By: Pete Zayas
What We Know
-Jim Buss & Mitch Kupchak have been relieved of their duties, effective immediately. John Black was also relieved.
-Magic Johnson has taken Jim’s place as the President of Basketball Operations.
“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.” -Jeanie Buss
-NBA Agent Rob Pelinka is being reported as the front-runner to be the next Lakers General Manager, serving under Magic Johnson.
-Ramona Shelburne is reporting that Ryan West’s (Assistant GM) influence within the organization will grow, at least in the interim.
-The trade deadline is in 2 days.
I’m neither here to bury, nor praise Jim Buss & Mitch Kupchak. Their respective legacies and the reasons why they were fired will be hotly debated amongst Laker fans, bloggers, and reporters alike over the next few weeks. However, they suddenly represent the past, and what I want to sort through is what happens next.
What happens in the next 48 hours?
From here on out, this post becomes deeply speculative.
The timing of this organizational shakeup is considerably more surprising than the fact that it actually happened. The writing was on the wall when Magic was brought into the fold (arguably even before that), and the speed with which the Lakers have a front-runner for the GM position suggests that such a process has been in the works for a while. The three conclusions that seem most logical, either individually or in some combination, are:
1) The DeMarcus Cousins trade and the Lakers’ inability to acquire him was the final straw.
2) Jeanie Buss & Magic Johnson didn’t want to give Jim & Mitch the opportunity to make another move in what would have been their last opportunity to do so.
3) Magic Johnson and the incoming regime have been working the phones themselves, and have designs on executing a trade of their own prior to Thursday’s trade deadline.
The second option seems more plausible than the first and third. While Jeanie & Magic may very well have been displeased with Mitch & Jim’s inability to land Cousins, especially considering the pittance that he was eventually traded for, it strains credulity to imagine that this would have ultimately changed anything regarding Jim & Mitch’s future with the franchise. Magic’s media tour, brazen comments regarding his desire to be the final voice on basketball matters (lobbying for Jim’s position, essentially), and Kevin Ding’s most recent column enumerating the failures of Jim & Mitch’s tenure all pointed in the same direction.
This was happening regardless of whether or not they acquired DeMarcus Cousins.
Additionally, the idea of Magic and a secret cabal of associates working the phones, trying to orchestrate trades behind the backs of Jim & Mitch, seems implausible. In a league of sharks and guppies, the front offices they were negotiating with would have assuredly leaked such dysfunction and palace intrigue within the Lakers organization. That isn’t to say that a deal won’t be made within the next 48 hours, with a Lou Williams deal being the most obvious move, but every negotiation is likely beginning at square one.
As is usually the case, the truth is probably closest to the simplest explanation. Jeanie Buss & Magic Johnson knew that the tenures of Jim Buss & Mitch Kupchak were through, it was pointless to continue a charade that suggested otherwise, and they were not going to sign off on any last-ditch personnel changes that they didn’t orchestrate themselves.
Jeanie said on Spectrum:
“This was a very difficult decision. It was so hard for me, that I probably waited too long & for that I apologize.”
The wild card in the next 48 hours is Ryan West. His prior level of involvement may be the difference between existing negotiations with other teams being able to continue, or if they’re starting from scratch as the clock ticks away.
The Roles of Magic Johnson, Ryan West, & the Next GM
Despite the extraordinary events of the day, and a degree of distaste for how it was all handled, I’m cautiously optimistic about the future of a Magic Johnson, (presumably) Rob Pelinka, & Ryan West triumvirate.
It’s important to consider where the Lakers are and where they’re going, rather than where they’ve been. The best arguments in favor of Jim & Mitch were relatively successful drafts that restocked a cupboard bereft of young talent, including a couple of picks that were beyond the draft positions where you’d expect that to happen. Yet even their most ardent supporters would concede that they’ve been anywhere from poor to disastrous in Free Agency, from ill-conceived (and failed, thankfully) max contract offers to Carmelo Anthony & Dwight Howard, overlooking Isaiah Thomas, and the massive deals that they ultimately gave to Timofey Mozgov & Luol Deng. The last team-building mechanism, the trade market, is a place where Jim & Mitch excelled over their tenures but were very selective. It doesn’t matter too much if you’re a 48% 3-point shooter when you’re only shooting one per game.
