The Los Angeles Lakers hired five-time NBA champion Magic Johnson as president of basketball operations on Tuesday, ending an era run by general manager Mitch Kupchak and executive vice president Jim Buss.
"I took these actions today to achieve one goal,” Jeanie Buss said in a statement. “Everyone associated with the Lakers will now be pulling in the same direction, the direction established by Earvin and myself. We are determined to get back to competing to win NBA championships again.”
Johnson’s hiring comes weeks after he took on a role advising ownership of basketball decisions. He said he had productive conversations with Kupchak and admitted Jim Buss was still calling the shots in Los Angeles.
Johnson, though, has been vocal with his public displeasure of Jim Buss’ decision-making. Their tenuous relationship contributed to Buss’ firing.
It began in 2012, when the Lakers hired Mike D’Antoni as head coach.
Los Angeles had signed Steve Nash and Dwight Howard in free agency. Johnson felt Phil Jackson would have been “a perfect coach of (that) team,” according to USA Today, given his success with Shaquille O’Neal, Andrew Bynum, and Pau Gasol
But instead of facilitating Jackson’s return to the Staples Center, Lakers management opted to hire D’Antoni.
Johnson was not pleased.
The reason I haven't tweeted in 2 days is because I've been mourning Phil Jackson not being hired as the Lakers head coach.— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) November 14, 2012
My mother always taught me that if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all.— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) November 14, 2012
Buss called himself out April, 2014
Buss told the Los Angeles Times he would step down if the team wasn’t contending for a title within three years.
"I was laying myself on the line by saying, if this doesn't work in three to four years, if we're not back on the top — and the definition of top means contending for the Western Conference, contending for a championship — then I will step down because that means I have failed," he said.
The Lakers have missed the playoffs in each of the past three seasons, the longest postseason drought in franchise history. After a 10-10 start, Los Angeles has lost 29 of its last 38 games and is now seven games behind the Denver Nuggets for the West’s eighth seed.
Buss was on pace to miss the playoffs for the fourth consecutive time. According to his decree, he would have had to step down in the summer.
Laker Nation: I'm going to stop complaining. I'm going to support and encourage Jim Buss and Coach D'Antoni because I love the Lakers!— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) January 31, 2014
Happy days are here again! Mike D'Antoni resigns as the Lakers coach. I couldn't be happier!— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) May 1, 2014
The criticism didn’t stop there
In 2015, Johnson appeared on ESPN’s First Take and blasted Buss for not reach out for counsel.
"Jim is trying to do it himself and trying to prove to everybody that this was the right decision that [his] dad gave [him] the reins," he said. "He's not consulting anybody that can help him achieve his goals and dreams to win an NBA championship."
If I was Jim Buss I would travel w/ the @Lakers. Jim needs to find out what the issues are with the team, he can't do that from an office.— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) February 8, 2013
He also plastered Buss for hiring Mike Brown and Mike D’Antoni as Lakers’ head coaches.
“When you're wrong, you're wrong and you've got to stand up and say, 'I made a mistake,’” Johnson said on First Take. “He always put it on somebody else. Then he's mad at me 'cause I criticize him. 'Oh, Magic's trying to get a job with the Lakers. Magic's trying to bring me down.' No I'm not.
“I'm telling the truth about the situation, trying to make us better, trying to get us to a winning situation, in terms of the Lakers getting back to being relevant and winning again. So you get mad at me when I tell the truth."
Johnson later insinuated Buss should turn the decision-making keys over to Kupchak.
"If Jim would say, 'OK, Mitch. You run the show,' I think it would be a lot better for the Lakers, too. Mitch Kupchak knows what he's doing. He's great. He's smart. He's hard-working. He's at every practice. I think the fans would feel good [if he ran the team] as well," Johnson said.
Buss fired back in an interview with USA Today in 2015:
“Magic Johnson going nuts on me?” he said. “It’s like, ‘Really, dude? My Dad made you a billionaire almost. Really? Where are you coming from?”
Magic responded: “It’s all about winning, Jim.”
Laker Nation: We've heard from GM Mitch Kupchak that he's upset and disappointed with the season so far...what about Jim Buss?— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) January 8, 2013
Johnson repeated the criticism later that year
Johnson suggested Buss should remove himself from decision-making and stick to ownership. He highlighted Los Angeles’ inability to sign a big-name free agent.
“I’m going to say it again: I love Jim Buss. He should just be the owner, like his dad was just the owner,” Johnson said, according to the Los Angeles Times’ Mike Bresnahan and Bill Shaikin. “(Having said that) Let’s go back with facts, so I can back this up with facts: 27 wins a couple years ago, 21 wins last year. Three summers now, we (Lakers) haven’t signed anybody. I am backing this up with facts. We haven’t signed any superstar. We’ve had cap space. We had cap space last summer. We’re going to have more this summer.”
Through 2016, Johnson kept an eye on the Lakers’ progression
Big-time talent wins championships, and Magic knows that. So he continued to suggest players the Lakers should target via social media.
Kevin Durant scored 37pts against the Warriors tonight! I hope the Lakers' Jim Buss was watching, because that's who we need next season.— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) February 28, 2016
Outstanding hire by Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak to name Luke Walton as the next @Lakers coach!— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) April 30, 2016
Laker Nation: Good Luck to Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak during the free agent signing period that starts tomorrow!— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) July 1, 2016
But his repeated criticism made Johnson’s hiring as an advisor awkward
In early February, after assuming his advisory role with the Lakers, Johnson conceded Buss was still in charge.
"Jim is calling the shots," Johnson said, according to the Orange County Register's Mark Medina. "I want him to understand I'm just here to lend advice. I'm not here to be anything but just give you some basketball knowledge."
I had a great conversation today with Mitch Kupchak and a really good phone call with Jim Buss!— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) February 3, 2017
It was hard to imagine, though, a five-time champion and 12-time All-Star would comfortably play second fiddle to someone he’s criticized so much. Johnson believes he knows what it takes to build a winner.
Now, he has his opportunity to show Jim Buss that he really can do his old job better. The Los Angeles roster features budding, young guards (D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson), versatile, athletic forwards (Larry Nance Jr., Julius Randle), proven veterans (Luol Deng, Lou Williams, Timofey Mozgov), and a promising rookie wing in Brandon Ingram.
And if Johnson leaves his mark on the franchise as he did decades ago, the Lakers will be back to showtime in no time. More importantly, it’ll lend more credence to his withering criticism of Jim Buss over the years.