Hiring Magic is great for the Lakers ... if they hire a real GM to help make decisions

LOS ANGELES -- The obvious step for Lakers president and part-owner Jeanie Buss is over. Now comes the real test.
On Tuesday, the Lakers relieved longtime general manager Mitch Kupchak of his duties and announced that Jim Buss, Jeanie Buss’ brother, no longer would serve as executive vice president of basketball operations.

The change comes less than two weeks after Lakers legend Magic Johnson was hired as an assistant to Jeanie. In Tuesday’s Lakers reshuffling Magic becomes president of basketball operations. What happens next -- what Magic’s actual role will be, who does or does not come in to help him, and how Jeanie Buss can recalibrate an organization riven by dissension and angst -- will shape the Lakers and the NBA for years.

That drama was on keen and growing display the past two weeks, sources say. One source close to the situation said Kupchak and Jeanie Buss had not spoken since Nov. 1, despite her role as president of basketball operations and the power that gave her to fire Kupchak, and that her brother had resorted to communicating with his sister only through lawyers. The same source said Jeanie never was informed of a potential DeMarcus Cousins trade over the weekend and described a chaotic scene in which Jim Buss insisted low-level basketball officials “vote” on the proposed deal while Jeanie and Magic were left in the dark.

“This is a perfect example of what needs to change,” the source said.

And now that it has, Lakers fans should feel a wave of relief and optimism. Jim Buss was an albatross around this organization, a part-owner under whose tenure the Lakers became not only a losing franchise but irrelevant. The NBA moved on without the purple and gold. Their best chance to reverse that trend is Jeanie’s leadership.

That will be easier said than done. In the weeks since Magic was hired -- even as Kupchak went about his job and controlled, along with Jim Buss, decisions on things like a possible Cousins trade, among other deals -- back channel contacts reached out to executives around the NBA wondering if they’d be interested in Kupchak’s job, league sources say. Those contacted included current general managers, these sources say, but they were left with the ultimate question now facing the Lakers: What will Magic Johnson’s role be, and how would that affect a newcomer tasked with the difficult job of fixing an organization saddled with years of poor decision making?
The answer to that question will largely dictate whether Jeanie can right the ship her brother ineffectively steered. Hiring Magic Johnson was a stroke of genius by Jeanie: He is beloved in L.A., can close with star players mulling a free-agency move, has shown with the Los Angeles Dodgers that his brand and approach can help turn around a franchise, and offers Jeanie enough cover to navigate the learning curve of learning how to run an NBA organization all the way through to basketball operations.

But leadership is about delegation and making sure those under you know their lanes and thrive in them. Jeanie must make sure Magic knows his, and Magic must do the same down the line. He is president of basketball operations, and how he uses that role -- and how Jeanie manages him to do so -- is critical.

If Magic Johnson, as he’s indicated this week, wants to be the voice on basketball decisions -- the man on draft day with the final say as the clock ticks down, the final voice in the room when trades need to be green-lit or passed on -- then the Lakers turnaround will be much less likely.

There are few stories of all-time greats succeeding as front-office executives without a strong general manager serving them, with Phil Jackson a clear and familiar lesson in this role. Winning the basketball ops game takes months on the road scouting players with your own eyes and countless hours in the film room. It is not a glamorous job. But it is imperative it is done properly for a team to succeed.

Those league sources say few proven NBA executives would agree to such an arrangement with the Lakers in which Magic, like Phil, would be unwilling to delegate a large portion of decision making to a proven GM or executive.
But the Lakers’ fortunes can be much different if Magic’s role is, like Jerry West’s in Golden State, to play a high-level advisory role while allowing a lifetime basketball ops aficionado to run that part of the show. West has been a key and brilliant ingredient to building the Warriors, but so has his willingness to let Golden State GM Bob Myers run the show.

That is Jeanie’s real choice now. Magic gave her the cover to remove both her brother and Kupchak, who had been with the organization longer than most Lakers players have been alive. But now she must harness Magic’s strengths and limit his weaknesses.

The Lakers organization, over the past two weeks and several years, has been a Game of Thrones. Jeanie now unequivocally has the throne, a place of basketball royalty she deserves. She is smart, strategic and committed to the Lakers legacy and what it can and should be in the NBA. She is, along with coach Luke Walton and the dismissal of her brother form decision making, the most promising sign the Lakers can return to glory.

