Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss' Greatest (and Worst) Hits as LA Lakers Executives

Eric Pincus@@EricPincusLA Lakers Lead WriterFebruary 13, 2017

EL SEGUNDO, CA - JUNE 21:  Luke Walton poses for a picture with Los Angeles Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak and part owner Jim Buss after he is introduced as the new head coach becoming the 26th Los Angeles Laker head coach at Toyota Sports Center on June 21, 2016 in El Segundo, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES — Magic Johnson's rookie season was one for the ages.

His arrival helped the Los Angeles Lakers advance to the 1980 NBA Finals, culminating in a spectacular Game 6 finale. He scored 42 points to close out the Philadelphia 76ers, starting at center in place of fellow Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who was sidelined with a sprained ankle.

Johnson brought five titles to Los Angeles as the star of the Showtime Lakers. Now he's a rookie of sorts again, hired last week to serve as an adviser to part-owner Jeanie Buss.

Since the passing of team patriarch Jerry Buss in 2013, daughter Jeanie Buss has run the business side of the franchise, while her brother, Jim Buss, along with general manager Mitch Kupchak, has made all the basketball decisions.

Johnson will initially act as a bridge between the two sides, but his presence may signal the end of Jim Buss' tenure.

Jim told the Los Angeles Times in 2014 that he would walk away from his position in "three to four years, if we're not back on the top—and the definition of top means contending for the Western Conference, contending for a championship."

The 2016-17 Lakers (19-37) are improved over last year's 17-win squad, but the current team is on pace to miss the playoffs for the fourth straight season.

Enter Johnson, who previously held a small ownership stake in the Lakers but has minimal experience as a basketball executive.

LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 30:  Magic Johnson Retired NBA Player attends Game Two of the Semifinals during the 2016 WNBA Playoffs against the Chicago Sky vs the Los Angeles Sparks at Staples Center on September 30, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  (Phot
Leon Bennett/Getty Images

"Right now I'm advising," he told Josh Peter of USA Today. "I get that. But at the end of the day, then we all got to come together and somebody's got to say, 'I'm making the final call' ... and who's that going to be?"

Per USA Today, Johnson wants to be the one to "call the shots."

What that means for both Jim Buss and Kupchak remains to be seen. The two have had several hits through the years but also many misses, especially over recent seasons. If track record helps Johnson and Jeanie Buss decide whether Jim Buss and/or Kupchak should stay, they'll need to take a close look at the pair's history.

                                             

The Good

SACRAMENTO, CA - DECEMBER 12: Jordan Clarkson #6 of the Los Angeles Lakers looks on during the game against the Sacramento Kings on December 12, 2016 at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that,
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

It's too early to praise Buss and Kupchak for their draft success, but the initial returns suggest the duo have picked well in recent years.

In 2014, the Lakers selected Julius Randle with the No. 7 pick while buying the No. 46 selection from the Washington Wizards to take Jordan Clarkson. Many would argue the Lakers should have taken Kristaps Porzingis at No. 2 in 2015, but D'Angelo Russell has shown great flashes of potential.

In 2016, the Lakers used their cap space to take Jeremy Lin's salary off the Houston Rockets' books. He stuck for just one season, but L.A. also got Houston's No. 27 pick, which wound up being Larry Nance Jr. The team later claimed Tarik Black off waivers from the Rockets, adding yet another productive, young player.

Brandon Ingram was the obvious choice in 2016 at No. 2, but the Ivica Zubac pick at No. 32 is proving to be inspired. Zubac, a 19-year-old Croatian center, has recently earned a steady role in the rotation with great hands, a soft shooting touch and a natural feel for the game.

For extra credit, Kupchak drafted Andrew Bynum at No. 10 in 2005 and obtained Pau Gasol in a 2008 deal with Memphis. Jim Buss was part of the brain trust at the time, although Jerry Buss was the final authority.

The Luke Walton hire as head coach was an especially important step forward for the Lakers after a number of missteps. At just 36 years old, Walton is young enough to relate to a roster filled with millennials. Preaching the joy of basketball, he helped inspire the Lakers to a 10-10 start before injuries and inexperience derailed the squad.

While he still has to earn his stripes as head coach, Walton is a unanimously better fit for the team's youthful core than last year's coach, Byron Scott.

