By turning the franchise over to Magic Johnson on Wednesday, effectively firing co-owner Jim Buss and actually firing general manager Mitch Kupchak, the Los Angeles Lakers proved what we’ve all assumed for years: This is a franchise without a direction, chasing whatever shiny object crosses its line of sight and panicking when things don’t work out.
Let’s start with some optimism, though, because it’s fun to dream — and because there’s plenty of reason to hate every bit of this decision.
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There is a chance Magic will turn the Lakers around as their new president of basketball operations. He’s an incredibly smart man who understands business. He knows how to empower the right people, allowing them to make the right decisions. And no one on this planet wants the Lakers to succeed as much as their former Hall of Fame point guard. Five years from now, we might be talking about how Magic saved the Lakers. I promise you, that could happen.
But as we sit here on Feb. 21, with Jeanie Buss having gone full Game of Thrones on the franchise, the only possible conclusion is that the Lakers panicked by elevating Magic to his new position less than three weeks after hiring him as an adviser to ownership.
Start with the timing of the move. As you probably know, the NBA trade deadline is just two days away, and the Lakers now enter one of the most pivotal stretches of the calendar without the slightest hint of direction. One assumes Los Angeles will now be completely quiet at the deadline — or at least one hopes that’s the case because making a trade just hours after dismantling your entire front office and hiring a novice to lead basketball operations can only lead to disaster.
Either way, making this decision now reveals just how myopic the Lakers are. The team undoubtedly was engaged in dozens of trade conversations this week, from trying to turn Lou Williams into a draft pick to attempts to get rid of the awful contracts of Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng. Now, all those discussions go back to the drawing board, as Los Angeles is left to play out the string this season.
In addition, one has to wonder how the DeMarcus Cousins trade played into this decision. For the better part of a year, rumors and leaks have indicated some members of the Lakers front office want a superstar, and they want one now. Perhaps seeing the ridiculously low price the Pelicans paid for the Kings center was the catalyst for a change in Los Angeles. If New Orleans could pull off such a move, why couldn’t the Lakers? (Answer: because Sacramento owner Vivek Ranadive apparently believes Buddy Hield is the second coming of Steph Curry, but it takes perspective to understand that difference.)
Going after DeMarcus Cousins was Jim & Mitch's last-ditch attempt to save their jobs, I'm told. Jim really wanted him, Mitch handled talks
Yet a declaration that you’re fed up with losing isn’t enough to spur a franchise back to its winning ways. Every team reaches rock bottom in the NBA at some point or another. What separates the teams that claw out of their holes from those who just keep digging is foresight. The Philadelphia 76ers have a plan; the Orlando Magic keep making moves simply for the sake of doing things. By detonating the organization in the middle of a season, just days before the trade deadline, the Lakers proved they’re much more like the Magic than the Sixers.
How can you trust the process when all you care about is results?
Finally, there’s the saddest part of this whole ordeal: family. Jim Buss had to know his time as a decision-maker with the Lakers was running short. This was supposed to be the year where Los Angeles became a Western Conference contender once more, or else Buss would be removed from power. That was the agreement between Jim, Jeanie and the late Dr. Jerry Buss before he passed, but the powers that be decided enough was enough. They used a third season of struggles to justify this panic move, turning their back on Dr. Buss and progress toward a brighter future, all for the long-shot chance that Magic knows what he’s doing when it comes to putting together an NBA franchise.
Maybe he does. We certainly hope Magic can turn the Lakers around because the Association is better when its marquee franchises are halfway decent. In the end, though, LA could have done this all in the offseason — you know, like a respectable, forward-thinking franchise would do. That it felt Feb. 21 was the right time to clean house tells you all you need to know about the state of Los Angeles in 2017.