Lakers' Next Boss Needs to Be More Than LeBron's Buddy

Ken Berger@@KBergNBAFeatured Columnist IApril 12, 2019

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James walks off of the court after the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Memphis Grizzlies Monday, Feb. 25, 2019, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Brandon Dill)
Brandon Dill/Associated Press

Faced with filling one of the most prestigious jobs in the NBA, president of basketball operations for the Los Angeles Lakers, controlling owner Jeanie Buss is going to hear plenty of input and theories about what kind of person is right for the job.

The distinction should be easy to make, since Magic Johnson just showed the world what kind of person is wrong for it.

After the disappointing Magic era ended so abruptly Tuesday, multiple league sources told Bleacher Report it's a near consensus in NBA front-office circles that Buss must look outside the Lakers family for her next chief of basketball operations. Buss also is going to hear another piece of advice, one she'd do well to ignore. And that advice is that the next Lakers president must fit one and only one criteria: the ability to attract one or more superstars to team up with LeBron James.

As important as LeBron is, that can't be the only end game. The job of restoring the Lakers to their championship glory is bigger than one player…even James.

"Jeanie's got to make a home-run hire here," a rival executive said.

And the definition of home run can't be, "Who has the best chance to trade for Anthony Davis and sign Kawhi Leonard?" It can't be, "Who has the best relationship with James and his agent, Rich Paul?" It has to be about finding the person who is best equipped to set the Lakers up for long-term success and stability. If Buss does that, the star power will take care of itself.

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"Look at the teams that have won consistently over the years," a prominent agent told B/R. "San Antonio, Oklahoma City, the Celtics, Dallas, Miami. Golden State is there now. They've all had stability; stability in ownership, stability in the front office and, for the most part, stability in the head coach."

The Spurs are in the playoffs for the 22nd consecutive year—all with Gregg Popovich as the head coach and R.C. Buford with the organization in some capacity (Buford has been general manager since 2002). Oklahoma City is in for the ninth time in 10 seasons, all under the leadership of GM Sam Presti. Though the Mavericks have fallen on lean times as Dirk Nowitzki's Hall of Fame career wound down, they've only missed the postseason four times since 2000. GM Donnie Nelson has been with the organization since 1998. Director of player personnel Tony Ronzone has been there since 2012 (after previous roles with the team in the late 1990s and mid-2000s). Rick Carlisle has been the coach since 2008.

"Everyone has to be on the same page, and you have to be out there grinding and finding the diamonds in the rough," a Western Conference executive said. "You can't just sit back and think all the free agents are just going to come to the Lakers. The league doesn't work like that anymore."

A person in the league who knows LeBron well said he prefers an executive with a championship on his resume. Of the aforementioned teams, Buford, Nelson, Danny Ainge, Pat Riley and Bob Myers all check that box. So does David Griffin, James' former boss in Cleveland. Presti hasn't ascended that mountain yet, but James is cerebral enough to know that he's nonetheless one of the most innovative and effective builders of a winning culture and sustained success in the league.

In the almost-five years since Steve Ballmer bought the Clippers, he has built a front office that most inside the NBA exceeds that of Jeanie Buss' Lakers in terms of depth and creativity.
In the almost-five years since Steve Ballmer bought the Clippers, he has built a front office that most inside the NBA exceeds that of Jeanie Buss' Lakers in terms of depth and creativity.Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

"LeBron needs someone he can respect," the person said.

And the Lakers need someone who knows that winning organizations are comprised of more than just star players and celebrity executives. The job is about results, and results come from having a deep and creative scouting staff, combing the globe for the next Nowitzki, Giannis Antetokounmpo or Luka Doncic. Results come from being a step ahead of your rivals when it comes to sports performance, recovery, nutrition and analytics.

These are all areas where the Lakers have lagged behind the curve in recent yearsnot only in the league, but also in their own city. Clippers owner Steve Ballmer has continued to assemble a deep and multi-skilled front office that dwarfs that of the Lakers in both size and creativity.

"Jeanie has to ask herself, 'Are you going to let Ballmer be the new sheriff in town?'" the prominent agent said. "Because that's basically what he's doing."

Whether you're in L.A., New York or Oklahoma City, building a championship organization in the NBA isn't about charisma or personality. It's about wins and losses, not popularity. Johnson learned this the hard way. So, hopefully, has Buss.

It's time for the Lakers to see the big picture, venture out from their Hollywood cocoon and grind like everyone else.

Magic accomplished the first part of the job; he got LeBron. The second part is where Johnsonand, not to exonerate him, GM Rob Pelinkafailed. Together, they failed to put a good enough team around LeBron. They failed to get complementary pieces that fit, much less another star.

Perhaps Johnson did step down Tuesday for all the reasons he mentioned. But as one authority on NBA front-office matters told B/R the next day, perhaps he also didn't like his chances of landing one of the star free agents this summer and couldn't bear the thought of heaping more failure on his shaky resume as an executive.

"He can't deliver the players they want, so he might as well bail now," the person said.

If that's why Magic bailed, it only strengthened the case that he was the wrong man for the job. And if Buss wants to leave her mark on the franchise in a positive way, she can't allow herself to be lured into the trap of thinking that this hire is all about winning the press conference in 2019 free agency.

The Lakers have to think bigger than that because the truth is players come and go (especially in today's NBA). No matter how great the star, the end always comes.

Case in point: James, sitting out the last few days of Lakers futility in his 16th season, spent his Wednesday night in Brooklyn watching his old pal Dwyane Wade call it a career. James, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul posted up in their courtside seats across from the Heat bench, taking in an unobstructed view as one of the greatest shooting guards in history limped to the finish line.

Though Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka successfully lured LeBron James to the Lakers last summer, they also built a team that missed the playoffs for the sixth straight season.
Though Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka successfully lured LeBron James to the Lakers last summer, they also built a team that missed the playoffs for the sixth straight season.Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

Damaged as he was at 37 years old and after 16 seasons, Wade somehow rose to the occasion and put on a show with 25 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists in an anti-climactic 113-94 loss to the playoff-bound Nets.

But it was clear to anyone who saw him in his prime, as James did—both as a rival and teammatethat it was time. The clock runs out on all of them, no matter how great.

This day of reckoning hasn't come yet for James, but it will. It always does. And if Buss allows the Lakers to fall into the trap of chasing short-term victories and shiny objects, she'll end up with the wrong guy again.


Ken Berger covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KBergNBA. 

ESPN NBA data analyst Kirk Goldsberry joins Howard Beck to discuss why the NBA needs to get rid of the corner three-pointer, who deserves to be MVP and what it's like to go to a Broadway play with Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. All that and more in The Full 48.