Magic Johnson's Exit Made One Thing Clear: Lakers Have Serious Trust Issues

Eric Pincus@@EricPincusLA Lakers Lead WriterMay 21, 2019

Magic Johnson, left, listens as Rob Pelinka talks during a news conference introducing him as the new general manager for the Los Angeles Lakers, in El Segundo, Calif., Friday, March 10, 2017. The Lakers introduced Pelinka, Kobe Bryant's longtime agent, as their new general manager. Pelinka will work with Johnson to rebuild the 16-time NBA champions from the worst four-year stretch in team history. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)
Nick Ut/Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — Frank Vogel sat next to Los Angeles Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka with a smile. When he spoke, briefly, Vogel insisted the perception of the team from outside is very different from what he's experienced on the inside.

Lakers fans better hope he's right.

L.A. as a franchise has taken a beating of late. Beyond another non-playoff season, Earvin "Magic" Johnson shocked the organization by stepping down from his role as president of basketball operations on the final day of the season, in part because he was tired of the "backstabbing" behind the scenes.

On Monday, clearly timed to overshadow Vogel's introductory press conference, Johnson unloaded on the Lakers on ESPN's First Take, claiming Pelinka was the one who betrayed him by talking behind his back, complaining how rarely Johnson made it into the office.

As Vogel sat patiently, Pelinka fielded question after question on Johnson and the Lakers' new power structure, taking the high road in praising Johnson. Any rift is based on "a misperception ... things that aren't true."

Whatever the truth may be, Pelinka wasn't the main reason why Johnson left.

"The straw that broke the camel's back was I wanted to fire Luke Walton, and we had ... three meetings," Johnson said. ... "We went back and forth like that, and then she [owner Jeanie Buss] brought [Lakers chief operating officer] Tim Harris into the meeting."

Jeanie Buss hired Johnson to own the team's basketball decisions, and now, she had seemingly taken that power away, turning instead to a committee that included Linda Rambis (the team's director of special projects) and her husband Kurt Rambis (hired in September as senior basketball adviser).

LM Otero/Associated Press

That was a sign to Johnson that his time with the Lakers was done, but what led to the fracture between Buss and her longtime friend and colleague?

According to someone familiar with the situation, the disconnect stems back to the trade deadline. Johnson apparently offered the New Orleans Pelicans more in a trade for All-Star forward Anthony Davis (notably Lonzo Ball) than had been communicated with Buss.

As Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times reported, the Lakers had agreed to send "their entire young core of [Ball], Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and Ivica Zubac to the Pelicans, as well as veteran guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope."

Buss later called the notion the team would give up that much in a trade "fake news," and Johnson on Monday blamed former Pelicans general manager Dell Demps for leaking the names.

"Let's just do it in private. Well, Dell didn't do that, so that's how it got out," Johnson said.

Some believe that Johnson, the only Lakers representative aware of what was offered to New Orleans, was in part responsible for some of the leaks. That's a mystery, but it may have contributed to Buss' reevaluation of her circle of trust, with Johnson needing damage control.

Instead, he decided to move on.

"[Buss] is going to eliminate the [president of basketball operations] position, because it was created entirely for Magic, and no one can really replace what he does," Pelinka said.

Technically, that's accurate. Johnson's predecessor, Jim Buss (still a part owner), carried the title executive vice president of basketball operations. He oversaw then-general manager Mitch Kupchak and made the team's final basketball decisions.

When Jeanie Buss relieved her brother of his duties in February 2017, she gave Johnson that power.

"The way it was structured when Magic was here, he had final basketball authority," Pelinka said. "That's the way Jeanie wanted it structured."

Even as late as April 3, Buss said, per ESPN's Dave McMenamin, "In terms of basketball decisions, I will always defer to Magic."

But that's not how Johnson perceived his position, at least toward the end.

"I said it's time for me to go," Johnson said. "I don't have the power that I thought I had to make the decisions."

Now Pelinka cites Buss as the final decider on all basketball matterson his recommendation, of courseafter he consults with his staff. But beyond that, Buss is relying on her advisers.

"Linda Rambis is an incredibly trusted colleague and partner for all the employees with the Lakers," Pelinka said. "She's been here for decades. She has wisdom in how this business works, how this town operates, and the relationship capital and experience and knowledge base that she brings to the table is incredibly helpful to all of us."

In thanking the Lakers, Vogel specifically name-dropped Kurt Rambis, who stood in the back of the conference but didn't speak to the media.

"He was a valuable resource in choosing Frank to be our next head coach, but his position hasn't changed," Pelinka said.

More than once, Pelinka said the team's structure was "very clear," but even after the conference, it may seem a bit vague on exactly where Kurt and Linda Rambis fit into the puzzle, not to mention Harris.

Johnson doesn't like the new order; that much was clear Monday.

"Jeanie's gotta stop that. You gotta stop people from having those voices," Johnson said.

Vogel, who should have been the headliner of the day, said it well:

"We need to build togetherness with our organization. I don't just mean with the 15 to 17 guys that are going to be uniform. I'm talking about organizational togetherness—starting with ownership to the front office to the coaching staff to the players to the trainers to the business side. We are all going to be pulling in the same direction."

Whether his sentiment holds true is uncertain, but Vogel should be safe for the next three seasons, given his fresh new contract. He said he's excited to have Jason Kidd on his staff.

Kidd doesn't have the best reputation in the league—previously chasing the Milwaukee Bucks' job when Larry Drew still held the position—but even if it all goes south for Vogel, the checks will still clear.

The Lakers have not looked stable over the past month, but they finally have a head coach and somewhat, kinda-sorta, clear power structure. Vogel may be the exact right fit and may thrive as head coach, but a lot of that will be determined this summer.

Armed with LeBron James, several promising prospects, the No. 4 pick in June's NBA draft and enough cap room to sign a maximum-salaried star like Kawhi Leonard or Kyrie Irving, the Lakers may kill it. And if they stick the landing, the ends justify the means, and Johnson's words will be remembered as nothing more than sour grapes.

Or maybe the drama scares away the league's best players and the Lakers continue to flounder. The answers are coming quickly. The draft is a month away (June 20), and the crucial free-agent period begins in July.

           

Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus.

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