As Johnson joins the Lakers, what changes for the franchise?

ByRamona Shelburne ESPN logo
Wednesday, February 8, 2017

THE CALL CAME in from a number Magic Johnson didn't recognize, so he sent it to voicemail. He'd been in meetings all morning with his new, old team. In the first few hours since the team announced Magic had been hired as a special advisor to Lakers co-owner Jeanie Buss, he'd met with her, the younger Buss brothers, Joey and Jesse, general manager Mitch Kupchak and dozens of team staffers.

Magic's phone had been buzzing the whole time. But the point of this day was to show up at the Lakers offices and be present, let everyone see him again and start wrapping his head around the monumental job of resurrecting the franchise he'd led to glory as a player. Besides, most of the calls were congratulations from friends and old teammates -- the sort of short, pithy "way to go" texts and voicemails that can be answered or acknowledged in a few days.

But after Magic listened to this particular voicemail, he knew it demanded a quick reply. It was Lakers co-owner and executive vice president of basketball operations Jim Buss, and he wanted to know the same thing the rest of the basketball world did: What's next?

What's next for Buss, mentored and authorized by his late father, longtime Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss, to run basketball operations? What's next for Kupchak, the Lakers' day-to-day decision-maker since 2000?

And what's next for Magic? Was he there to advise Jeanie? Or to start running the organization like he once ran a fast break?

In recent years, Magic's criticism of Jim Buss has been direct and withering. In the past, he has called for him to relinquish power, criticized his decisions to hire Mike Brown and Mike D'Antoni, ripped him for failing to land marquee superstars. (Of course, he also once suggested that trading for Dwight Howard and Steve Nash should put Buss in the running for Executive of the Year.)

But overall, Magic has been highly critical of the Lakers' front office. So when Jim Buss called Johnson last Thursday, naturally, he wanted to know his intentions.

Magic told Jim he was there to help, that he stood by his criticisms from the past but hoped they could move forward without that baggage. The answer and Johnson's tone disarmed Buss. It was as close to a détente as the two men, both 57 years old, had reached in years.

Buss agreed and asked to schedule a meeting after the All-Star break where he and general manager Mitch Kupchak could explain their decision-making over the past few seasons.

"I'm taking Magic at face value, that he's here to help," Jim Buss told ESPN. "He's one of the greatest basketball players of all time. Who wouldn't value his opinion? I'm excited to work with Magic for years to come."

WHETHER THEIR ACCOMMODATING attitudes represent a lasting peace or a temporary cease-fire, Jim Buss, in particular, has plenty of incentive to make the relationship work: his own self-imposed deadline.

During the chaotic 2013-14 season, Jim made a surprising promise at a meeting with his five siblings. It had been a year since their father's death. Kobe Bryant had suffered two consecutive season-ending injuries. Coach Mike D'Antoni was still trying to coax as much as he could out of the talent the Lakers had left after Howard's free-agent defection and Pau Gasol's disillusionment. There was tremendous external pressure on Jim and Jeanie to bring back former coach Phil Jackson, who was on the verge of leaving the franchise for good to join the New York Knicks.

But it was just one year into a plan the Buss kids knew their father had badly wanted to work. It was too soon to even judge how it was working. So Jim asked for more time to get the franchise headed back in the right direction.

"I was laying myself on the line by saying, if this doesn't work in three to four years, if we're not back on the top -- and the definition of top means contending for the Western Conference, contending for a championship -- then I will step down, because that means I have failed," Jim Buss revealed in a 2013 Los Angeles Times article.

"I don't know if you can fire yourself if you own the team ... but what I would say is I'd walk away, and you guys figure out who's going to run basketball operations, because I obviously couldn't do the job.

"There's no question in my mind we will accomplish success. I'm not worried about putting myself on the line."

The clock has been ticking ever since Jim made that statement. But when exactly does the buzzer sound?

Jeanie Buss has stated publicly that she has the authority to hold her brother to his word -- and she has said previously that the deadline arrives this year. But when Jim Buss says he's excited to work with Magic for years to come, that doesn't sound like a man who intends to step down anytime soon.

TO FULLY APPRECIATEthe drama of the moment, you must first try to understand the depth of Johnson's 38-year relationship with the Lakers' organization and the Buss family.

Magic Johnson was 19 when Dr. Buss drafted him No. 1 overall in 1979, just a few months after he'd purchased the team from Jack Kent Cooke. Jeanie Buss was there to greet him on the day he was introduced to the city he'd soon rule. She was just 17 at the time, and they were both a little nervous at the size of the stage. It all worked out, of course. Magic owned the Los Angeles sports scene for decades and is still one of the city's most beloved figures. It was in those first few years, when he would come over to Dr. Buss' house to play pool or ride with the family to Southern California football home games, that his bond with the family, especially with Jeanie, became so close. At Dr. Buss' funeral in 2013, Magic referred to him as a "second father."

