Dark days in city of stars
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.