Lakers Show Loyalty Matters More Than Family with New Magic-Pelinka Front Office

Kevin Ding@@KevinDingNBA Senior WriterMarch 10, 2017

NEW ORLEANS, LA - FEBRUARY 19: NBA Legend, Magic Johnson walks around during the NBA All-Star Game as part of the 2017 NBA All Star Weekend on February 19, 2017 at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans, Louisiana.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2017 NBAE (Photo by Chris Marion/NBAE via Getty Images)
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LOS ANGELES — The buzzword in L.A. is "family," because everyone has one and it's natural to rubberneck when someone else's has run itself off the road…especially when the folks can afford much more than a minivan.

The business, though, is basketball.

And for this business that happens to be run by Jerry Buss' family, what matters a lot more than family is loyalty.

The Magic Johnson management era should be bringing a whole lot more of that, even if Jeanie Buss isn't his sister by blood.

Basketball decisions are sharpest when they're inspired and creative yet also vetted by others—even if those people don't have the pedigree in an NBA front office of a Mitch Kupchak.

That's why hope abounds amid all the inexperience in the Los Angeles Lakers' executive branch right now. The newest piece, Rob Pelinka, will be introduced Friday as Kupchak's replacement in the office of general manager.

Pelinka has made a life of being the man behind the man—from being a role player on three NCAA Final Four teams with the "Fab Five" at Michigan to a prominent sports agent who supported Kobe Bryant through everything, including his sexual assault trial. In some cases, Pelinka has been the man behind the woman; his wife has her own career as a pediatrician in Orange County, California.

And he knows of loyalty in his line of work, controversially maximizing Carlos Boozer's earnings at the Cleveland Cavaliers' expense or, most clearly to Lakers president Jeanie Buss, in how Bryant has stood with Pelinka for so long when few associates have survived Bryant's never-ending cycles for new, better and more.

The family feeling that Jeanie prefers was never going to happen with how closed-off Jim Buss and Kupchak were. But her aspirations for it are evident in choosing two people as replacements whom she knows pretty well—Johnson and Pelinka—to do jobs they have never done before.

What Johnson and Pelinka—and even newbie head coach Luke Walton—don't know requires them to be more inclusive and candid as they try to grow and learn. The openness has been obvious already in Johnson's first weeks with the team and Pelinka's first days, according to team sources.

No hidden agendas. Greater democracy.

And full loyalty to the Lakers.

Johnson has long yearned to run the Lakers' basketball operations, in part to continue his connection with Jerry Buss. Well, Pelinka, too, has hoped to be Lakers GM longer than he might admit publicly.

That desire goes back far longer than Johnson's arrival on the scene in recent months, and was essentially realized the day Johnson took over, when Pelinka was the clear choice to take over as GM on the day Kupchak was fired.

There just has to be a balance between personal goals and loyalty.

Jerry West was interested in returning to the Lakers, where son Ryan has carved out a useful role with the old and new regime, but, though Jeanie Buss will forever revere Jerry, he didn't match her vision for the future, according to NBA sources. Bryant is loyal to Pelinka, but Bryant is sticking to his personal plan to stay focused on business pursuits rather than maximizing his basketball legend or taking on any actual Lakers role under new management.

Carlos Boozer and Rob Pelinka, who represented the longtime power forward.
Carlos Boozer and Rob Pelinka, who represented the longtime power forward.Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Ask people around the league about Pelinka, and you most assuredly will not get universal rave reviews about what a warm, fuzzy sweetheart he is. Perhaps that's because he has been operating out of loyalty to his clients and saving his best people skills for representing them. Time will tell.

Johnson likes to cite the opportunities he had to join other NBA front offices. It's part bombast, sure, yet ultimately pride in his own loyalty.

And as Johnson and Pelinka build their new careers, that will be their challenge: meshing their egos from their past successes with an unwavering faithfulness to what's best for the Lakers' future.

Jeanie Buss is banking on this critical difference as well as her belief that Magic is a lot more like Jerry than like Jim—seeking out other voices in building up his businesses, looking to involve more people with undervalued opinions, setting others up to score instead of trying to be the hero, communicating openly with Jeanie and fans alike and inspiring loyalty back from those he reaches.

Then the Lakers might someday have something strong at the top again.

It's apropos that Kupchak's last big move was solidified at a late hour from a nearly empty office that featured only Jim Buss and Kupchak—with Kupchak's cap-specialist assistant, Glenn Carraro, there to officiate more than regulate. All others had left, and Buss and Kupchak alone made a decision that already looks fateful in more ways than one: to lavish free agent Luol Deng with a four-year, $72 million contract and compromise the Lakers' long-held salary-cap space for a worn-down non-difference-maker at the very position they'd just drafted Brandon Ingram to own.

Former GM Mitch Kupchak's decision to spend $72 million on Luol Deng was just one of the decisions that eroded the confidence Jeanie Buss had that he could revive the Lakers.
Former GM Mitch Kupchak's decision to spend $72 million on Luol Deng was just one of the decisions that eroded the confidence Jeanie Buss had that he could revive the Lakers.Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

How much Kupchak's decision to spend last summer was tied to Jim Buss' promise to step down if the Lakers didn't reach contention this season is difficult to quantify, but Jeanie sure didn't take it as being loyal to the Lakers.

Kupchak is under contract for all of next season, so it could have made some sense to keep him around. But there were other issues in actual job performance—reasons why Johnson didn't vouch for Kupchak, a longtime Laker, to stay on.

The GM position is all about the details, and despite Johnson's previous verbal takedowns targeting Jim, Jeanie and Magic weren't happy with reports of Kupchak's shortcomings alongside Jim, either.

There was too much evidence of Kupchak's work ethic weakening, his knowledge of the league's players being less than encyclopedic, his inability to play the behind-the-scenes game to get you-scratch-my-back benefits from agents, his tendency to trade draft picks to make bad contracts go away and his outright complacency in managing the draft-pick protections in the Steve Nash trade.

Pelinka's job now is to be a devil in dealing with those details.

Via his allegiance to Kobe, Pelinka has been in some way part of the Lakers' "family" for a long time. But this is different.

Jeanie Buss hopes Magic Johnson can show the same type of business acumen her father, Jerry, did in running the Lakers.
Jeanie Buss hopes Magic Johnson can show the same type of business acumen her father, Jerry, did in running the Lakers.Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

And it should be different now.

As we look back on it, Jeanie and Jim had loyalty to their father more than to the family.

Definitely not loyalty to each other, as that wasn't anywhere close to earned.

Not even loyalty to the Lakers, really, in letting the mismanagement go on as long as it did.

That's all over now. It's time to try again.

Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.

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