Column: Lakers can’t count on celebrity to bring back glory
Chasing celebrity isn’t mentioned anywhere in the first chapter of the playbook to NBA relevance.
It hasn’t worked in New York, where Phil Jackson’s 11 rings haven’t helped turn around a franchise. There’s not much evidence it will work in Los Angeles, either, where Magic Johnson is now in charge of leading the Lakers back to the promised land.
One of the greatest Lakers will try his hand at restoring the franchise to greatness, likely with an assist from Kobe Bryant’s former agent. Hard to see how Magic has time for it, considering he is also the titular head of the Dodgers and is part of a group that owns the Los Angeles Sparks of the WNBA.
But Johnson will give it a try, and for that Lakers fans have to be happy. LA is a city of stars, and the Lakers are in desperate need of some star power to rekindle memories of championships of the past.
Unfortunately, the Lakers have been stuck in the past way too long. And no matter how glorious that past was, it has little to do with winning in the NBA today.
To do that, you need current stars – and more than just one of them. But this isn’t 1988, and they’re not going to come running to LA just because Magic Johnson is asking them to.
Johnson seemed to acknowledge that himself when given the reins of one of the NBA’s most prestigious franchises. He asked for time, perhaps forgetting that the reason Jeanie Buss pulled off a palace coup that ousted her own brother was that LA fans were tired of waiting for a winner.
”It’s about building the winning culture again, that’s what it’s about now,” Johnson said on the Lakers’ television network, with Buss sitting next him nodding and smiling in agreement. ”Once we get that then I can make the moves necessary to put us in the place we used to be.”
That place was once perennially at the top of the standings, which has made the recent hard times even more difficult for fans to swallow. The Lakers haven’t come close to a winning season the last four years, and had the third-worst record in the NBA when Buss made a power move to replace her brother and longtime general manager Mitch Kupchak.
The decision to bring Magic in – even with his lack of NBA management experience – wasn’t all that surprising, though the timing was. Two days before the trade deadline in a season already given up for lost isn’t the time teams usually pick to clean out the front office.
Remember, too, that Jeanie Buss didn’t speak up last year when the Lakers basically gave away a season – and a season’s worth of growth for their young players – by allowing Bryant to enjoy a yearlong going away tour that did nothing to prepare the team for the future.
At least give the new administration credit for at least moving fast. The day wasn’t over before the Lakers traded leading scorer Lou Williams to the Houston Rockets for Corey Brewer and a draft pick, a sign that it wouldn’t be business as usual at Staples Center.
It wasn’t exactly the equivalent of landing DeMarcus Cousins, a failure that may have ultimately cost Kupchak his job. But there’s nothing sexy about standing pat, even though the Lakers have a nice core of young talent that on any given night seems capable of winning some games.
That a housecleaning was needed in La La Land isn’t up for debate. Jim Buss himself said in 2014 that he would step down from running the team if the Lakers weren’t in contention in three years.
But he probably didn’t imagine his sister would take him at his word and oust him before he could quit. He retains his ownership stake, but she retains control overall under the terms of succession laid down by Jerry Buss before he died.
So she’s turning to Johnson, who is royalty in Southern California and gives the new management some instant credibility. The real key to whether it all works, though, will be the moves orchestrated by Rob Pelinka, the agent who by all accounts will be the new general manager.
Hiring Pelinka is probably bolder than hiring Johnson. But Pelinka knows his way around contracts, and he has relationships with other agents and players that could prove invaluable to landing new talent in Los Angeles.
Let Johnson be the public face. Use him to rally fans who otherwise might be thinking they should change their allegiance to the Clippers.
But for the Lakers to contend again they need more than just Magic at the top.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg