Magic Johnson Will Have a Damning Case Against Jim Buss and Mitch KupchakFebruary 20, 2017
LOS ANGELES — Magic Johnson is about to see if Lakers executives Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak have any explanation for the mishaps that have driven the legendary Los Angeles Lakers to four of the worst seasons in franchise history.
As team president Jeanie Buss' new adviser, Johnson is meeting with Buss and general manager Kupchak on Monday to review their job performance. It is likely a significant step toward replacing both men in charge of basketball operations come April.
But as team president Jeanie Buss' new adviser, Johnson first wants to see if Jim Buss and Kupchak have any answers.
The most prominent questions lie in why the Lakers—star-driven throughout their history in this star-driven league before and after Magic's own playing days—haven't been able to succeed in continuing that model.
They aren't the only questions, but Jim Buss' fixation on Andrew Bynum was a considerable blockade. Yes, the most controversial non-trade trade in NBA history can now feed the imagination in yet another fascinating way: Chris Paul to the Lakers...for Bynum?
Using Bynum to get Paul, according to sources close to late owner Jerry Buss, was Buss' initial request to his son, Jim, in 2011. It was also the sort of rebuilding centerpiece that then-Commissioner David Stern would have more likely approved for the then-league-owned New Orleans Hornets, according to NBA sources.
It never happened, largely because of Jim Buss' affection for Bynum, the player Jim saw as the diamond he'd unearthed (even though Lakers assistant general manager Ronnie Lester actually offered the first and strongest blessing).
Consequently, the Lakers worked instead to acquire Paul without trading Bynum—resulting in the package of Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom in a three-way trade that wound up blocked by Stern for not meeting his mandate of New Orleans getting young talent and/or draft picks.
The Lakers obviously didn't restructure the failed Paul trade to include Bynum, even though Jerry had asked Jim to get it done with whomever it took, according to sources. Paul was instead sent to the Clippers in the deal the NBA did accept: one anchored by up-and-coming but injury-prone guard Eric Gordon.
Even after Buss relented to his father's order that the Lakers trade Bynum to acquire Dwight Howard a year later (to fit better with Steve Nash's style), Jim Buss' sentiment contributed to Howard's unwelcome feeling, according to league sources.
Before Howard's first and only Lakers season, Buss even minimized the impact of Howard as their next-gen foundation, saying that if Howard hadn't come, "Andrew would carry us."
While Howard had little connection with Jerry Buss that season because of Buss' cancer-mandated hospital stays, Bynum's knees deteriorated quickly with the Philadelphia 76ers, as most inside the Lakers organization had accepted could happen.
Bynum never did get the max contract Jim Buss had hoped to give him.
Paul, meanwhile, ascended to first-team All-NBA in his first season with the Clippers and continues to lead that contending team six years later.
The Lakers will never know what might have been. Just know now that it could have been Paul joining proven winners Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom—all still in their prime.
If Jim Buss' faith in the skilled Bynum is one thing, his fixation on Robert Sacre, another of his hand-picked players, is something else entirely.
Around the NBA, the Lakers' commitment to Sacre, who stayed with the team four full seasons (2012-16), became a running joke. Internally, Sacre's presence on the Lakers roster and the team's payroll created an obstacle to several minor moves that could've paid off big for the team.
The most glaring one: passing on Hassan Whiteside.
As the Lakers were filling out a training-camp roster in September 2014 after their latest free-agency failures, Whiteside took part in a group workout in front of management and new coach Byron Scott. Whiteside did very well, according to league sources.
However, Buss' beloved Sacre making the team and filling a reserve center slot was, same as every other year, even more certain than the earth being round. Therefore, there was little reason to even invite Whiteside to camp.
Sacre's salary had already been an impediment that offseason to the Lakers retaining Kent Bazemore, as the club needed to preserve every dollar for its failed dream of signing both LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony for less than max money.
The burden of Sacre had even carried over to the Lakers' summer-league team the year before, with Dan D'Antoni remarking at one point while coaching that team: "Gotta play Sacre! I don't want to get fired."
Whiteside wound up with Pat Riley's Miami Heat that season and averaged 11.8 points, 10 rebounds and 2.6 blocks in just 23.8 minutes per game. He became the league's leading shot-blocker the next season at 3.7. He re-signed with Miami before this season on a max contract for four years, $98 million.
Sacre's Lakers contract having expired, he got a training-camp invite from his hometown New Orleans Pelicans this season and was cut after one preseason game. He joined a team in Japan last month.
Buss and Kupchak's path to a star since Howard's exit has been to sit on a single purple and gold runway marked High-End Free Agency rather than diligently scour the entire airport.
Free-agent recruiting requires the kind of human relations where the personalities of Buss and Kupchak falter anyway, one reason Johnson is now in the mix to be the smiling face behind the sign welcoming in proven stars.