The simple reality is that going forward, Free Agency & the trade market will be much more important components of the Lakers’ future than the draft will be, they’ve retained the guy who was arguably the most instrumental in the success of those drafts (West), and massively upgraded their salesmanship abilities by going from Jim Buss & Mitch Kupchak to Magic Johnson & (presumably) Rob Pelinka, greatly improving their chances in Free Agency.
The fantasy in my head goes something like this.
Ryan West is the organization’s personnel guy. Magic & Pelinka have input but ultimately defer to his knowledge and expertise regarding which collegiate players are better than others, which free agents are bargains, which high priced free agents are overvalued, and his general perspective on how the on-court elements of basketball work in 2017.
Rob Pelinka is the dealmaker. He leverages his relationships with players and front offices to execute the triumvirate’s agreed upon vision. West is said to be respected around the league but has minimal, ancillary experience in terms of actually executing transactions. Magic Johnson certainly does, in a number of different industries, but Pelinka’s been an active and uninterrupted participant in the basketball world for years. He’d be the guy who actually gets things done, whether it’s on the trade market or by constructing and delivering pitches in Free Agency.
Magic Johnson is the face of the franchise. If nothing else, the departure of Jim Buss & Mitch Kupchak gives the Lakers a unified front for the first time since the beloved Dr. Jerry Buss died. The narrative over the last several years has been that the Lakers are a dysfunctional franchise, with quarreling owners who can’t get on the same page. Who’s to blame for that simply doesn’t matter anymore. The Lakers now have a clear chain of command, with Magic sitting atop of the basketball operations, where he can be the public face that is presented to the media, prospective free agents, and fans, all of whom recognize that he is the person who is ultimately responsible for the product on the floor. He certainly has a say in personnel matters…the final say, in fact…but decides to lean on his support staff as heavily as he has in his successful, post-career business ventures.
The nightmare scenario involves Magic & Pelinka conflating their expertise in other areas of basketball with their abilities to make personnel evaluations and decisions, and their more experienced counterparts around the league eat them alive.
Let’s take a moment to state the obvious. Rob Pelinka is one of the most influential power brokers in the NBA today, with an impressive list of clients that include Kobe Bryant, James Harden, Chris Bosh, Avery Bradley, and others. Magic Johnson, of course, will be working outside of a building that rightfully immortalized his on-court brilliance by putting his own damn statue in front of it. By any measure, these two are giants within their respective areas of expertise.
Yet many legends who’ve made the transition into NBA front offices have been spectacular failures, and their brilliance in other areas of the game doesn’t translate. Does Magic take a couple of weeks to read up on the Collective Bargaining Agreement, and think that his knowledge on the topic rivals other decision makers around the league that know it inside and out…or does he hire (and more importantly, rely upon) an expert? Does he sit courtside at a college game and blithely comment on how scouting talent is the “easy part” in between bites of popcorn, as he did recently while watching UCLA…or does he acknowledge that he should defer to people like Ryan West so the Lakers don’t end up with Brandon Knight, Jahlil Okafor, Jimmer Fredette, or others that he’s advocated for in the past? Does Rob Pelinka believe that he’s suddenly an expert on personnel and roster construction, step on West’s toes, and then fail while negotiating with the same NBA front offices that he’d been commissioned to oppose for so many years, as agent-turned-GM Lon Babby did with the Phoenix Suns?
Magic Johnson & Rob Pelinka have skill sets that will likely be simpatico, but how much they rely upon people like Ryan West…rather than presuming that their expertise and success in other areas of the game will transfer to personnel decisions…will determine how successful this new regime will be.
Oh, and that elephant in the room? You know, the “what does this mean for the future of D’Angelo Russell, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, and the other young guys” one? I have no freaking idea, I’m just along for the ride.