Were the Lakers ever really magic?

LeBron James, Magic Johnson, Jeanie Buss, and the sinking Lakers.

By Henry Abbott

About two years ago, the Lakers made a seismic change. Jeanie Buss replaced her brother Jim with a legend, Magic Johnson. He was an inexperienced basketball executive and admitted he hadn’t mastered the collective bargaining agreement. But he said things like: "I understand what I'm up against, but I'm here, and I'm here for the long haul." Mostly he is just incredibly famous. In the minds of the Laker faithful, his reception came in italics: The Lakers hired Magic Johnson.

The italics of your mind are a warning sign. If somebody is really good at something, that’s just obvious. If you don’t know if they’re any good at it, but they’re hugely famous, and you like them, your brain shines them up with italics. Much of how this team pictures itself can be captured in the idea that they are not The Lakers but The Lakers.

Magic Johnson seemed to have earned his italics a few months later when they signed the game’s best player, LeBron James. LeBron said nice things about meeting with Johnson and his new front office partner Rob Pelinka, but still signed his deal wearing headphones.

You already know it all fell apart. The rest of the roster was built on the faulty premise that shooting didn’t matter. James got hurt and played only 55 of 82 games. A botched attempt to trade much of the team for Anthony Davis reportedly ruined morale. A team that missed the playoffs only five times in its first 65 years has now missed the playoffs six years in a row. Johnson ended his long-term commitment to rebuilding the Lakers on a Tuesday evening, in a roving, unscripted press conference saying he was “happier when I wasn't the president.”

This stream of events made public what many around the league have known for years: the team is a mess. “It’s a stain,” says a source who knows the inner workings of the Lakers intimately. “On the Lakers. On the reign of the Buss family. On Magic Johnson. How utterly unprofessional.”

What it means for the Lakers is surprisingly little, unless this inches the Buss family closer to what that source now sees as a long-term inevitability: selling the team to different owners, who rely less on italics.

In search of leadership
The person who will make the Lakers great again will be the person who admits this is an exceptional market with a very ordinary organization. Even a ladder to the stars needs feet on the ground. Can Jeanie Buss build that? Not according to a TrueHoop source who knows her well:

She loves this team. But she is mired in a kind of thinking that caused this trouble. She has surrounded herself with a collection of people who give her the validation she so desperately seeks.

In the long view, she has to look to sell the team. It will take much deeper pockets to compete in this landscape, in that city. I don’t believe she has the temperament nor the attention span to look at things in a long-term view. Everything seems to be year to year. It’s a structural issue.

One example: a recent lawsuit exposes signals that the Buss family is feeling pressure from Steve Ballmer and his Clippers. The Clippers are already younger, better managed, across the hall, and expecting to land big free agents this summer.

A profound point I heard on Wednesday: maybe the Lakers were never magical. As the argument goes, they won, by and large, by paying fantastic amounts. Case in point: Shaquille O’Neal left the Magic for the Lakers, largely because the Lakers could pay him so much more than he could make elsewhere.

The NBA owners quite intentionally closed that loophole in the 2011 lockout, however, and the Lakers haven’t had a 50-win season since. Dr. Buss’s playbook, we can pay you so much more, won’t work again. So many years hitting home runs impaired the team’s ability to hit singles and draw walks.

Dr. Buss had so many girlfriends he tracked them in binders. It was in many ways a traumatic, if charmed, childhood. "It left us confused about who our father
was," Jeanie’s brother Johnny Buss told Sports Illustrated in 1998. "We knew Dad only as the guy who came over on weekends and took us to McDonald's. I could never understand why he'd want to go to Las Vegas with the Playmate of the Year rather than take us to Disneyland.”

And yet there is near-religious commitment, among his children, to honor the tradition of Dr. Buss. Jeanie once said that only four people could run the Lakers: Magic Johnson, Jerry West, Phil Jackson, or Kobe Bryant. All people her dad knew. Working from an old playbook is a strange way to get ahead in an advancing league, especially now that all have, in different ways, rejected her. Jackson was once her fiance, but moved on. Bryant just told a magazine he has no interest. West works for the Clippers. Magic just quit.

Magic Johnson was one of the best point guards of all time. He earned his italics on the court in the 1970s—Magic Johnson. A rational take: He’s unlikely to be elite on the court and the very tough job of running a competitive NBA team. A tougher take: Becoming famous at the age of 19 does little to motivate lifelong learning. (Who knows if this even applies, but there’s research suggesting a decline in certain brain function among CEOs, presidents, prime ministers, and others with great power. They call it “hubris syndrome.”)