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 8: Luke Walton of the Los Angeles Lakers stands for a moment of silence for the National Anthem before the game against the Orlando Magic on January 8, 2017 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User express
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Free agency wasn't kind to the Lakers over the last few years, but the Lou Williams signing at $21 million over three seasons was a bargain for one of the league's top bench scorers. Clarkson re-signed in July on a four-year, $50 million deal, roughly $7 million below the maximum he could have earned.

As far as trades, the Lakers sent Steve Blake to the Golden State Warriors for Kent Bazemore and MarShon Brooks in 2014. Bazemore was a young, athletic swingman with a positive attitude and work ethic.

                                            

The Bad

TORONTO, CANADA - JANUARY 20: Dwight Howard #12 and Steve Nash #10 of the Los Angeles Lakers speak during a game against the Toronto Raptors on January 20, 2013 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledg
Ron Turenne/Getty Images

But then the Lakers let Bazemore leave the following offseason as a free agent to the Atlanta Hawks while holding on to cap space for star players who never came.

L.A. gave up four draft picks to acquire Steve Nash from the Phoenix Suns in 2012. At the time, pairing Nash and Dwight Howard with Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol seemed inspired, but the results were catastrophically underwhelming.

If there's any consolation, three of those selections were used on players who have yet to make a significant impact in the NBA (Nemanja Nedovic, Alex Oriakhi and Johnny O'Bryant).

Phoenix dealt the final Lakers pick to the 76ers, who will get the selection this June, provided Los Angeles doesn't win a top-three spot in the lottery. If the pick doesn't convey this summer, it will go to Philadelphia in 2018, unprotected.

Meanwhile, Nash suffered a knee injury in his second game with the Lakers and was never the same, sitting out most of his three-year deal with the Lakers with back, hamstring and knee issues before retiring.

The Lakers still owe a 2019 first-rounder to the Orlando Magic for Howard, who left as a free agent after one season. Bryant and Howard were like oil and water: vastly different personalities.

Gasol and Howard didn't fit together either, and Nash couldn't stay on the court. Bryant helped carry the 2012-13 team to 45 wins and a playoff berth but tore his Achilles tendon right before the postseason. Howard was ejected from his final appearance with the team, Game 4 of a sweep by the San Antonio Spurs.

Even after the difficult year, the Lakers tried to recruit Howard to re-sign, but he took a smaller contract with the Houston Rockets instead.

                             

The Ugly

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 12:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers appears to injure himself against the Golden State Warriors in the third quarter at Staples Center on April 12, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. The Lakers defeated the Warriors 118-11
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Buss and Kupchak went through several coaches before landing Walton, from Mike Brown to Mike D'Antoni to Scott. Bernie Bickerstaff, briefly the interim coach after Brown was fired, was the lone bright spot with four wins in five games.

D'Antoni, who has revitalized his career with the Rockets this season, was a poor fit for a team built around Gasol, Bryant, Howard and a perpetually injured Nash.

In 2013, the Lakers gave Bryant a two-year, $48.5 million extension despite the fact he was recovering from the Achilles tear. Bryant's career ended on a high notewith a 60-point performance against the Utah Jazzbut the franchise did not get its money's worth on the court during his final years.

Bryant's salary hampered the Lakers' flexibility, but the team couldn't even get an audience with Kevin Durant once they did have the spending power. They were also unable to lure players like LeBron James, LaMarcus Aldridge, DeAndre Jordan, Greg Monroe, Carmelo Anthony and Hassan Whiteside.

Instead, Buss and Kupchak recently invested $136 million in four-year deals into Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgovtwo veterans over the age of 30.

The Lakers may have established a solid core of young players, but Jim Buss has not successfully turned the team into a contender within the time frame he established.

He may choose to step down or fight for his position, as ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne recently outlined.

In the meantime, Johnson already represents a shift in power, and the team's longtime All-Star may recommend sweeping changes to Jeanie Buss—and that's long overdue. The schism between siblings has been very public. It hasn't gone unnoticed around the league and by free agents who crave long-term stability.

The Lakers need to have a unified front. From ownership to the front office to the coaching staff down to the players, the franchise must be on the same page. The divide wherein Jim Buss and Kupchak run basketball operations independent of Jeanie Buss on the business side has been a significant liability for the Lakers in recent years.

