Setting aside the absurdity of how Magic Johnson exited the Lakers last week—how does one sit through a three-hour organizational meeting a day before announcing an intention to leave an organization? —Johnson’s decision to quit as president of basketball operations was a gift. Johnson was never qualified to hold a job requiring intense scouting, international travel and relationship-building with agents and rival executives.
Johnson, it seems, would rather tweet at the next Giannis Antetokounmpo than spend the time needed to find the next one.
Indeed, Johnson’s only qualification to run the Lakers was that he was a Laker. It’s a longstanding ownership tradition: Jerry Buss—who owned the team for 34 years—empowered Jerry West (ex-Laker) and elevated Mitch Kupchak (ditto). Jim Buss retained Kupchak. Jeanie Buss won a power struggle with Jim in 2017 and brought in Johnson, a five-time champion as a player in purple and gold who bailed because he didn’t like the job anymore.
The Lakers are a family business, but to rebuild a floundering franchise, Buss must operate it like a real one. LA’s top job is the NBA’s best gig. The Lakers have resources. Forbes recently valued the team at $3.7 billion. Buss reportedly rakes in $180 million per year in a local TV deal and Staples Center prints money. A southern California climate and access to Hollywood power brokers appeals to free agents—ask LeBron James.
The cupboard isn’t bare, either. Johnson and GM Rob Pelinka—who, after the Lakers parted ways with coach Luke Walton, is the last man standing—did a credible job drafting the last two seasons. Lonzo Ball, the No. 2 pick in the 2017 draft, is solid, though critics will say Jayson Tatum (No. 3) and De’Aaron Fox (No. 5) project as better players. Kyle Kuzma (No. 27 in ’17) and Josh Hart (No. 30) were strong picks.
The Lakers whiffed in free agency last summer, arrogantly dismissing a decade’s worth of evidence of how to build a successful offense around James (with shooters) in favor of a playmaker heavy lineup that never meshed. The 18 games James missed with a groin injury midseason sent the Lakers into a free fall but even when healthy LA looked like a collection of mismatched parts. But a bunch of those contracts will come off the books in July, making them little more than short term mistakes.
Who should be a candidate to run the team? Who shouldn’t be a candidate? The Lakers job is a complicated one. They have a young core, another lottery pick to add to it … and James, at 34, regressing defensively and with an expiration date on his ability to lead a team deep into the playoffs. To sort it out, Buss must go big game hunting. Thunder GM Sam Presti has built one of the NBA’s strongest franchises in Oklahoma City. Toronto’s Masai Ujiri has rebuilt two different teams. Warriors GM Bob Myers has UCLA ties. Perhaps R.C. Buford, after three decades in the Spurs organization, might be interested in trying something new. Money is no object. Forking over a draft pick as compensation shouldn’t be a deal breaker, either.
Maybe Pelinka—part of the Laker family himself after years spent representing Kobe Bryant—is the right guy. He was the day-to-day boss on the Lakers last two drafts and he has a long history as a player agent. His relationships with rival executives and formerly rival agents could be tense, but that won’t stop anyone from doing a deal with Pelinka nor should it be a reason not to empower him further. And Buss has—Pelinka has been meeting with coaching candidates and continuing to run the front office with Johnson gone.
He could be the best person for the job. But there’s no excuse not to cast a wide net to make sure that he is.
Buss gets a mulligan for the Johnson mistake, but it can’t be repeated. The Lakers have max cap space this summer and an aging superstar pleading with them to use it. A coach needs to be hired. Relationships with the younger players—all who saw their names tossed in trade rumors this season—need to be rebuilt. The family business has been good to the Lakers. But it’s time to at least look outside the family.