Johnson has done many things since retiring as a player, with mixed results. As an executive, he hasn’t earned italics. A late-night talk show went belly up, as did the team he ran in Sweden. The latter was his only experience running a hoops team before the Lakers.

Much of Wednesday I was on the phone with people who know the Lakers well, and they all agreed Johnson was an abysmal hire. One source close to the team:

He wasn’t fully committed to the demands of the role in this day and age. He was an absentee executive who was gone for weeks at a time. He was unwilling to have a healthy dialogue and to enter into decision-making strategy with the team around him. He believed too much that who he was, Magic Johnson, was more than enough.

There was a time many teams had absentee executives who worked from their guts. Once that was no crime at all; I don’t wonder why Magic thought that would be OK. He probably knows ten guys like that. It used to work, but it’s not good enough anymore.

In his opening press conference, Johnson sold a dream of excellence, but the organization fell short of mere stability, with questions about decency. “I do not believe he quit because he wanted to be Magic again,” says a TrueHoop source. “There were other issues at hand. Saying he had not met with anyone, it seemed like a hastily prepared exit strategy. Not well prepared. When Jerry Sloan left the Jazz, despite the tenuous relationship with his star player, the entire organization rallied around him. Magic says he was worried Jeanie would talk him out of it. If that were so, the dynamic would have been different. It just doesn’t make sense.”

Tania Ganguli in the Los Angeles Times writes, “several people wondered whether Johnson's departure was related to a yet-to-be-published article by ESPN that is said to address allegations about Johnson's conduct with employees.” ("That story is wrong," Johnson told the Los Angeles Times.)

Another source, who has long-term intimate knowledge of the Lakers’ inner workings, says Jeanie never would have picked Johnson if she had been hiring for competence:

She has gotten a great deal of credit, and in this day and age we want to celebrate progressive women. But this individual? Trying to hold her up as an example of someone who has achieved so much? She inherited it. Her behaviors and actions run counter to any kind of feminist movement.

Jeanie spoke about building in the model of the Spurs, or the Warriors, who were also run by an agent. I thought: You are looking at this on the surface. There is no depth to this! You’re not looking at the caliber of the people you actually are bringing in.

His lack of qualifications was clear. I saw something on Deadspin, when Magic was hired, where it seemed there wasn’t anyone he didn’t like. Captain Obvious of superficial praise. Everyone was the MVP. That’s a hype man, not a critical analysis.

Larry Bird has his issues. But he has made a major commitment to that job. He may be an ass to work with, but he’s committed to doing a good job.

The Lakers should have hired someone who is competent and well-regarded.

After Magic
With Johnson out, key draft and free agency decisions presumably fall to Rob Pelinka, the super-agent turned general manager of the Lakers. He once talked about how he let his Tesla drive while he watched video of draft prospects. He lives an hour away in Orange County. It seemed to be a story about dedication. But another interpretation is that a Tesla is not an autonomous car. Eyes on the road and hands on the wheel!

Many people who know him see Pelinka as an unreliable narrator. Wondering if he might get cut, a Laker had conversations with Pelinka, head coach Luke Walton, and Magic, one at a time. Their answers? Yes, no, and maybe. That’s when the player decided the team had no idea what it was doing.

The team does have some decent prospects, but they are tough to credit to Pelinka. Some were acquired by the prior administration. “Even Kyle Kuzma,” says one source, “was the product of Bill Bertka, who has been there forever, who actually did the work of scouting him.”

The Anthony Davis episode damaged both team morale and the team’s prospects of landing Davis. A source calls it “some of the worst negotiating tactics I’ve ever seen. LeBron’s camp was part of that as well. It was amateur hour when this required the most precise and delicate diplomacy.”

Pelinka is a symptom of Jeanie’s attachment to honoring her dad’s legacy. He was Kobe’s agent. He is reportedly supported by longtime inner-circle member Linda Rambis, whose husband Kurt played alongside Magic and was a key deputy for Phil Jackson. A source close to the team says Pelinka also came with issues:

What I know is that Rob was brought in with a less-than-stellar reputation with various organizations in how he handled matters over the years. Once again Jeanie allowed “familial” loyalties to shape the franchise, because he was Kobe's agent.