If Jim Buss has a card to play to keep his position, then he and Jeanie need to move forward on one accord. If Johnson can bridge that gap, that will be yet another magical assist from arguably the greatest point guard in NBA history.

Regardless of the outcome, the team needs true closure if it has any hope to return to its former glory.

                                      

Lakers Insider Notebook

New Starting Lineup Inconclusive

SACRAMENTO, CA - DECEMBER 12: Timofey Mozgov #20 and Luol Deng #9 of the Los Angeles Lakers talk during the game against the Sacramento Kings on December 12, 2016 at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

Walton recently made the bold decision to take Mozgov out of the rotation and move Deng to the bench. The Lakers initially looked rejuvenated with Ingram and Black as starters, beating the New York Knicks on the road by 14 points (121-107) on February 6.

Two nights later, the team appeared listless in a 121-102 loss in Detroit against the Pistons. While Ingram and Black played well individually against Detroit, the team struggled, and Black couldn't contain center Andre Drummond, who dominated with 24 points, 17 rebounds, four blocks and three steals.

The Lakers bounced back February 10 in their final stop of a five-game trip, defeating the Milwaukee Bucks 122-114 behind 26 points from Nick Young.

Meanwhile, Deng has missed 12 of 14 shots over the three games off the bench, while Mozgov didn't play.

With 26 games left in the season and the playoffs all but out of reach, Walton is better off playing the team's younger players than veterans like Young, Williams, Mozgov and Deng.

Looking ahead to next year, the Lakers might want to add another young guard to develop over the final months of the current season. Outside of Russell and Clarkson, the Lakers are too heavily reliant on Young and Williams for minutes and scoring. Young can opt out of the final year of his contract and leave in July as a free agent.

Williams has another season left on his deal, but the Lakers should consider trade opportunities before the February 23 deadline. A number of contending teams would benefit from Williams' dynamic ability to score the basketball.

                     

Nance Rounding Back into Form

CLEVELAND, OH - DECEMBER 17:  Larry Nance Jr. #7 of the Los Angeles Lakers boxes out against the Cleveland Cavaliers on December 17, 2016 at The Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by download
David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

After suffering a frightening knee injury in Charlotte against the Hornets on December 20, Nance was happy to learn he had only bruised the bone in his knee. The second-year forward would sit a full month, returning on January 22 in a loss to the Dallas Mavericks. Through his first four games back, Nance averaged just three points and 3.3 rebounds a night.

But he has started to look like himself in February, scoring 10.6 points with 7.8 rebounds and two steals through the Lakers' last five games.

He tied his career high with 18 points along with 11 rebounds against the Boston Celtics on February 3. Three nights later, Nance notched his second straight double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds.

Nance has become a valuable part of the Lakers' second unit with his high basketball IQ, unselfishness and ability to defend multiple positions. Beyond the numbers, Nance has started to show his elite athleticism again, a great sign after the scare in Charlotte.

                                 

Lottery Watch

NEW ORLEANS, LA - FEBRUARY 06: Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns drives against Dante Cunningham #33 of the New Orleans Pelicans during the first half of a game at the Smoothie King Center on February 6, 2017 in New Orleans, Louisiana. NOTE TO USER: Use
Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

The Lakers haven't hurt their lottery position despite two wins over their past three games. They still hold the third-worst record in the NBA behind the Brooklyn Nets (9-45) and Suns (17-38)

The Nets appear to have locked in the top spot, giving Brooklyn a 64.3 percent chance at a top-three selection. If the Lakers can "catch" the Suns, they'll have 55.8 percent odds.

Currently, the chances Los Angeles keeps its 2017 first-rounder is 46.9 percent; otherwise, the 76ers will benefit from the Lakers' difficult season. L.A. could benefit from drafting a guard like Lonzo Ball (UCLA), Markelle Fultz (Washington) or Dennis Smith (NC State) to play alongside Russell. A top-three pick could also serve as a valuable trade asset.

The Orlando Magic (20-36), 76ers (20-34), Minnesota Timberwolves (21-34) and New Orleans Pelicans (21-34) are all close to overtaking the Lakers at the bottom of the standings. Meanwhile, the Lakers have already played 31 of their 41 road games this season, with 16 left at home.

That favorable remaining schedule may not help the franchise retain its pick.

                                        

All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Stats are accurate as of February 9. Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @EricPincus.

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