ABOVE PHOTO: Magic Johnson (Photo: Tinseltown / Shutterstock, Inc.)
By Greg Beacham
Magic Johnson is leading the Los Angeles Lakers again after a major shake-up of the struggling franchise’s front office.
Lakers owner Jeanie Buss fired general manager Mitch Kupchak on Tuesday and put Johnson in charge of basketball operations. Jeanie Buss also removed her brother, Jim, from his job as the Lakers’ executive vice president of basketball operations.
Jim Buss retains his ownership stake in the team, but Jeanie Buss has final say under the structure set up by their late father, Jerry Buss. She used it to chart a new course for the Lakers, who are mired in the worst four-year stretch in the 16-time NBA champion franchise’s glorious history.
Just 19 days after Johnson returned to the Lakers in an executive role, Jeanie Buss promoted the Hall of Fame point guard to have the final say on basketball decisions. Johnson is the Lakers’ new president of basketball operations, reporting directly to Jeanie Buss, although the team also plans to hire a new general manager.
“I took these actions today to achieve one goal: Everyone associated with the Lakers will now be pulling in the same direction, the direction established by Earvin and myself,” Jeanie Buss said in a statement. “We are determined to get back to competing to win NBA championships again.”
Jeanie Buss made the extraordinary moves two days before the trade deadline. The Lakers have the NBA’s third-worst record at 19-39 this season, plummeting out of contention after an encouraging 10-10 start under new coach Luke Walton, who got a strong vote of confidence.
Jeanie Buss said she “took a series of actions I believe will return the Lakers to the heights Dr. Jerry Buss demanded and our fans rightly expect. Our search for a new general manager to work with Earvin and coach Luke Walton is well underway, and we hope to announce a new general manager in short order. Together, Earvin, Luke and our new general manager will establish the foundation for the next generation of Los Angeles Lakers greatness.”
Kupchak had been the Lakers’ GM since 2000, studying under Jerry West and eventually succeeding him. Kupchak had been in the Lakers’ front office for 30 years, including the last 17 as general manager – the longest current stretch running a front office in the NBA.
Jim Buss had been in the Lakers’ front office for 19 years, including 12 in charge of basketball operations alongside Kupchak. The former horse trainer had final say on basketball decisions in recent years.
But the Lakers have steadily declined from the heights of back-to-back championships in 2009 and 2010. They are mired in the worst four-year stretch in franchise history, missing the playoffs in three consecutive years with their three worst records ever.
After an extraordinary trade for Pau Gasol propelled the Lakers to three straight NBA Finals appearances, Kupchak and Jim Buss made a series of high-profile personnel moves that didn’t pan out.
They made a pricey trade for Dwight Howard, who fled the franchise after one year, and another deal for Steve Nash, who barely played thanks to back woes. The Lakers are still feeling the effects of that deal, which will cost them their first-round pick this summer if it isn’t in the top three.
The Lakers finished 17-65 last season, a franchise low in the last year of Kobe Bryant’s two-decade run with the franchise.
Johnson’s return made Jim Buss’ departure seem quite likely, particularly given Jim Buss’ vow several years ago to leave the franchise if they weren’t in contention for a Western Conference title by this year or next.
But Jeanie Buss still picked a dramatic way to end this family business’ years of tradition.
Johnson has never been a decision-making NBA executive, but he has been a successful businessman and investor since his playing career ended. He also briefly coached the Lakers, but dropped his ceremonial title as a team vice president last June after his frequent public criticisms of Jim Buss and former coaches. He also sold his ownership stake in 2010.
“Since 1979, I’ve been a part of the Laker Nation, and I’m passionate about this organization,” Johnson said in a statement. “I will do everything I can to build a winning culture on and off the court. We have a great coach in Luke Walton and good young players. We will work tirelessly to return our Los Angeles Lakers to NBA champions.”
The departure of Kupchak is even more dramatic: The former Lakers center had worked with West and Jim Buss in relative harmony for years with the tradition-bound Lakers. Kupchak had been employed by the Lakers in some capacity since August 1981.
The Lakers’ recent ineptitude didn’t hurt their place as Los Angeles’ most beloved sports franchise and a worldwide brand, but Jeanie Buss finally tired of the apparent lack of progress. The Lakers have a talented young core with D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Brandon Ingram and Jordan Clarkson, but haven’t been able to translate that potential into wins despite playing an exciting style under Walton.
The Lakers also parted ways with longtime top public relations executive John Black.
The Lakers return from the All-Star break on Friday at Oklahoma City. They face San Antonio at Staples Center on Sunday.