LOS ANGELES -- The obvious step for Lakers president and part-owner Jeanie Buss is over. Now comes the real test.
On Tuesday, the Lakers relieved longtime general manager Mitch Kupchak of his duties and announced that Jim Buss, Jeanie Buss’ brother, no longer would serve as executive vice president of basketball operations.
The change comes less than two weeks after Lakers legend Magic Johnson was hired as an assistant to Jeanie. In Tuesday’s Lakers reshuffling Magic becomes president of basketball operations. What happens next -- what Magic’s actual role will be, who does or does not come in to help him, and how Jeanie Buss can recalibrate an organization riven by dissension and angst -- will shape the Lakers and the NBA for years.
That drama was on keen and growing display the past two weeks, sources say. One source close to the situation said Kupchak and Jeanie Buss had not spoken since Nov. 1, despite her role as president of basketball operations and the power that gave her to fire Kupchak, and that her brother had resorted to communicating with his sister only through lawyers. The same source said Jeanie never was informed of a potential DeMarcus Cousins trade over the weekend and described a chaotic scene in which Jim Buss insisted low-level basketball officials “vote” on the proposed deal while Jeanie and Magic were left in the dark.
“This is a perfect example of what needs to change,” the source said.
And now that it has, Lakers fans should feel a wave of relief and optimism. Jim Buss was an albatross around this organization, a part-owner under whose tenure the Lakers became not only a losing franchise but irrelevant. The NBA moved on without the purple and gold. Their best chance to reverse that trend is Jeanie’s leadership.
That will be easier said than done. In the weeks since Magic was hired -- even as Kupchak went about his job and controlled, along with Jim Buss, decisions on things like a possible Cousins trade, among other deals -- back channel contacts reached out to executives around the NBA wondering if they’d be interested in Kupchak’s job, league sources say. Those contacted included current general managers, these sources say, but they were left with the ultimate question now facing the Lakers: What will Magic Johnson’s role be, and how would that affect a newcomer tasked with the difficult job of fixing an organization saddled with years of poor decision making?
The answer to that question will largely dictate whether Jeanie can right the ship her brother ineffectively steered. Hiring Magic Johnson was a stroke of genius by Jeanie: He is beloved in L.A., can close with star players mulling a free-agency move, has shown with the Los Angeles Dodgers that his brand and approach can help turn around a franchise, and offers Jeanie enough cover to navigate the learning curve of learning how to run an NBA organization all the way through to basketball operations.
But leadership is about delegation and making sure those under you know their lanes and thrive in them. Jeanie must make sure Magic knows his, and Magic must do the same down the line. He is president of basketball operations, and how he uses that role -- and how Jeanie manages him to do so -- is critical.
If Magic Johnson, as he’s indicated this week, wants to be the voice on basketball decisions -- the man on draft day with the final say as the clock ticks down, the final voice in the room when trades need to be green-lit or passed on -- then the Lakers turnaround will be much less likely.
There are few stories of all-time greats succeeding as front-office executives without a strong general manager serving them, with Phil Jackson a clear and familiar lesson in this role. Winning the basketball ops game takes months on the road scouting players with your own eyes and countless hours in the film room. It is not a glamorous job. But it is imperative it is done properly for a team to succeed.
Those league sources say few proven NBA executives would agree to such an arrangement with the Lakers in which Magic, like Phil, would be unwilling to delegate a large portion of decision making to a proven GM or executive.
But the Lakers’ fortunes can be much different if Magic’s role is, like Jerry West’s in Golden State, to play a high-level advisory role while allowing a lifetime basketball ops aficionado to run that part of the show. West has been a key and brilliant ingredient to building the Warriors, but so has his willingness to let Golden State GM Bob Myers run the show.
That is Jeanie’s real choice now. Magic gave her the cover to remove both her brother and Kupchak, who had been with the organization longer than most Lakers players have been alive. But now she must harness Magic’s strengths and limit his weaknesses.
The Lakers organization, over the past two weeks and several years, has been a Game of Thrones. Jeanie now unequivocally has the throne, a place of basketball royalty she deserves. She is smart, strategic and committed to the Lakers legacy and what it can and should be in the NBA. She is, along with coach Luke Walton and the dismissal of her brother form decision making, the most promising sign the Lakers can return to glory.
But that is a dangerous seat in which to sit, where blame comes fast and merciless. The key is to possess the right allies. Magic is one. But the deputy he needs -- a fully-empowered general manager like Sam Presti, Neil Olshey, RC Buford, Masai Ujiri, Myers, whoever on that level could be lured to LA -- is a difficult hire if the job description is right. It’ll be impossible unless the job is perfect, which would include Magic knowing his lane.
That’s the challenge Jeanie Buss faces: To cast off not just her brother and his GM, but to once and all rid the Lakers of the drama, internal power strugglers, ego-driven mistakes and other ugliness that turned the purple and gold into an NBA also-ran.