But that is a dangerous seat in which to sit, where blame comes fast and merciless. The key is to possess the right allies. Magic is one. But the deputy he needs -- a fully-empowered general manager like Sam Presti, Neil Olshey, RC Buford, Masai Ujiri, Myers, whoever on that level could be lured to LA -- is a difficult hire if the job description is right. It’ll be impossible unless the job is perfect, which would include Magic knowing his lane.

That’s the challenge Jeanie Buss faces: To cast off not just her brother and his GM, but to once and all rid the Lakers of the drama, internal power strugglers, ego-driven mistakes and other ugliness that turned the purple and gold into an NBA also-ran.

Emma McIntyre/Getty Images

Magic Johnson was named president of basketball operations by the Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday after returning to the organization as an adviser earlier in the month.

According to NBA.com, the team relieved Mitch Kupchak of his duties as general manager, and Jim Buss will no longer serve as executive vice president of basketball operations.

Part-owner Jeanie Buss said the following regarding Johnson's new role and the search for a GM to replace Kupchak:  

Today I took a series of actions I believe will return the Lakers to the heights [late owner] Dr. Jerry Buss demanded and our fans rightly expect. Effective immediately, Earvin Johnson will be in charge of all basketball operations and will report directly to me. Our search for a new general manager to work with Earvin and coach Luke Walton is well underway and we hope to announce a new general manager in short order. Together, Earvin, Luke and our new general manager will establish the foundation for the next generation of Los Angeles Lakers greatness.
Johnson also commented on Tuesday's announcement:

It's a dream come true to return to the Lakers as President of Basketball Operations working closely with Jeanie Buss and the Buss family. Since 1979, I've been a part of the Laker Nation and I'm passionate about this organization. I will do everything I can to build a winning culture on and off the court. We have a great coach in [Walton] and good young players. We will work tirelessly to return our Los Angeles Lakers to NBA champions.

Johnson's hasty elevation came after he recently told Josh Peter of USA Today that he wanted to "call the shots."

Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding reported Jerry West will not be a part of the Lakers' new management.

Kupchak had been L.A.'s general manager since the 1994-95 season, while Jim Buss had been vice president of basketball operations since 2005.

While the Lakers won five championships under Kupchak and two under Buss, they have been among the NBA's worst teams in recent seasons.

Los Angeles hasn't made the playoffs since 2012-13, which also marks its last winning season.

The Lakers have already made a two-win improvement in 2016-17 compared to 2015-16, but at 19-39, they remain near the bottom of the Western Conference.

As president of basketball operations, Johnson will be tasked with adding to or altering the young core of D'Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson and Brandon Ingram.  

Magic Johnson says he had other offers but wants to fix the Lakers

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- Magic Johnson strolled into the conference room wearing his trademark smile, television-ready in a trim black suit, light blue shirt and black tie. All along the walls surrounding him were photos of the Los Angeles Lakers' glorious past, from fellow legendary players to snapshots of iconic games and championship parades -- all moments that have felt very distant as the franchise has slipped into dysfunction and irrelevance.

On one wall, a photo of Dr. Jerry Buss peered outward. In the frame, the Lakers' late patriarch, who orchestrated their rise, is celebrating their 1987 championship win over Boston. Dr. Buss is beaming, holding a trophy, the fourth of the Lakers' five titles during their Showtime 1980s era. His hair is soaked in champagne. Johnson was his star point guard, and it was beneath that photo that Johnson sat, at the head of the table, just as he always wanted.

"I wouldn't be sitting here if it was a good situation," Johnson, the Lakers' new president of basketball operations, said Tuesday afternoon at the team's practice facility, speaking to a small group of reporters who cover the team. "I understand what I'm up against, but I'm here, and I'm here for the long haul, and eventually we will turn it around."

Johnson said he had originally planned to meet with longtime general manager Mitch Kupchak and executive vice president of basketball operations Jim Buss on Tuesday. Instead, the team announced those two had been fired and that Johnson had been elevated to his new role.

Johnson said he had just been in the team's "war room" with other Lakers executives, including Ryan West, Joey and Jesse Buss, and head coach Luke Walton, working the phones as Thursday's trade deadline approaches. Johnson said he'd been in touch with 10 opposing NBA general managers, "wheeling and dealing and seeing what's out there and what's not out there."

At the time, the Lakers lacked their own general manager, but Johnson said they hoped to announce a new one soon. Perhaps an hour later, multiple outlets reported the team was finalizing a deal with Kobe Bryant's agent, Rob Pelinka, to fill that post. And an hour or so after that, Johnson made his first move, agreeing to send the Lakers' spark-plug reserve guard Lou Williams to the Houston Rockets for Corey Brewer and a first-round pick, sources told ESPN.com's Chris Haynes and Calvin Watkins.

