One of the great things about covering the Los Angeles Lakers is that there is always something happening. Whether it’s a trade rumor, free agent signing, or front office shakeup, the Lakers manage to keep things interesting and dramatic.
The problem is that drama and winning don’t often go hand-in-hand.
Sure, the Lakers have had their fair share of subplots during the glory days, which is, in part, simply the nature of the beast for a franchise that is intertwined with the glitz and glamor of Hollywood. Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant had their feud and Phil Jackson wrote a book, but the team kept on winning (mostly).
Despite the drama, there were always strong people at the top to bring the ship safely into port. Dr. Jerry Buss, Phil Jackson (in a dual role as both instigator and peacemaker), Pat Riley, Jerry West, and many more made sure that, at the end of the day, the Lakers had the firepower and guidance they needed to contend for championships.
Even when the surface raged, the waters within the organization were relatively calm.
Now, we have reached a very different era, one that is marked by drama in the front office and poor play on the court. Dr. Buss is sadly gone, and the fighting amongst his six children has played out in a manner that is a bit too reminiscent of Game of Thrones. It’s a strange new world and one that is becoming increasingly frustrating for fans.
The latest bit of misadventure comes in the form of what looks to be an attempted coup at the hands of the elder Buss brothers, Jim and Johnny, who appeared to be attempting to wrest control from their sister, Jeanie. It is believed by some that the brothers are intent on selling their stake in the team, which could result in the family no longer owning the majority of the franchise.
On the surface, it would appear that the scheme is destined to fail, but the cloud of uncertainty that it casts over the franchise doesn’t help matters, with the team sitting second-to-last in the league for the second year in a row and four years removed from sniffing the playoffs. Sadly, the power struggle comes just as a new, more promising era appeared to be dawning.
Just weeks ago, Jeanie had made the move that everyone knew was coming when she fired Jim from his job as Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations and Mitch Kupchak as the team’s General Manager. It wasn’t an easy decision, but with the team struggling, it was time for fresh perspectives at the top. In their place, she installed Magic Johnson as the team’s new President of Basketball Operations and former agent Rob Pelinka as the GM.
Johnson and Pelinka may not have much experience, but it felt like there was finally direction for the Lakers again. Jeanie would be involved in the basketball decision-making process like never before, and there was no denying Johnson’s magnetic personality. He said all the right things in a round of media appearances and acted swiftly and decisively at the trade deadline. It was certainly a small sample size, but there was reason to be optimistic.
With Johnson in the fold, at the very least he and Jeanie would be on the same page, something that couldn’t be said for the previous regime. Even if there were missteps along the way, the leadership at the top would be pulling in the same direction again, which is critical to the success of just about any organization, most popular basketball franchise in the world or otherwise.
The stability the franchise badly needs was so close, yet now it feels as though it’s being anchored down, just as the finish line came in sight. Should Jim and Johnny somehow wrangle control away from Jeanie, they could potentially remove Magic from his role and start the whole process over again. That kind of turmoil would not be received well in Los Angeles or elsewhere.
Drama excites; it draws eyeballs and gives writers like myself something to pound our keyboards over, but it doesn’t win basketball games and it doesn’t create sound organizations.
I had a professor in college who once opened a course on the history of British Parliament by stating that the class would be boring simply because the English government has been comparatively stable, and that was why we had to study it, even if there wasn’t much in the way of excitement. We needed to know what it was that allowed them to have the stability and relative lack of rancor.
The same holds true for basketball franchises. The drama has to come on the court from the team’s play, from the vibrant personalities of the players, and occasionally the coaches. The front office, however, has to remain on-message and on-task, playing a more reserved game of leverage against 29 opponents. It may not have the flair of a last-second buzzer beater, but having that solid rock to be built upon is what allows everything else to fall into place.
To be sure, free agents are wary of teams with uncertainty. This summer, the Lakers will be one of many vying for the services of only a handful of players, and any kind of discord at the top will not be seen as a positive. The San Antonio Spurs may be considered to be a “boring” team (though that doesn’t accurately describe the current squad), but their stability as an organization has led to remarkable and sustained success, and it wasn’t long ago that it helped them beat the Lakers in the LaMarcus Aldridge sweepstakes.
Boring may not provide much to write about, except when it comes to the things that matter.
At this point, the hope has to be that the Lakers are able to resolve the issues dividing the Buss children swiftly. It may not be realistic, but if the team can get everyone back on the same page, then Johnson and Pelinka will have an opportunity this summer to truly sell the Lakers franchise to free agents as a place where winning is, well, magical. A foundation can finally be poured, and the franchise can take the next steps towards returning to relevancy.
A prolonged battle, on the other hand, would only serve to hurt the franchise, brand, and perhaps worst of all, alienate fans.
Let’s all hope that the Lakers front office becomes a lot less exciting in the coming months.