It was a busy day in Los Angeles. By now you know: they have fired longtime General Manager Mitch Kupchak and removed Jim Buss from his role as the head of Basketball Operations, replacing them with Magic Johnson and (soon) Rob Pelinka. It’s a massive shakeup that will forever change the franchise, although just how isn’t quite clear yet.
The one thing that we do know is why this is happening. The Lakers are on the verge of missing the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season and have set franchise lows for futility year after year. Buss and Kupchak struggled to sign (or even meet with) the marquee free agents the team badly needed, and when they finally convinced players to take their money they gave $136 million dollars to Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng, who have both been moved to bench roles. The Lakers lack future draft picks thanks to the doomed Dwight Howard and Steve Nash trades (also executed by Buss and Kupchak), and as such, their margin for error was nil.
Given the situation, mistakes like the ones made last summer simply couldn’t be tolerated. The Lakers’ failed pursuit of DeMarcus Cousins was actually a last-ditch attempt to save their jobs. It has to be noted that they admirably declined to include Brandon Ingram in the proposal despite their jobs being on the line. When the Kings shockingly accepted a low-ball offer from the New Orleans Pelicans instead, Jeanie Buss, who holds the hammer in the organization, pulled the trigger. She had seen enough.
The team officially announced Johnson’s role as President of Basketball Operations, with rumors spreading quickly that former agent Pelinka will soon be announced as the team’s new GM.
It’s impossible to not feel some remorse over the exit of Mitch Kupchak, who has been with the Lakers in one role or another for decades. That kind of longevity with an organization is nearly unheard of today, and he has had his fair share of positive moves that have helped the Lakers bring home championships.
Likewise, Jim Buss has often been seen a scapegoat for many of the Lakers’ maladies, but he has also had a hand in a number of beneficial moves, with the drafting of Andrew Bynum being a memorable one. Of course, due to his ownership stake, Buss won’t be leaving the franchise completely, but will no longer be calling the shots on the basketball side of things.
That said, a change was needed. Rumblings have persisted for years that Kupchak and Buss simply weren’t effective in free agent pitches and perhaps had fallen behind the times. It was simply time for some new voices.
While Johnson certainly harkens to a bygone era, it’s one that is remembered fondly by fans. With the Showtime years representing basketball Camelot to Lakers fans, Johnson is as popular as ever. Kobe Bryant may be the greatest Laker of all-time, but Johnson still owns the hearts of many, and thus far he is saying all of the right things about adapting to the realities of the modern NBA.
He also represents a marked departure from Kupchak and Buss’ more withdrawn style. With a beaming smile and a passion for all things purple and gold, there are few men alive better suited to sell a free agent on what it means to win as a Laker.
Johnson won’t be doing the job alone, either. As President of Basketball Operations, he will hire on Pelinka to handle many of the day-to-day responsibilities of the front office. What Johnson and Pelinka lack in experience, they make up for it with charisma. Buss and Kupchak were underwhelming when it came to negotiating deals and selling free agents, and overnight that has become a strength for the Lakers thanks to Johnson and Pelinka.
Furthermore, Johnson has already negotiated his first trade, sending veteran guard Lou Williams to the Houston Rockets in exchange for an unprotected first-round pick and Corey Brewer. Rumors had been flying that several teams were interested in Williams, so the Rockets pick, which currently sits at 27th, and a negative contract in Brewer is a bit of a disappointing return. That said, ESPN’s Arash Markazi reported that this was the best 2017 first round pick offered to the Lakers, and given the depth of this draft, the move could be well worth it.
With time still remaining before the deadline, Johnson likely isn’t done dealing, either.
There will be growing pains for Johnson and Pelinka as they attempt to acclimate to their new roles. A few stumbles are likely, and being thrust into the job just days before the high-pressure stakes of the trade deadline certainly won’t help matters. Still, there is optimism that, at the very least, things will move in the right direction once again.
The Lakers got it right when they hired Luke Walton to be their head coach, now we have to hope that Johnson is able to adapt quickly. If he can get the Lakers back on track it just may be the greatest assist of his career.