Dark days in city of stars

The Washington Post Sunday - - PROFESSIONAL BASKETBALL - BY TIM BONTEMPS tim.bontemps@wash­post.com

The Los An­ge­les Lak­ers are one of the proud­est fran­chises in sports. From the time the team moved from Minneapolis to South­ern Cal­i­for­nia in 1962 through the team’s last championship in 2010, the Lak­ers won 11 ti­tles and made a stag­ger­ing 25 NBA Fi­nals ap­pear­ances in 49 sea­sons — an un­par­al­leled run of dom­i­nance and suc­cess.

Th­ese days, though, it feels like that era was a life­time ago. To­day’s Lak­ers are a shell of those dy­nas­tic days. Their toxic com­bi­na­tion of los­ing, fam­ily in­fight­ing and in­ep­ti­tude would look bad for any fran­chise but looks even worse for one with such a glit­ter­ing past.

But even amid the team’s stun­ning down­ward spi­ral the past few years, there hasn’t been a lower mo­ment than Fri­day, when Jeanie Buss was in Los An­ge­les Su­pe­rior Court to stop broth­ers Jim and Johnny Buss from at­tempt­ing to pull off a half­baked coup to wrest con­trol of the fran­chise.

Fri­day was the cul­mi­na­tion of a month of fool­ish­ness in Lak­er­land, go­ing back to Jeanie Buss’s de­ci­sion to make Magic John­son an ad­viser who would as­sist her in “all ar­eas of bas­ket­ball and busi­ness.” It was a clear sign to any­one who was pay­ing even the small­est bit of at­ten­tion that the time for Jim Buss, the team’s vice pres­i­dent of bas­ket­ball op­er­a­tions, and Mitch Kupchak, the team’s long­time gen­eral man­ager, was draw­ing to a close.

It also was an un­nec­es­sary thing for Jeanie Buss to do. Three years ago, Jim Buss made the ridicu­lous pro­nounce­ment that the Lak­ers would be back in con­tention three years later. In­stead, things only have de­te­ri­o­rated for the fran­chise, which — bar­ring a re­mark­able change in for­tune — is go­ing to have a fourth straight sea­son with fewer than 30 vic­to­ries.

Worth not­ing: Be­fore the past four sea­sons, the Lak­ers hadn’t had a sin­gle sea­son with fewer than 30 vic­to­ries in more than 50 years in Los An­ge­les.

In other words, there was go­ing to be ev­ery rea­son to get rid of Jim Buss — and, by ex­ten­sion, Kupchak — at sea­son’s end, and no one would have bat­ted an eye. In­stead, Jeanie Buss’s de­ci­sion to bring in John­son, who has openly ques­tioned Jim Buss’s per­for­mance, was a gra­tu­itous and un­nec­es­sary move.

Pre­dictably, John­son pro­ceeded to go on a non­stop me­dia tour upon be­ing hired, talk­ing about how he was go­ing to bring the Lak­ers back to glory and mak­ing re­peated ref­er­ences to how he was ca­pa­ble of run­ning the fran­chise. The mes­sage to Jim Buss was clear: Start pack­ing your bags.

But then, less than three weeks af­ter bring­ing in John­son as an ad­viser — and just two days be­fore the NBA’s trade dead­line — Jeanie Buss sud­denly fired her brother, Kupchak and the team’s pub­lic re­la­tions di­rec­tor, John Black, and made John­son team pres­i­dent. A few hours later, it be­came clear that the next gen­eral man­ager of the team also would be a fa­mil­iar name in Lak­ers cir­cles: Rob Pelinka, the Los An­ge­les-based su­per agent who rep­re­sented Lak­ers le­gend Kobe Bryant.

This was a bizarre de­ci­sion on mul­ti­ple lev­els. Chang­ing the bas­ket­ball op­er­a­tions staff two days be­fore the trade dead­line was ques­tion­able, to say the least. Yes, John­son made a nice trade, mov­ing guard Lou Wil­liams to the Hous­ton Rock­ets for Corey Brewer and a 2017 first-round pick — but that was a trade any­one with ac­cess to ESPN’s Trade Ma­chine would have known to make. The lack of a can­di­date search also was puz­zling; it would have been nice to see Jeanie Buss lead a true search out­side the or­ga­ni­za­tion for some­one who could best do the job and not just some­one with whom she is close.

The big­ger is­sue, though, was the pub­lic hu­mil­i­a­tion. There was sim­ply no rea­son this move couldn’t have been done at the end of the sea­son, when the Lak­ers will most as­suredly fin­ish with one of the NBA’s worst records — a sce­nario Jim Buss him­self said in an in­ter­view a few months ago could cause him to lose his job.

In­stead, she chose to fire him and Kupchak in the most hu­mil­i­at­ing way pos­si­ble — in the mid­dle of the sea­son and right be­fore the dead­line — when it would gen­er­ate the most in­ter­est and con­fu­sion from around the league and else­where. Whether it was the cor­rect move in the long run ob­vi­ously isn’t in ques­tion. But as the leader of an or­ga­ni­za­tion, the op­tics mat­ter. And in this case, they were aw­ful.

So it isn’t en­tirely sur­pris­ing that the Buss broth­ers tried to pull off a coup so scat­ter­brained and ab­surd even their lawyers tried to dis­tance them­selves from it.

All of this just sums up the ut­ter dys­func­tion that reigns supreme with the Lak­ers th­ese days. In many ways, they are a West Coast ver­sion of the New York Knicks. Both are run by the chil­dren of former own­ers; both, to this point, have shown no signs of com­pe­tence; and both, to this point, have re­lied on in­su­lar searches to hand over con­trol over their fran­chises rather than go­ing out and seek­ing the best and bright­est to run them.

The dif­fer­ence is that the Knicks have won two cham­pi­onships — both in the 1970s — and are a peren­nial laugh­ing­stock. The Lak­ers are sup­posed to be dif­fer­ent.

Th­ese days, how­ever, it’s hard to tell. And as Fri­day af­ter­noon’s time in court for the Buss fam­ily proves, it doesn’t look like that will be chang­ing any time soon.


Jeanie Buss, here in hap­pier times with the 2010 NBA championship tro­phy, found her­self in court this week fend­ing off a coup at­tempt by her broth­ers.

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