LeBron James went to Hollywood last summer with realistic hopes about the short term and optimistic visions of a future filled with championships while cloaked not only in purple and gold, but also in the Lakers' glamour and mystique.
After Magic Johnson's abrupt and stunning decision to step down as team president last month and the latest fiasco of not being able to close the deal with Tyronn Lue as their next head coach, mystique is about all that's left of the Lakers.
"They're still the Lakers by name," a prominent agent told Bleacher Report. "But the infrastructure, the assets, the front office, those are big questions. What's the plan? Who's really in charge?"
Despite the popular notion that hiring Lue would have given James free rein in L.A., that isn't the dynamic the Lakers would've been getting, according to two people familiar with their relationship in Cleveland, where Lue coached James to the 2015-16 NBA title.
Lue famously argued with James on the bench during the first half of Game 7 that year against the Warriors and challenged him in front of the entire team at halftime, as Sports Illustrated's Lee Jenkins chronicled. That kind of interaction is closer to the truth about their relationship—one filled with ups and downs but also with respect.
With Lue reportedly out of the picture, there's all the more reason for James to be concerned about the direction of this coaching search—and about the Lakers' leadership.
"I think what LeBron is learning is how important a strong, stable front office is to his success," said one of the people familiar with James' relationship with Lue during their time in Cleveland. "For the Lakers not to close this deal, they must have put something on the table that Lue wasn't comfortable with. What was that? If that's the case, they don't know what they're doing."
Multiple reports have emerged about why the Lakers' negotiations with Lue went sideways, leading to the breakdown in talks. According to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski and Dave McMenamin, Lue rejected a three-year, $18 million offer, which is hardly sufficient for a head coach with a championship on his resume. Luke Walton, whom the Lakers fired after a disappointing 37-45 season, got a five-year deal with the team when he signed in 2016.
Wojnarowski and McMenamin added that Lakers adviser Kurt Rambis assumed a prominent role in the coaching search, and that Rambis and general manager Rob Pelinka became convinced that Jason Kidd should be part of Lue's coaching staff.
"Ty wanted no part of that," another agent told B/R. "He must have been thinking, 'Great, all I have to do is start 8-8, and I'm out of here and Jason Kidd is the coach.'"
Not only that, but is this what James signed up for when he left Cleveland for L.A.? A Hollywood fairy tale in which Rambis and his wife, Linda, are wielding the most clout in the front office?
To stop the downward spiral, the Lakers should be looking for someone who can bring the kind of accountability and responsibility that Lue would've brought to the table. Someone who is not only willing, but also able to coach LeBron...really coach him.
"[Lue] didn't make it all about LeBron," one of the people familiar with their interactions in Cleveland told B/R. "But obviously, when you've got superstars like he had in Cleveland, with LeBron, Kyrie [Irving] and Kevin Love, he made it a point to take the time and try to understand everybody's needs. You saw that in the play-calling, whether it was certain packages for K-Love or certain packages for Kyrie, and then you had LeBron's stuff. He was really good at that."
Those close to James say he hasn't been consulted about the coaching hire and insist he doesn't want to be. But suffice it to say, he wouldn't have been upset if the Lakers had closed the deal with Lue.
"He's a championship coach, who happened to coach LeBron, who happened to play the game, who happened to be an ex-Laker," the person familiar with their relationship said. "I mean, how many more boxes do you want to check?"
In addition to Lue and Kidd, the Lakers also interviewed Monty Williams, who was hired by James' friend and former teammate, Phoenix general manager James Jones, to coach the Suns. According to Shams Charania of The Athletic, the Lakers have added former head coaches Lionel Hollins, Frank Vogel and Mike Woodson to their list.
But as important as it is for Pelinka and controlling owner Jeanie Buss to get this hire right and restore their credibility, James will be paying attention to something even more crucial: What kind of leadership is coming from the top?
From hiring Magic for a job he was clearly ill-suited for to the botched attempts to force a trade for Anthony Davis, Johnson's bizarre resignation and now the Lue fiasco, the evidence is mounting that the organizational stability in which James thrived during the most successful years of his career—in Miami and during his second tour in Cleveland—is nonexistent in Lakerland.
When James left Cleveland the first time for Miami, he inherited a young, relatively unproven coach in Erik Spoelstra. They clashed early; the mutual respect wasn't there yet. But Heat team president Pat Riley was there to make sure the relationship—and ultimately, success—had a chance to take hold.
"Spo had a lot of learning to do, and he was able to do it because there was continuity and stability," a person familiar with the dynamic of those Heat teams said. "But it wasn't like he told LeBron, 'I'm going to tell you what to do and you're going to do it.' They all were challenged. Just like Tiger's caddy is challenged, just like Bill Belichick is challenged by Tom Brady, the way Floyd Mayweather or Muhammad Ali's corner was challenged. That's what the great ones do."
In the NBA, the great ones also recognize that who's on the floor and who wears the most expensive suit on the bench are only two of the ingredients necessary for championship success. The third—a competent front office—is sorely lacking in L.A., as James is learning the hard way.
Who will play the role of Riley in Los Angeles, creating a culture based on winning habits and strong relationships—not to mention creative scouting, smart drafting and organizational stability?
LeBron is waiting for the answer, and the Lakers are on the clock.
Ken Berger covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KBergNBA.
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