Jim Buss is Jeanie's older brother and the closest to her in age. They've never been especially close. But family is family, and in this case, family is ownership, too.

And it was always very clear that their father wanted this arrangement -- Jeanie runs the business side of the Lakers, and Jim the basketball side -- to be part of his legacy.

So what Jeanie Buss decides what to do with her brother, with the Lakers on the verge of a fourth straight trip to the lottery, isn't merely a personnel decision or business decision. It's a deeply personal one.

From the moment Magic had dinner with her at a Lakers home game three weeks ago to discuss his new role, he became Jeanie Buss' 6-foot-9 bronze-plated Hall of Fame shield for what comes next.

If his role is diminished, will Jim Buss dig in and fight back?

A protracted legal battle could be emotionally and materially draining, and it could have a debilitating effect on the Lakers' ability to operate during the NBA draft and the free-agent signing period this summer.

No decisions will be made in a rush. In their conversation this week, Magic told Jim Buss that he was there to help, but stopped short of engaging in the larger conversation about the future. Magic says he wants to hear how Buss and Kupchak explain their decision-making on draft picks, free agents and trades -- both the moves they've made and the moves not made. He wants their side of the story.

ALTHOUGH MAGIC IS said to be personally fond of Kupchak, who joined the Lakers' front office in 1986, about halfway through Magic's playing career, he's also determined to make an honest evaluation of the general manager's performance and abilities in today's NBA.

According to sources close to the situation, Magic has already heard from agents and executives from other teams that Kupchak's deliberate style can be frustrating to deal with and has probably cost the Lakers in free agency in recent years, missing out on a list of names that includes Isaiah Thomas, Kent Bazemore, Kyle Lowry, Ed Davis, Trevor Ariza, Pau Gasol and Eric Gordon.

Thomas, now an MVP candidate and two-time All Star with the Boston Celtics, told Grantland's Zach Lowe in 2014, "I always envisioned myself playing with the Lakers," but they were "waiting on Carmelo [Anthony] and other moves." So Thomas took a new four-year, $28 million deal with the Phoenix Suns (via a sign-and-trade with the Sacramento Kings). The same year, the Lakers expressed interest in Lowry but told him they preferred to wait on Anthony before making their best offer to him. Lowry ended up re-signing with the Toronto Raptors while the Lakers were waiting on Anthony, who ultimately chose to stay in New York.

The following summer, Bazemore signed with Atlanta and Davis signed with Portland while the Lakers fruitlessly pursued LaMarcus Aldridge, Greg Monroe and DeAndre Jordan. The Lakers had traded Steve Blake for Bazemore because they believed he had potential if given an opportunity. They were right, but instead of being rewarded for their faith and investment, Bazemore took the Hawks' offer while the Lakers prioritized other high-profile free agents. In a cruel twist, the Lakers actually outbid Atlanta for Bazemore when he became a free agent again in 2016, but he chose to be loyal and stay with the Hawks, where he'd flourished the past few seasons.

In both cases, the Lakers' talent evaluation of the players was spot on, but they couldn't retain their own players and essentially lost them for nothing.

Meanwhile, Ariza, who had an interest in returning to his hometown and the city he won an NBA title with in 2009, ended up signing a four-year, $32 million deal with the Houston Rockets, where he is now thriving under former Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni.

Part of the reason the Lakers missed out on those cases is a philosophical decision to prioritize superstar free agents above all else. But another read is that the Lakers aren't moving at the speed NBA business is now being conducted.

Said one player agent, who has dealt with Kupchak on several contracts, "He's the only GM in the league who won't engage at all before 9:01 p.m. [PT] on the first night of free agency. Then when he calls to express interest, there's no stickiness to it."

That speaks to Kupchak's integrity, as contact with an agent or player is considered tampering before the opening of free agency, but it also speaks, according to sources, to a lack of savvy. There are ways of gathering information on free agents without trampling the rules, so that a team doesn't begin the process far behind everyone else.

ON JULY 1, 2016, after being outmaneuvered in recent years, the Lakers decided to strike quickly by agreeing to terms on a combined $136 million over the next four years with 30-year-old Timofey Mozgov and 31-year-old Luol Deng.

According to sources, Kupchak was reluctant to allow Mozgov to be tempted by other offers, giving him a four-year, $64 million deal just minutes after free agency began. Deng heard offers from other teams, but sources indicated he had no other offers that extended beyond three seasons. The Lakers gave him four years and $72 million.

For years, Jeanie Buss and Lakers fans had waited for the franchise to clear the kind of salary-cap space it needed to bring in superstar free agents, particularly in the wake of Bryant's retirement. For years, the fans had hung their hopes on the lure of Los Angeles and Showtime. Suddenly, within the first 32 hours of free agency, Kupchak and the Lakers had committed most of the salary-cap space the team needed going forward to sign two role players in their early 30s.

