This column reflects the opinion of the writer and does not in any way reflect the views of The Stanford Daily.
Facing a wall and exasperated by the years of discord within all levels of the organization, Los Angeles Lakers partial owner Jeanie Buss ultimately brought down a long-awaited axe on general manager Mitch Kupchak and head of basketball operations Jim Buss in addition to John Black, the head spokesman for the organization. The partial owner — she received her 11 percent share upon her dad’s death — then promoted former superstar Laker-turned-businessman Magic Johnson to president of basketball operations, all two days before Thursday’s trade deadline.
In a statement to the media released by Los Angeles ESPN sports journalist Arash Markazi, Jeanie Buss ominously commented, “This was a very difficult decision … I probably waited too long. For that, I apologize to Lakers fans.”
Beyond the strangeness of that quote or the familial ties Jim Buss still has to the organization as a partial share owner, Jeanie’s actions were questionable and sudden, despite somehow being simultaneously predictable. After Jeanie hired Magic as an “evaluator” and “advisor” of Kupchak and Jim Buss, the former Laker followed his hiring within the organization with a large-scale media blitz in which he criticized the Laker front office and actively discussed his ambition for Kupchak’s job.
The saga then continued on Tuesday as just hours after the Laker organization stunned the NBA through Johnson’s hiring with a Twitter statesman — a rare surprise in a modern-day social network environment — fellow ESPN Los Angeles correspondent Ramona Shelburne broke the news on Twitter that NBA super agent Rob Pelinka, former agent to Kobe Bryant, would be hired as the next general manager.
As a lifelong Los Angeles native and Lakers fan, the rapid switch from a failing and falling front office to such an LA legend as Magic Johnson — all with an eerie shadow of Kobe Bryant — threw me for a loop. Even in such a public takeover within the most famous basketball organization in the country, many questions still remain.
What was Kobe Bryant’s involvement in helping usher Johnson into being president of basketball operations and former agent Pelinka into the general manager position? How big of an impact was losing Demarcus Cousins to the Pelicans earlier this week in the firing of Kupchak and Jim Buss?
Yet while all these uncertainties examine intricate details into the happenings in El Segundo on Feb. 21, the most important question for Lakers fans and the organization’s standing around the association still remains: Can Magic Johnson recreate a winning mystic in Los Angeles by taking the successful steps towards modernizing a lagging franchise?
The Lakers undoubtedly dragged their feet in adopting the modern analytics and technology that has swept the NBA in the past decade and a half, and the front office takes the lion’s share of the blame as longtime general manager Mitch Kupchak clung to old-school methods down the stretch of his illustrious career. A perfect symbol of the Lakers resistance to NBA analytics lies in the organization’s refusal to send a representative to any of the first six years of the annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, a national conference that includes 3,900 attendees from nearly every professional American sports team.
Thus I have little to no doubt that the Los Angeles team needed a change in management and front office in order to rebound from the uncharacteristic slump of the “most winningest team”– by win totals, at least (San Antonio technically owns the win percentage, due to the Lakers having 30 more years of competition). The last free agency period should have been a fatal blow to the organization that couldn’t even get a meeting with top free agents after being basically laughed at the season before while trying to attract the Spurs’ new power forward Lamarcus Aldridge.
My problem, therefore, doesn’t lie within the reshaping of the franchise that needs to find a way to restore its mystic and winning aura. The problem lies in the timing and the successor.
NBA writers often say that when a general manager begins to fear losing his job, he should be fired. The same wisdom should have been passed on to Jeanie Buss during this past offseason before the Lakers — who used to own more cap flexibility, a rare commodity in the overpaid association of 2017 — signed aging veteran backups Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng to four-year contracts worth 64 and 72 million, respectively.
Not only do those contracts not help on-court performance much — as shown through the lackluster play this season – but those overpriced assets now eat up cap space and asset flexibility in order to position the organization well for the future.
Why didn’t Jeanie Buss fire her front office before the threat of losing their two jobs led to the “win now” mentality that hurt the organization in the long run? Furthermore, why fire and restructure the entire organization two days before the deadline, just to put in a president and general manager that have both never worked in NBA front office negotiations before?
That ultimately sums my qualms with Johnson as a president, as well. Although he successfully flipped guard Lou Williams for similar salary and a first-round pick, as well as completed the Huertas-Ennis trade, Johnson simply doesn’t have enough front office experience (claiming himself that he doesn’t understand the Collective Bargaining Agreement enough), and the star power of the esteemed businessman will quickly fade in free agent meetings and heated trade negotiations.
Then, against all his prior business advice, Johnson hired yet another inexperienced member to his front office, super agent Rob Pelinka. While Pelinka has experience and knowledge with the CBA and contract details, once again I’m left questioning whether these risky moves and inexperienced hires are right for a franchise in peril.
For example, if the Lakers were thinking the Bob Myers agent route for their general manager position, many current front office members such as Justin Zanik fit the profile as a savvy ex-agent while still owning two assistant general manager positions. Zanik provides the business savvy of Pelinka while still owning that extra bit of front office wisdom that can inspire confidence and unity within an organization and, even more importantly, free agents.
The Pelinka-Johnson duo can certainly bring the Los Angeles organization success and confidence in a modern NBA so heavily focused on contract savvy and analytic efficiency. Yet although I hope for the best, I can only wonder whether the new, chic front office in the Laker headquarters in El Segundo truly has the competence to guide this franchise, or whether the star power and social networks propelled these two into a doomed experiment.
Contact Lorenzo Rosas at enzor9 ‘at’ stanford.edu to purchase the best-selling “We Miss You Kobe” locket. There is an additional cost for a small bottle of Lorenzo’s tears from every time he looks at the Lakers’ record this season.