Here’s the list of executives to build a team that won at least two championships: Red Auerbach, Jerry West, Pat Riley, Jack McCloskey, Jerry Krause, Pat Riley, Gregg Popovich, Mitch Kupchak and a composite of several people in Houston. That’s the list. It’s happened nine times. The Lakers just fired one of them.
Here’s the list of superstar players who have become executives: Jerry West was a massive success. Larry Bird has been a net neutral. And Michael Jordan, Elgin Baylor, Wes Unseld, Kevin McHale, Isiah Thomas and, if you include league executives, George Mikan, were all unmitigated disasters. The Lakers just hired someone who will inevitably end up in that last sentence: Magic Johnson.
Magic Johnson has not been actively involved in the NBA since his ill-fated 1996 comeback. That was 21 years ago. He’s hovered around the Lakers ever since. But, the closest he’s come to a real basketball position since was shouting platitudes on ESPN. Yes Magic, we know that LeBron dude is really good. His Twitter is blander than Bland Man, a superhero I just made up whose superpower is extreme blandness. He has in no way, shape or form displayed a basketball acumen worthy of decision-making power for an NBA team.
Forget about the championship executive he replaced. There is a virtually zero percent chance Magic lives up to what Mitch Kupchak did. But there are dozens, maybe hundreds of young executives throughout the league who have spent their entire lives dreaming of running an NBA team. They’ve put in the work. They have opinions about basketball that extend beyond “Stephen Curry is good.” And now they have to wait a little bit longer because big shot Magic Johnson is going to ride in on a white horse and save the day.
The answer to why Magic has this job is in that sentence. He has it because he’s big shot Magic Johnson. And the Lakers think they have to have a big name like Magic Johnson running the show because they’re the Lakers. And that is the root of the problem.
Jeanie Buss isn’t thinking like the owner of an NBA team. She’s thinking like the owner of the Lakers. To anyone with a shred of objectivity, those are the same things. But to someone whose father bought the team when she was 18, who has been around for 10 championships, who knows nothing but Laker success, they aren’t. The fundamental problem here is that Buss thinks the rules for the other 29 teams don’t apply to the Lakers.
That kind of Lakers exceptionalism is far more dangerous than anything Magic Johnson could do in what we can only assume will be his short tenure running the team. How many decisions have the Knicks made based on the idea that they’re the Knicks, that they’re in New York and that superstars will always want to play there? How has that worked out for them?
The great irony here is that before Jeanie stepped in, the Lakers were building like a normal NBA team. And, doing a pretty good job of it. Now sure, there may not be a star among the youngsters they’ve hoarded. But you could do a lot worse than a core of D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle and Larry Nance Jr. That could easily be the starting lineup of a 50-55 win team in a few years. And who knows; guards develop slowly. Maybe Russell just hasn’t hit his stride yet and will eventually hit super-stardom.
They haven’t been perfect, but most of the mistakes they’ve made weren’t mistakes at the time. Nobody knew Kristaps Porziņģis was going to be the player he became. And suggesting the Lakers should’ve taken him over Russell at the time would be asinine. By that logic, Manu Ginóbili should’ve been the first pick of the 1999 draft even though nobody knew who he was.
Steve Nash may have crashed and burned as a Laker, but he was coming off a lockout-shortened season in which he played 62 of 66 games and put up very good numbers. By the laws of Lakers exceptionalism, trading for Dwight Howard was a good idea because there was simply no way he would leave the Lakers as a free agent. There have certainly been mistakes, but Kupchak and Jim Buss generally had the team on the right track.
But being on the right track wasn’t good enough for Jeanie Buss. She thinks that because the Lakers are the Lakers, stars should be falling over themselves to come to Los Angeles. Did she learn nothing from the LaMarcus Aldridge disaster? Stars don’t care about the Laker brand. They care about joining basketball teams that know what they’re doing. LeBron went to Pat Riley’s team. Aldridge joined Gregg Popovich. Howard left for Daryl Morey. How many times does this point need to be proven before it gets through to the Lakers?
Apparently the last straw was missing out on DeMarcus Cousins because the Kupchak wouldn’t include Brandon Ingram in a deal. Jeanie apparently thought that the Laker environment would have a “calming effect” on Boogie. But how could she possibly know that? Is she canvassing former Kings players asking for their opinions on him? Does she have relationships with the coaches who worked with him on a day-to-day basis? Or is she just assuming everything will work out because the Lakers are the Lakers?
It’s almost certainly the latter. And what’s ironic here is that the man who is probably largely most responsible for making the Lakers the Lakers would’ve been a much better fit for Magic’s job.
There have been no reports that indicate that the Lakers ever reached out to Jerry West, a consultant for the Warriors. Who knows if he would’ve considered the position. He could’ve hired a GM to handle the minutia (like the Lakers have with Rob Pelinka) and stepped in on only the larger decisions. He is actually qualified to do so. After all, he is not only the greatest executive of all time, but he is a Laker.
But the Lakers have made no efforts to reconnect with West since he left for Memphis in 2002. When Kobe Bryant asked for West’s return, even with the threat of a trade demand looming, the team didn’t consider it.
Of course, there are several possible reasons why. But in the spirit of Laker exceptionalism, here’s one theory: by leaving the Lakers for the Grizzlies, and then the Warriors, Jeanie considered West stained by the stink of non-Laker teams. He was no longer a pure Laker. Magic, on the other hand, has never been involved with another team. Quality didn’t matter. But gold and purple blood is apparently thicker than water.
I have no sympathy left for the Lakers anymore. They deserve whatever they get at this point. And when Magic burns out in three years and they bring in Kobe Bryant as the next white knight, don’t say I didn’t warn you.