision. The only thing I regret is that maybe I waited too long, and we had to suffer a lot of losses.”
At the trade deadline in 2017, the Lakers’ negotiations with the Kings served as the main catalyst for Jeanie’s moves. Largely behind her back, Jim and Kupchak pursued big man DeMarcus Cousins, and though a deal was ultimately done with the Pelicans and the Kings before Jeanie’s and Jim’s brother Jesse could warn Jeanie, her trust in Jim was (understandably) broken.
The irony in all of this is that the person Jeanie placed in Jim’s spot, Magic Johnson, made a worse trade than any singular deal during the tanking years in sending out Ivica Zubac to the Clippers for Mike Muscala. And he handled trade negotiations with New Orleans for Davis about as terribly as possible, sending the team’s 2018-19 season into a spiral as a result.
Still, Jeanie removing Jim and Kupchak was a move that needed to be made. The team soon had rehabilitated it’s reputation enough to sign LeBron James, who later lured Anthony Davis, and the rest was history. With now general manager Rob Pelinka in charge after Johnson stepped down to focus on building up his Twitter following, the team eventually built a title-winning side, and though Kupchak had done so in the past, his partnership with Jim was not producing the same type of fruitful results. In retrospect, Jeanie clearly made the right decisions.
The main takeaway from Jeanie’s quotes, though, is how much she values the Lakers and what she’s willing to do to “protect” them, as she said. When push comes to shove, she’s capable of making the tough decisions to help get the Lakers back on track, which should offer encouragement to fans about the trajectory and future of the franchise if things ever start going downhill fast.