Luckily, they backed into LeBron. He wanted to live in L.A. He was not the product of some grand recruitment. When you’ve achieved a certain success, you always think you’re smarter than you are. That kind of hubris, in the case of LeBron, lands you with the L.A. Lakers.

I don’t think LeBron could be pleased with how his organization is run.

Among the stars, or in the weeds?
A year ago, everyone believed it was hard to lose with LeBron. Now he is under contract for three more years, and it’s a real question if this team can win with him. A more imminent challenge may be to earn the trust of James, or the other good players they’ll need. Is there a plan? Will LeBron become a de facto GM of this team, too, as he has at past stops? The next Laker drama will unfold along these contours.

A recent Laker player says that whatever power LeBron had before Magic left, he has more now. If he wants this free agent or that draft pick, is there anyone left in the building who can convince him otherwise?

The Buss family tends to be covered in the media a little like the Royal Family, or Camelot. They’ll always be there, and we’ll get excited as the various dramas unfold. In this case, one guy left the castle. But maybe that’s not the story. Maybe the story is the castle is crumbling.

“This,” says a source, “is an absolute organizational disaster.”

Bitter pill, unswallowed
Once upon a time I wrote an ESPN the magazine story that upset some at the Lakers. What followed taught me a lot about how the organization works. Almost immediately Jeanie accused me of making everything up. That wasn’t surprising; all those anonymous sources were the story’s vulnerability. But the thing is, while I couldn’t identify them publicly, I knew who the sources were. I knew not one word was fabricated. I believe she knew it too. Twisting into pretzel logic, she also said that if they found out who the sources were, they would be fired.

What surprised me, though, was the degree to which the local Laker media fell in line. People might be souring on Jeanie Buss a little now, and they might question what she’s good at. One area in which she is elite: feeding and watering a select group of journalists. They do an admirable job of selling a version of Laker history where glory is always just around that corner, they’re still The Lakers, and anyone who says otherwise is a hater.

This, too, feels short-term. The Lakers duck some criticism with help from a charmed media posse. It makes life easier, not unlike, say, being friends with the local building inspector when you’re constructing a home. But inspectors, while annoying, make things stronger! Over time, shoddy construction is a nightmare.

Owner-derived instability
Maybe the most heartfelt NBA thing I’m aware of is a Jackie MacMullan story about Bob Myers, Steve Kerr, and the meaning of life.

"Being with family and friends, having your health, having a laugh, having a great meal,'' Kerr says. "That's what matters.'' Kerr told MacMullan: “this is all bullshit,” as he waved a hand at … the NBA Finals his team was playing in at the time. So if a death in Myers’ family taught him to cherish relationships, and if Kerr and Myers are practiced at prioritizing each other … well, why in the hell would Bob Myers ever leave that job?

Because there’s almost nothing an owner can’t screw up. The answer is right there in Jackie’s story, and it involves Warriors owner Joe Lacob:

Lacob's son Kirk is the team's assistant general manager, and it's not much of a stretch to assume he's being groomed to replace Myers someday.

"You hope to do it for a long time,'' Myers says, "but the turnover rate is so high in our business. That's why you cultivate relationships that are meaningful and water them, and let them grow, and care about each other and enjoy the moments.''

They don’t have advanced stats for owner performance yet, but it’s easy to imagine even Golden State could be hurt by this. Maybe Kirk Lacob, whom I barely know, will be an epic basketball executive. But his very existence appears to put a clock on the nirvana by the bay. What other reason could you imagine for Myers to sniff around? Kerr will, of course, leave one day, maybe that’s sooner once his friend is gone?

Which leads to one more question: Has the child of any NBA owner ever done a good job running a team? There aren’t many current examples for the Lacobs to draw on. James Dolan took over the Knicks from his dad, and despite massive revenues that team is abysmal. The other team run by the child of an owner is the Lakers.

That’s where Marc Stein’s tweet got me. If every NBA team were simply trying to win, it’s hard to imagine that Myers would consider leaving, or that the Lakers would have employed a president who would wander away down a loading dock some Tuesday night. But both things happened because owners have family trees to nourish, and ultimately you only get to have one top priority. If it’s not winning, it’s something else.

Coming tomorrow on TrueHoop: David Thorpe’s playoff preview and the TrueHoop Stat Geek Smackdown.

Banner art by Mike McGrath Jr.