Most expected Magic Johnson to usurp Lakers front-office power from Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak at some point, but why did it happen two days before the NBA trade deadline? It might have to do with the DeMarcus Cousins pursuit.
The Lakers were among those in the running to acquire Cousins from the Kings, but reportedly bowed out when the Kings asked for 2016 No. 2 selection Brandon Ingram. A day later, Cousins is in New Orleans and Buss and Kupchak are out of a job. That does not seem like a coincidence.
The question is whether the failure to acquire Cousins was the driver of Jeanie Buss’ decision or a final effort by Jim Buss and Kupchak to prevent the inevitable.
It may well be the latter. The two were scheduled to meet with Johnson to discuss their job performance on Monday, according to Bleacher Report’s Kevin Ding. The Cousins pursuit was a last-ditch attempt to improve their standing, according to USA Today’s Sam Amick.
Going after DeMarcus Cousins was Jim & Mitch's last-ditch attempt to save their jobs, I'm told. Jim really wanted him, Mitch handled talks— Sam Amick (@sam_amick) February 21, 2017
Yet, even that pursuit was conservative if the Lakers held the line at Ingram, a promising young player that’s dead last in the league in ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus ranking. Amick also reported that Jeanie Buss was a Cousins fan.
Jeanie is done w/ Lakers' inability to get stars in Laker Land, & she had always seemed convinced Cousins could calm down in their setting.— Sam Amick (@sam_amick) February 21, 2017
If Johnson, with Jeanie Buss’ blessing, was in charge during the Cousins pursuit, would he have held the line at Brandon Ingram? It’s a question worth asking.
Cousins is a star, and the Lakers want stars again
Since losing Dwight Howard in the summer of 2013, the Lakers held their cap room for the very best, only to strike out in embarrassing fashion. That philosophy seemed to end last year when the Lakers shelled out a combined $136 million over the next four years to sign Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng, two veterans that the Lakers paid a premium to receive.
At the time, SB Nation’s Tom Ziller said the Lakers were finally coming to terms with their new reality:
The Lakers considered themselves exceptional for so long that, for a time, they seemed to forget that horrible teams don't get LeBrons, Melos or Durants. They get Mozgovs, and they pay through the nose for the opportunity. The Lakers know now. The Lakers have found their footing, and they are getting comfortable. They are making the moves of a losing franchise, a derelict and moribund team just hoping to graduate from god-awful to mediocre.
But after a fast start, the Lakers are floundering again, and those two contracts will inhibit the pursuit of free agents to come. And we’re hearing more about how those moves go against the philosophy the Buss siblings set out, as Ding reports:
In fact, the summer signings of Deng and Mozgov were precisely the sort of middling additions with minimal upside that the Buss siblings agreed in their 2014 family meeting would not be acceptable use of all the salary-cap money the Lakers had been saving year after year.
We don’t know how Johnson will run the franchise, but there’s enough evidence to suggest that the decisive pursuit of stars will be the Lakers’ guiding philosophy again. There’s already one report that none of the Lakers’ collection of young players are safe if the right star becomes available.
Jim and Mitch were attached to their young players but there is no player on the Lakers roster that is safe if there's a player Magic wants.— Arash Markazi (@ArashMarkazi) February 21, 2017
So why fire Kupchak and Jim Buss two days before the trade deadline? It has nothing and everything to do with DeMarcus Cousins at the same time.