While Deng and Mozgov have been good mentors and veteran presences for the Lakers' younger players, from a performance standpoint the moves have been underwhelming. Deng is 144th in Real Plus-Minus, and Mozgov is 396th, while the Lakers stand at 18-36. This week, the Lakers took the embarrassing step of benching Mozgov and Deng in favor of starting rookie Brandon Ingram and third-year man Tarik Black.

And that's the real issue: It's not the 2016-17 season that the Lakers should be worried about. Rather, it's how the Mozgov and Deng contracts affect future seasons.

The Lakers' three recent lottery picks -- Julius Randle, D'Angelo Russell and Brandon Ingram -- will soon become eligible for lucrative extensions, starting with Randle this summer (then Russell in 2018 and Ingram in 2019). With a bit of maneuvering this offseason, the Lakers should have enough salary-cap space to pursue a superstar, someone like Blake Griffin or Gordon Hayward.

But once the Lakers spend the estimated $20-31 million they'll have in salary-cap room this summer or next, the extensions they'll need to start giving to Randle, Russell and Ingram, combined with the four-year commitments they've made to Mozgov and Deng, will effectively tie up their financial flexibility until 2021.

As the trade deadline approaches, we'll hear more about the possibility of moving starting shooting guard Nick Young and super-sub Louis Williams. Of course, the Lakers will listen to any and all offers for Mozgov and Deng, though they shouldn't expect to hear any unless they are willing to package them with one of their younger players such as Ivica Zubac, Larry Nance Jr. or one of the three former lottery picks.

But with so much of the Laker's money already committed, its windows of opportunity are small -- the franchise needs to strike free-agent gold this summer or next summer, basically. That's one reason Jeanie Buss feels a new sense of urgency, and why she brought Magic in to help now.

AS THE LEAD on business affairs, Jeanie Buss does largely stay away from the on-court product. She has said publicly that she often learns of the team's basketball decisions via news reports or texts from her brother. Sources said Kupchak rarely, if ever, communicates with Jeanie Buss, believing he reports only to her brother.

That funnel effect has essentially given Kupchak incredible power over decision-making, with only one boss to hold him accountable for successes and failures.

But there have been occasions when his failures become Jeanie's. Because she manages the team's corporate partnerships, like with television partner Spectrum Cable, she is the one managing the fallout from the team's four-year downturn on the court and underwhelming free-agent signing, even though she has very little control over the basketball operations staff.

While she has never directly asked her brother and Kupchak to consult with her on the decisions being made on basketball matters, in 2014, after the Lakers ran out of players during a game against the Cavaliers, she pointedly asked Kupchak if there was any other support she could give so that didn't happen again.

The game was an embarrassment for the Lakers and the NBA. The Lakers had allowed Steve Nash to play the night before, knowing he'd be unavailable on the second night of a back-to-back, while concurrently deciding not to sign Manny Harris for the rest of the season after his second 10-day contract expired. The Lakers ended up with only four eligible, healthy players for the final 3:32 of the game when Chris Kaman fouled out and Jordan Farmar and Nick Young left with injuries.Video of Kaman lying down on an empty bench with a towel over his face went viral.

The next day, Jeanie Buss found herself dealing with the fallout from both corporate partners and league officials. When she saw Kupchak at the Lakers' facility that day, she couldn't help but ask the leading question about her support.

The lack of communication -- and, more so, trust -- has at times been crippling for the Lakers. Even if a coach or front office staffer wanted to loop Jeanie Buss on basketball matters, there was a risk Kupchak or Jim Buss would see that as betraying their confidence and loyalty.

Her solution is to install Johnson in a role to help bridge these divides.

IT STARTS HEREas the Feb. 23 trade deadline approaches, when Magic is expected to play a part in the Lakers' decision-making process. But he's not the general manager. He's at the senior level, hired to advise, not to get down in the weeds plotting out maneuvers.

The expectation, according to sources close to the situation, is that he will stay at that level beyond this season. In the short term, he'll be a voice alongside Kupchak and Buss. But in the coming months, he's expected to help Jeanie Buss decide whether to revamp the basketball operations leadership team.

Around the league, there is widespread interest and speculation about what comes after that.

Will the Lakers approach another team to get permission to make a Godfather offer to a big-name GM such as RC Buford, Masai Ujiri or Bob Myers? Is there a dynamic assistant GM out there -- such as OKC's Troy Weaver or Michael Winger, Boston's Mike Zarren, Orlando's Scott Perry or Golden State's Travis Schlenk -- who could become the next Buford, Ujiri or Myers?

Perhaps Magic and Jeanie Buss will decide his presence is enough to fix the operational inefficiencies that have led to the decaying relationship between the business and basketball halves of the Lakers' mind.

For now, neither party is tipping his or her hand.

They're just returning each other's calls, and figuring out how to talk to each other again.

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