Even though Bryant pumped him up during the 2015 free-agent meeting with LaMarcus Aldridge, Kupchak was typically dry and risk averse when Aldridge asked him directly who might be the starting center placed next to him as a Laker.
Unwilling to suggest anything unlikely, Kupchak couldn't come up with even one name to offer Aldridge, according to a team source.
The franchise has only fallen backward into building through the draft—and has some promising players—but the Lakers also missed out on impact talent by swinging only for the free-agent fences. At the end of that summer of James and Anthony, Kupchak himself said, "We never felt it was realistic that we could get one or two," yet he also promised, "We'll get somebody. At some point, we will."
Alas, that summer, the Lakers could've gotten Kyle Lowry and Isaiah Thomas, both of whom wanted to be Lakers despite Nash and Bryant around as the potential starting guards.
But Lowry and Thomas didn't look the part at the time to Lakers management seeking sure things.
On Sunday, Lowry played in his third consecutive All-Star Game. Thomas, who is second in scoring this season, played in his second.
Nash never played another game.
The Lakers were taking a flier on Jeremy Lin and regrettably re-signed Nick Young at shooting guard with nearly the same amount of money Thomas got. The club also invited Ronnie Price and Wayne Ellington to camp—instead of Whiteside—and Scott preferred them to Lin and Young for guard minutes.
Kupchak, according to a league source, was especially not a Thomas fan, the last pick in the 2011 draft.
Maybe Kupchak was just tired of having to cater to the last pick in the 2012 draft: Buss' guy, Sacre.
Being a poor leader is an even more egregious problem (when running a department) than just doing a bad job. A constant example? The lack of clarity regarding whether the Lakers were trying to win, trying to send Kobe off nicely, trying to rebuild or trying merely to stay relevant.
"What are we doing, exactly?" should not be the mantra of a great organization.
That, though, is the crux of the problem: the residual feeling Buss and Kupchak have from being part of the great organization.
Call it ego from having won multiple championships already and not needing to work hard to learn new recipes. Or ego from feeling like they didn't get the credit they deserved for those teams and wanting to do it their way instead of Jerry Buss' or Jerry West's or Phil Jackson's way.
Or ego from Jim Buss feeling like his father's chosen one and reassuring Kupchak that he would be a Laker forever too.
As we reported in June, Jerry Buss did not have deep confidence Jim was the right man for the job, but the whole Buss family hoped for the best. Jerry even hoped the team was set up with Bryant and Howard to bring Jim that personal glory. The idea was Jim could possibly move on to something else, with youngest sons Joey and Jesse ascending to more prominent roles in basketball operations.
Jerry did not figure Jim and Kupchak would so soon have to do the dirty business of rebuilding—dirty business that requires a totally different mentality than expecting to win.
For example, Kupchak's mentality from the winning years was never to plan on playing a rookie. Why would you when you want to win?
The Lakers always thought in the back of their minds—or in the front of their mouths, in the case of Jim, who promised people the playoffs every fall—they would win, even though the outside world knew better.
So even as the Lakers drafted well, Kupchak has curbed young players' opportunities by adding veterans with limited upside at their positions. The backlash has already begun in earnest for signing Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov to future-cap-clogging deals last summer. Coach Luke Walton swapped out Deng at starting small forward with rookie Brandon Ingram and replaced Mozgov in the rotation at center with rookie Ivica Zubac.
The Lakers' drafting in recent years has been more of a community approach from the scouting department, led by Jesse Buss with a strong voice from director of player personnel Ryan West. Case in point: Jim wanted Doug McDermott over Julius Randle.
The draft and free agency have hardly gone hand in hand, however, with Jim Buss and Kupchak completely in charge.
Randle arrived...and then so did Carlos Boozer to get in the way. Jordan Clarkson's strong first season and D'Angelo Russell's selection was followed by Lou Williams' signing.
The basketball operations department has struggled to commit to its causes in the same way Mike Brown lamely, always used to say he was in "search mode" in figuring out which guys he should play.
Hiring Brown in 2011 over Brian Shaw and Rick Adelman—both of whom Jerry liked—was the first major move Jim was allowed to make. It was symbolic of the type of rash, sleeper picks with which Jim—proud of his horse-racing handicapping history—entertains himself. (Jim told someone at the 2011 workout of Ater Majok that he saw a lot of Kevin Garnett in him, so the Lakers drafted Majok.)
After Gasol was not traded for Paul, Brown reiterated to Jim Buss his desire to build a throwback twin-towers look reminiscent of Brown's days as a San Antonio Spurs assistant with David Robinson and Tim Duncan.
OK, but...Brown was fired after 71 games and replaced by a polar opposite style from Mike D'Antoni (though only after the infamous flirtation with rehiring Jackson).
OK, but...why then sign center Chris Kaman as the main free agent if you're supposed to be committing to D'Antoni's speed-ball approach? Why then require three interviews of Scott, a longtime Laker and Kobe devotee, to be the next coach if you're resolved to prioritize promotion of Bryant to the finish?
