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Lakers Front-Office Shakeup: What Took So Long?

February 21st, 2017 · No Comments · Basketball, Kobe, Lakers, NBA

Jerry Buss died on February 18, 2013.

Two months later, the team he owned, the Los Angeles Lakers, completed a 45-37 regular season and qualified for the NBA playoffs for the 31st time in the 33 seasons played since Buss bought a controlling interest in the club, ahead of the 1979-80 season.

Buss left his 66 percent interest in the team to his six children, to be divided equally. The trouble is, he got at least one key role wrong, that of executive vice-president of basketball operations.

That job went to son Jim, who had never really impressed, and the Lakers imploded.

They have missed the playoffs for three consecutive seasons, with a fourth failure all but assured this season, and today the one Buss child who outranked Jim in the Lakers hierarchy — sister Jeanie, the club president — fired her brother from his front-office job and also dismissed Mitch Kupchak as general manager, ending a 17-year run for the latter.

Jim Buss and Kupchak oversaw an 84-220 record in three-plus seasons since Jerry Buss died and have led a rebuilding era that has gone nowhere.

Former Lakers great Magic Johnson takes over the basketball operations job, and a GM is being recruited, with Rob Pelinka, Kobe Bryant’s agent, the leading candidate.

Asked at a press conference today about firing her brother, Jeanie said: “This was a very difficult decision. It was probably so hard for me to make that I probably waited too long. For that, I apologize to Laker fans.”

Apology accepted.

Lakers fans can only hope the nightmare will soon be over; hope was about gone as Jim Buss’s reign of error dragged on.

The fans have found themselves living in a bizarro world, where the club is a laughingstock and the Clippers are the best team in Los Angeles.

Weird stuff.

Magic and whoever becomes GM have a lot of work to do because the rebuild is barely off the ground.

The Lakers have had four first-round picks in the past three NBA drafts, and they haven’t exactly nailed it.

In 2014, with the seventh pick they took power forward Julius Randle, who missed a year with an injury and has been, at best, a middling player. Players they could have taken included Zach LaVine and Nicola Jokic.

In 2015, they took point guard D’Angelo Russell with the second pick. He has had moments (including one involving teammate Nick Young and some unfortunate video) as well as ongoing knee problems. The Lakers could have had forward Kristaps Porzingis or guard Devin Booker. (They took Larry Nance Jr. with the 27th pick.)

In 2016, they again had the No. 2 pick and selected the slightly builtĀ  shooting forward Brandon Ingram out of Duke. He may yet turn out to be a star; he isn’t now, but it’s too early to project his future.

The uptake is that the Lakers did not add a star, let alone a superstar, in the three-plus seasons with Jim Buss and Kupchak making decisions. Not by draft, not by trade, not by free-agent signing.

For the first time in three decades, the Lakers turned into a club quality free agents would not consider joining — because they had no nucleus of strong players, exacerbated by the fact that Kobe Bryant was working on his drawn-out retirement in 2015-16.

Their best player this year is journeyman guard Lou Williams, who leads the team in scoring at 18.6 per game.

Jeanie Buss appears to hope that Magic Johnson, and whomever is chosen as GM, will make sure they get the right players in the draft, and also reconstruct the club’s standing as a destination for leading free agents.

Magic was a key figure during the Jerry Buss years; his first season was also Buss’s, and the Lakers won the NBA championship, culminating in a 42-point, 15-rebound, seven-assist game by Magic in the clinching Game 6, which Kareem Abdul-Jabbar sat out with an ankle injury. (I covered that game at The Spectrum, in Philadelphia.)

The Lakers won nine more NBA titles with Jerry Buss running things (most recently in 2009 and 2010), and Magic was directly involved in four or those nine.

Hard to say how long the Lakers will need to become a playoffs team, let alone a championship contender. They will need their high draft picks to continue to improve, enough to induce a prominent free agent or two to join what was the NBA’s most glamorous club for a generation.

But they have, belatedly, taken the first step, thanks to Jeanie Buss, by ending the Jim Buss/Mitch Kupchak era.

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