Timing was the most surprising element of Jeanie Buss firing her brother, Jim, as executive vice president of basketball operations, and general manager Mitch Kupchak. They were the two principal executives working to deal players with the trade deadline looming and preparing for the upcoming draft.
But, in retrospect, it’s understandable and it was time — she no longer trusted her brother and Kupchak to lead the organization.
This move was a scrubbing of history. Kupchak has been with the Lakers in some capacity for 30 years and its GM for the past 10 seasons. He orchestrated the Pau Gasol trade that propelled the Lakers to back-to-back championships, which means he’s played an important role in the idea of Lakers exceptionalism that Jeanie is now trying to restore. He’s as Lakers as it gets, and he’s been unceremoniously ousted.
Firing Jim has all the hallmarks of sibling rivalry and power struggles. But, it has to be stated that it was Jim who gave himself a three-year deadline to field a contender and vowed that he would step down otherwise. All Jeanie did, in this regard, was hold her brother to his word.
Reports have alluded to Jim and Kupchak’s failure to execute a trade for DeMarcus Cousins — mostly due to a refusal to include rookie Brandon Ingram in the deal — as the last straw. That’s when Lakers exceptionalism came into play. If the Lakers — historically the league’s glamour franchise — can’t even acquire one of the best big men in the NBA from a team that, given their eventual deal with the New Orleans Pelicans, seemed willing to practically give him away, then the organization had reached a critical juncture. Four straight season in the lottery is the polar opposite of Lakers exceptionalism. Something had to be done.
So they’ve turned to the most exceptional figure in franchise history. Magic Johnson has been tasked with the mission of returning “the Lakers to the heights Dr. Jerry Buss demanded and our fans rightly expect.” A tough task for anyone, let alone a man who has no experience as a GM or president of ops, and whose basketball tweets inspire mockery rather than confidence.
The Dallas Mavericks' trade for Rajon Rondo puts them in position to be a contender in the Western Conference.— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) December 19, 2014
The hiring dominated the news cycle with both fanfare and rancor, depending on the echo chamber.
In spite of Magic’s unassailable success as a player and businessman, there’s been a loud and incredulous chorus doubting his bona fides to return the organization to its previous perch.
Magic deserves a chance, though.
He’s not exactly an outsider. He’s as part of the Lakers institution as anyone else; he’s a former star, coach, and minority owner. His tweets may seem simplistic — some of them laughably wrong in hindsight, or even at the time of their inception — but he’s not someone that should be easily dismissed as a joke.
There’s a lot of cynicism now that surrounds the idea of letting an individual with no prior experience in a position do the job. That’s fair, but the situation isn’t new. Magic’s longtime rival, Larry Bird, took the same position with the Pacers in 2003 without any experience in that specific role either, though he did win coach of the year a few years prior.
A measured assessment rather than a quick condemnation is still the reasonable way to judge Magic. He hasn’t done anything wrong yet and it would be unfair to deny him the opportunity to prove his mettle. It’s not like he will be the GM, either — that’ll be Rob Pelinka, per reports. Magic’s job is delegation, not dictatorship. When it comes to free agency, he’s the attractor and the closer.
Magic also deserves patience because he’s inheriting a team competing with the Knicks for the most dysfunctional organization in the league, with the Kings right in the mix. Last summer’s Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng contracts -- which’ll cost $136 million combined over the next four years — are the latest example of the Lakers’ extreme incompetence.
Magic could very well fail. The Lakers’ idea of exceptionalism could prove fatal once more. He could sign JaVale McGee or Jahill Okafor to a max contract. Or, he could succeed. These are all possibilities, at this point. But, it’s difficult to envision him doing much worse than the previous regime. There is so much room for improvement.
His first move was to get a first-round pick and Corey Brewer from Houston for a 30-year-old Lou Williams, giving the team roster and cap flexibility, and further ensuring they keep their own top-three protected pick in the upcoming draft. So far so good.
If Magic does succeed, wonderful! If he fails, Jeanie has shown herself to be ruthless with family members and long-term friends and employees. There’s nothing that suggests that she wouldn’t dispose of Magic in the same manner.
The Lakers are in uncharted territory. They haven’t had a shakeup like this since Jerry Buss’ death. They’re handing over basketball operations to a team legend, yes, but one with no prior experience in his current role.
But that’s what happens when ineptitude threatens to become the tradition. Jeanie wants to restore the Lakers shine, and she’s taken the necessary, drastic steps towards that goal. This is less of a Cersei Lannister coup and more of an attempt to stop the bleeding.
She believes in Magic. She believes he can lead the mission to make the Lakers exceptional again. The least that both of them deserve is the opportunity and grace period to carry out their vision.