The Walton hiring, finally, was decisive, sharp and forward-thinking. But with that full commitment to youth in place, Deng and Mozgov were nevertheless added in the summer. Then Buss, in particular, was sorely tempted to shift course yet again Sunday, break from those plans and trade whatever youth it took in the hopes of landing DeMarcus Cousins, according to a team source.
Leadership is obviously going to be poor as long as vision is lacking.
Even as Lakers management made strategic errors in recent years by not anticipating the increased value of draft picks, not putting on strong enough protection when trading those picks, not embracing analytics, not seeking out salary-cap expertise beyond Kupchak assistant Glenn Carraro, not realizing in their private pre-draft workout that Kristaps Porzingis was uniquely designed to win an All-Star Skills Competition when seeing if Mark Madsen could make Porzingis his personal bean bag and sit on him in the post...the lack of vision made it difficult to accomplish any goal.
Then again, maybe the only goal was, as Kupchak said, "We'll get somebody. At some point, we will."
That's a lot more like sitting in a waiting room than doing something special.
The last Lakers championship in 2010 came about only after Jerry Buss recruited Metta World Peace (then Ron Artest) in person in Marina del Rey, California. Buss also spoke via phone from Italy to get Odom to take less money than the Portland Trail Blazers were offering him.
For all the Lakers' great patriarch did in leadership, he was no slouch at basketball operations.
Buss did more of the big deals than most owners—getting to an agreement with Minnesota Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor on a Garnett trade before it fell through, then doing meaningful work with Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley to land Gasol.
Buss had a way of connecting with his superstars, living up to his word and crusade to make Bryant a Laker for life.
The Lakers' challenges have been considerable since Buss' death four years ago last Saturday—particularly the luxury tax, revenue sharing and Bryant's injuries.
Jeanie Buss chose to keep giving Jim the chance that their father wanted for him, even though none other than NBA Commissioner Adam Silver urged her three years ago to be aggressive in wielding her power because the league office trusted her with it.
Although Jeanie has allowed Johnson to join the inner circle now, the family influence will be felt with or without Jim in the future. Jerry had been pushing Joey and Jesse to get more of a voice in basketball operations, and Joey spent the full 2006-07 season shadowing Jackson's coaching staff while Jim was assigned to mentor Jesse in scouting.
Both Joey (now with full autonomy over the successful minor league D-Fenders) and Jesse (promoted in 2015 to Lakers assistant general manager) were involved in Jeanie's hiring of Johnson. Both had their father's ear during his final years, apparently weighing in with Jerry to trade Bynum and influencing the club's free-agent choices of Steve Blake and Matt Barnes in 2010.
Jeanie now makes all the calls, but she doesn't want to in basketball operations. Joey and Jesse are expected—along with Walton and Johnson—to be increasingly involved with those moves in the future.
Whomever the Lakers hire if they replace Kupchak will be the critical decision.
But whatever anyone says about Johnson's lack of front-office experience, at least he hasn't been the one doing the damage to the Lakers product in recent years. Valid reason exists to believe Johnson will forge better relationships with agents and other league operatives—it would take him five minutes to take 25 steps at All-Star Weekend because of how many would stop him to say hi—and also inside an organization that Jeanie wants to have the sort of solidarity her father used to build.
So, it's almost unimaginable for Johnson—especially if he wants more say in decisions for himself—to start mounting some flimsy Dwight-like "Stay" campaign for either Jim Buss or Kupchak now.
In fact, the summer signings of Deng and Mozgov were precisely the sort of middling additions with minimal upside that the Buss siblings agreed in their 2014 family meeting would not be acceptable use of all the salary-cap money the Lakers had been saving year after year.
Scrambling to come anywhere close to Jim's promise that the team would be in contention by this season, however, he and Kupchak threw their long-term money at their problem anyway.
They were looking out for themselves.
Because of what Jim said in that 2014 meeting, this season has set up to be the end of the line.
It's now three years from then, and Jim has acknowledged he asked to be given three years—though Jim extracted a new four-year contract for Kupchak through '18 from the siblings in that same meeting, according to team sources.
Well, here's just how patient Jeanie and the other siblings have been...
Here's just how impetuous and illogical Jim has been in trying to shortcut his way to winning...
Jim's much-publicized promise to step down within three years—meaning this year—if the Lakers weren't "in contention" was not what he originally said, according to sources close to the family.
When Jeanie asked Jim what they could do to hold him accountable, what Jim actually said first was:
"I only need one year."
The others, knowing their brother so well, chuckled a bit and gave him a chance to amend his statement. He then made it "three years."
The Lakers went on to go 21-61 in that "one year" of 2014-15, the first 60-loss season in franchise history. They didn't have LeBron or Carmelo...or even Whiteside.
Not quite "contention."
And there's been nothing remotely close since.
Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KevinDing.