Soon, we will know who’s coaching the Los Angeles Lakers, a job that comes with a splash of prestige but not immune to the typical hazards, as Luke Walton discovered before exiting stage left.
More important, though, what really needs to be known is, who’s running the Lakers?
As the famous franchise stumbles to regain a toe hold and especially a measure of credibility it once had, it will be dogged by the leadership question until … well, it isn’t. Such has been life for the Lakers ever since the passing of Jerry Buss in 2013 and the passing of the franchise to the hands of his children.
With Dr. Buss, this was never an issue or a concern. Even during those brief stretches under his watch when the Lakers weren’t as fabulous as the former arena that once housed them, you knew it was only a matter of time. And, there was never a sign of dysfunction at all, at least beyond the personality clash between Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant.
It was Dr. Buss and Jerry West running a steady ship, and after West left, Mitch Kupchak for a while helped maintain the standard of front office stability and competency. The Lakers remained a destination franchise and among the best-run in the NBA, and now after six losing seasons including a chaotic last few, that track record has run off the track.
By the end of next week if not sooner, the Lakers will get around to finding the replacement for Walton and it very well could be an upgrade especially if it’s Monty Williams, a promising up-and-comer before a tragic family accident put his life on pause, or Ty Lue, who brings a championship ring and a working relationship with LeBron James. And that’s fine.
However: What exactly is the front office flow chart and the philosophy going forward?
After Magic Johnson chose to retreat, ever so embarrassingly, from that responsibility so he could be “Magic Johnson” again, the task of giving Walton the bad news Friday was left to Rob Pelinka. Actually, Walton jumped just as he was being pushed because his departure was a mutual decision, and who could blame Walton? Once a handful of other jobs opened in the NBA the last few days, he had choices; the Kings are a sure bet because Vivek Ranadive knew Walton when both were with the Warriors before Ranadive bought the Kings.
Yes, it has come to this: A coach would be happier with the Kings than Lakers, words that have never been written before.
The fate of the Lakers belongs to Jeanie Buss, who must make the leadership call — is it Pelinka, most famously known as Kobe Bryant’s agent, or someone else? — and somehow restore the luster of the franchise and the faith of the fans.
This will be interesting if only because Buss is new to this. Until two years ago when she wrestled control of the club from her brother Jim, to the delight of many, Jeanie was mainly on the marketing side. That was her duty in the mom-and-pop organization, which has remained in the family during Dr. Buss’ time and after.
Other than her relationship with former coach Phil Jackson, Jeanie Buss didn’t mingle in an official capacity with the movers and shakers around the league. That is, get to know and deal with the top agents and general managers and assorted other power brokers who have a hand in the NBA jar.
And after the Laker family takeover, she was a package deal with Magic and therefore didn’t interview outside candidates. From that appearance, Buss kept the Lakers within the family, so to speak, because it was more comfortable for her to do so with her brother from another mother. She could trust Magic, someone she’s known since both were teenagers, someone who showed a weird way to repay that trust when he dropped the bomb this week without telling her first.
And so: Does Jeanie Buss want to stray from her comfort zone and look outside the organization for help in this, a high-alert time of crisis? Or will she lean on Kobe’s former agent, and maybe Kobe himself behind the scenes, neither of whom bring vast experience on the personnel side?
We will see how Jeanie Buss responds to that pressure. Remember, she grew disenchanted with the Lakers under her brother Jim after too many poor decisions in Kobe’s sunset years, and heard a standing ovation when she won the tug-of-war. There was much applause for her from fans forced to live through Timofey Mozgov, Luol Deng, Dwight Howard and a gimpy Steve Nash.
But applause can fade quickly, and so can credibility, even with LeBron James in the fold.
The Lakers failed to deliver a punch in what’s been a letdown season, unless you count the one to their own jaw. LeBron’s groin injury can be excused for a losing record and no playoff appearance, but not the aftermath including the bad losses to bad teams; the pitiful Anthony Davis chase and the lousy morale caused by it; the Magic disappearing act and depending on which side you sit, the Walton mutual good-bye.
You wonder if all of this Laker vulnerability will create an opening for an opportunistic power play led by — who else, LeBron And Friends. Because more than before, LeBron has power and that, based on the past, isn’t always what’s best for the team he represents.
That power caused uneasiness in Cleveland during his first stint with the Cavs. It was effectively snuffed by Pat Riley in Miami and the result was a pair of championships. But when LeBron returned to the Cavs, he had his way again, this time with the player agency he created. Suddenly, clients were given fat contracts and roles, and while it resulted in a championship, the fallout was lasting. Stuck with those contracts, the Cavs cratered this season and the only silver lining is they were bad enough to position themselves for the No. 1 pick and draft someone — hint, he’s a Duke guy — who could ease the pain.
Unless of course, the Lakers get lucky with a frozen ping-pong ball at the Draft Lottery and keep alive the tradition of importing generational stars.
The task of shedding a layer of dysfunctional skin isn’t all about luck, unfortunately, and the Lakers will discover this if they haven’t already. It requires a deft hand and gutsy decisions that elevate a franchise and command respect. This is what the Lakers are up against. This is what they must do to salvage what’s left of LeBron’s career and reassure folks that their current predicament is just a momentary phase.
The Lakers need Jeanie Buss to walk in that door with a whole lot more confidence-inspiring swagger and strut than Magic Johnson and Luke Walton showed when walking out.
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