Johnson is competitive and will move fast and aggressively to help turn around his beloved Lakers, an organization that has missed the playoffs for three straight years and is coming off a franchise-worst 17-65 record. But for all his credibility, charm and success both as a player and a businessman, Johnson knows that repairing the Lakers will take time and perhaps more effort than any endeavor he has so far taken on.

"I'm not naive to that," he said, "but I'm excited about that."

Johnson calls this position his dream job and said if he were scared of the daunting task ahead, he would've joined the Golden State Warriors, Detroit Pistons or New York Knicks, all teams that he said offered him positions.

He said he wants to empower his general manager, Pelinka, to make decisions, but also noted, "Anything to do with trades, [the] draft, is, of course, going to end with me."

He added later, "You don't know that I'm a control freak. You don't get to where I am without being one. I'm going to make sure that I set the strategy, that I set the tone and that this organization is going to be about excellence on and off the court. That's what we're going to be about. And then everybody will have a clear role, and, of course, I'm a point guard, so I like to work with everybody."

Johnson emphasized that he needs to learn the nuances of the NBA's latest collective bargaining agreement, the salary cap, analytics and more -- key elements of today's game that weren't as important when he starred in the 1980s.

"Those days are over with," Johnson said, adding that he'll accept NBA commissioner Adam Silver's offer to visit New York City soon to learn more about the CBA. "The salary cap and the new CBA has changed the game of basketball."

Johnson has said that he will help lure free agents back to the Lakers after four straight offseasons of being turned down by their top targets, but how he plans to do so remains unclear. When pressed about his pitch to free agents, Johnson only smiled and said, "They'll just have to wait and see."

The Lakers have always chased stars, but in recent years, they have struck out, in part because they didn't have much to sell beyond their history and location, which clearly isn't enough. Indeed, for the Lakers to succeed, they must forge a new way forward and accept that they can't build championship-caliber teams as they once did, such as in the Showtime era.

"It was easier then," Johnson said, "because free-agent movement or even making trades were easier back then, but now it's a little bit more difficult with the new CBA. And then with the new CBA, everybody is really trying to keep their young talent. So player movement is not going to be as easy as it used to be.

"Players today, whether they're coming to us or any other team, have got to buy into that vision and have got to say, 'Look, I can see it. This organization is about winning.' We've always been about winning. And you've got the right coach, you've got the right management team, you've got the right ownership, and so we're looking forward to going out and pitching to free agents."

Johnson bounces around Los Angeles and the country, making speeches and attending meetings on behalf of his various ventures, such as being a part owner of the Dodgers. But he stressed that the Lakers will be receiving his full attention.

"Everything is going smooth in my businesses," he said. "I can step away now. If it had been five years ago, 10 years ago, I couldn't do it, but the timing was right."

And he stressed that he would still like Bryant to be involved, somehow.

"Whatever he wants to do," Johnson said. "There's no certain role."

Myriad questions remain about Johnson's ability to lead an NBA franchise, considering his lack of front-office experience and all that has changed not just since he played but in the past 10 years alone. By accepting this role, Johnson is no doubt risking his legacy, one that has been filled with success.

"I'm putting it all on the line," he said. "But I knew that, also, when we got the Dodgers. I knew that when I bought the Sparks, but we won the championship. One thing about me is that I'm a risk-taker. If I didn't think I could turn this thing around, you think I'd be sitting in this seat? I think that we can do it. It may take us some years to do it, but I'm here."

At one point, Johnson was asked what he imagined Dr. Buss might have thought of Tuesday's moves. Sitting beneath that photo of Dr. Buss, Johnson said he imagined that Dr. Buss would be smiling, knowing that Johnson was working with Jeanie, Joey and Jesse.

"Now, it's probably tough for him to look and see Jim get removed from his position," Johnson said. "It's not a good thing for anybody, siblings [having] to remove another sibling. But one thing that happened here is that the Lakers have been losing, and we've made critical mistakes. It's not like nobody was given a fair shot at this. All right?

"What I'm looking to do here is to move it forward. I can't think about the past. I inherited this. I knew what I was getting into. I'm just going to move this thing forward and do the best job I can, but also, I'm going to include these people. I've got to work with some good people, talented people, and we'll have a good pitch. Don't worry about my pitch. It's going to be a good pitch. But I will say this -- it's going to take some time, but I'm up for the challenge, and I'm looking forward to it."

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