Analysis: Lakers have opportunity to open new chapter
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. (AP) — The Los Angeles Lakers already had plenty of problems to fix during the summer after their sixth straight losing season.
Replacing the person in charge of fixing those problems is suddenly at the top of the list.
Magic Johnson’s shocking resignation as the 16-time NBA champions’ president of basketball operations Tuesday night compounded the turmoil that always seems to envelop the Lakers, who remain among the most talked-about sports franchises in the world even though they haven’t made the playoffs since 2013.
Owner Jeanie Buss unveiled no immediate plan Wednesday for the basketball leadership of the Lakers — perhaps understandably, since she had no idea she needed a plan 18 hours earlier.
Buss, general manager Rob Pelinka and coach Luke Walton all skipped the Lakers’ customary exit interviews on the morning after their season ended, instead leaving it to their players to characterize yet another bizarre year in Lakerland.
“I still have confidence that this organization is heading in the right direction, because they have all the pieces to do so,” center Tyson Chandler said. “It is just about who is going to be driving the ship, I guess.”
Yet Buss must have realized by now that Magic’s abrupt departure creates an opportunity.
With her sentimental favorite gone and no clear successor in sight, Buss has a chance to sever the staid, tradition-bound mentality lingering around the Lakers from her father’s ownership tenure.
Last summer, the Lakers added LeBron James. This summer, they could add a new way of thinking.
Whether Buss wants that opportunity is the biggest question she faces.
Shortly after Johnson’s surprise announcement, Buss huddled with advisers including Pelinka. Kobe Bryant’s former agent joined the Lakers’ front office with Johnson in 2017 when Buss installed two executives with no prior experience in their jobs, but great emotional appeal to Buss herself.
That’s the same type of sentimental thinking that convinced Buss to keep her brother, Jim, and GM Mitch Kupchak in charge several years into the Lakers’ decline — a grace period that Jeanie Buss says she now regrets.
But with Magic gone from a job that required too much of his time and not enough of his personal strengths, Buss has the chance to reimagine her entire front office.
She could hire a hungry executive to bring cutting-edge ideas into the Lakers’ insular culture. Innovative ex-Cleveland GM David Griffin is an obvious choice, but there are many others who wouldn’t be bound by the unrealistic expectations and dewy-eyed attachments created by the Lakers’ many trophies.
Many Lakers fans would love the return of The Logo himself: Jerry West, the lifelong Laker who has managed to stay at the forefront of NBA thinking into his 80s. West left the Lakers’ front office in a pay dispute in 2002, and he seems content in his current advisory role with the crosstown Clippers, who are in the midst of a remarkable franchise reboot — but it’s widely believed that West’s contract with the Clippers is up this summer.
Or if she wants to stay loyal to the purple and gold, Buss could have it both ways by increasing the role of two well-regarded, up-and-coming basketball minds already in the building. Director of player personnel Ryan West and assistant GM Jesse Buss are already Lakers royalty: West is Jerry West’s son, while Jesse Buss is her youngest brother.
Buss’ ex-fiancée, longtime Lakers coach Phil Jackson, also is likely a phone call away — but even putting aside Jackson’s cataclysmic tenure as an executive in New York, that might be too much organizational drama for even the Lakers to withstand.
Buss’ easiest path would be a promotion for Pelinka, the scripture-quoting GM who favors tight suits and long-winded, folksy stories. But Johnson gave a lukewarm endorsement of Pelinka on his way out the door, and Pelinka has ruffled feathers around the league with his communication style in his first team job.
With the 34-year-old James getting no younger, speed is a priority in the Lakers’ rebuild. The front office isn’t the Lakers’ only area requiring urgent attention this summer.
Johnson said he was preparing to fire Walton on Wednesday until he decided he couldn’t do it to Walton, another one of Buss’ favorite people.
Walton’s future is still uncertain, with only one more guaranteed season on his contract and a career coaching record 50 games below .500. Buss had already given permission to Magic to make the change, and a new front office could want a new coach — unless it arrives with Buss’ instructions to give him another chance.
The Lakers made one structural change Wednesday when they decided to part ways with athletic trainer Marco Nunez, who had been in the top job since 2016. Los Angeles was decimated again this season by injuries to nearly every key player, including the longest injury absence of James’ 16-year career.
Finally, Buss must decide whether her vision of the Lakers’ future requires the addition of at least one more superstar free agent. Magic’s primary goal was the acquisition of another star to play alongside LeBron, and his midseason pursuit of Anthony Davis caused upheaval in the Lakers’ locker room.
Yet the players who finished the season with the Lakers remained remarkably optimistic about the franchise’s future as they packed up Wednesday.
JaVale McGee, who established himself as a solid NBA center, believes the Lakers are still irresistible to any player or executive with the proper perspective on basketball and life.
“It’s all love in LA,” McGee said. “The fans are great. They see you out there working your butt off, and even though you’re losing, they still support you. So the whole thing behind people saying, ‘It’s a hard market to play in, it’s a lot of pressure,’ I don’t believe in the pressure thing. ... Anyone who wouldn’t want to take advantage of that opportunity just because of their fear of the spotlight is childish.”