With the Los Angeles Lakers mired in the worst years in franchise history, owner Jeanie Buss has turned to Magic Johnson to lead them back to championship contention.
And she removed her own brother from his job to do it.
Jeanie Buss fired general manager Mitch Kupchak on Tuesday and put Johnson in charge of basketball operations. Jim Buss also was dismissed as the Lakers’ executive vice president of basketball operations in a major shake-up of the struggling team’s front office.
Jim Buss retains his ownership stake in the team, but Jeanie Buss has final say under the structure set up by their late father, Jerry Buss. She used it to chart a new course for the 16-time NBA champion franchise, which has the NBA’s third-worst record at 19-39.
The Lakers are almost certain to miss the playoffs for a team-record fourth straight season, and they posted the worst record in team history during each of the previous three years.
”It was such a hard to decision to make, that I probably waited too long,” Jeanie Buss said in an interview on Spectrum SportsNet, the Lakers’ television network. ”For that, I apologize to Laker fans. Now, with clarity and direction, and after talking with Earvin, a change was needed.”
Just 19 days after Johnson returned to the Lakers in an executive role, Jeanie Buss decided the Hall of Fame point guard will be the Lakers’ decision-maker in basketball operations despite no experience as a personnel executive. Johnson is the Lakers’ new president of basketball operations, reporting directly to Jeanie Buss, and it appears that Johnson is moving quickly to surround himself with a team to help his transition.
According to a person with knowledge of the situation, prominent agent Rob Pelinka has begun informing his clients that he plans to leave Landmark Sports Agency to become the Lakers GM. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the Lakers have not commented on the front office search.
”The status quo wasn’t acceptable,” Jeanie Buss said. ”It wasn’t Lakers basketball. It wasn’t what this organization stands for.”
Johnson said he will put aside his numerous business obligations and his role with the Los Angeles Dodgers, in which he holds an ownership stake, to concentrate on his work with the Lakers. The charismatic former superstar spent the morning fielding calls from general managers and preparing for the trade deadline in two days.
”I’m coming back to an organization that I love,” Johnson said. ”The timing is right. It was time to put aside my businesses and focus on the Lakers’ business.”
Johnson has no time to waste. The Lakers are expected to be sellers at Thursday’s trade deadline, and Johnson acknowledged teams are very interested in high-scoring guard Lou Williams, who could fetch at least a first-round draft pick – something the Lakers might not have this year, thanks to years of win-now trades by Kupchak and Jim Buss during the Kobe Bryant era.
Johnson also acknowledged the Lakers were involved in trade discussions for All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins, who went from Sacramento to New Orleans. Los Angeles has plummeted out of contention after an encouraging 10-10 start under Luke Walton, but the rookie coach got a strong vote of confidence from Jeanie Buss and Johnson, who said he ”loves” Walton as a coach and an example of the Lakers’ championship culture.
Kupchak is a former Lakers center who had been employed by the franchise in some capacity since August 1981. He had been the Lakers’ GM since 2000, studying under Jerry West and eventually succeeding him.
”I would like to thank the Buss family for 36 incredible years,” Kupchak said in a statement given to The Associated Press. ”In particular, I would like to acknowledge Dr. Buss who brought me here as a player in 1981. I also want to thank every Laker player, coach and staff member with whom I have worked and who supported me through the good times and the very few not so good times.”
Kupchak had been in the Lakers’ front office for 30 years, including the last 17 as general manager – the longest current stretch running a front office in the NBA.
”I’m most disappointed that I won’t have the opportunity to continue to work with Luke and watch this young and talented team grow and eventually win in the Laker tradition,” said Kupchak, who concluded by sending his best wishes to Johnson and the organization going forward.
Jim Buss had been in the Lakers’ front office for 19 years, including 12 in charge of basketball operations alongside Kupchak. The former horse trainer was widely seen as a dilettante when he moved into a job in the family business, but he worked to deserve the responsibility of making basketball decisions in recent years.
Yet the Lakers have steadily declined from the heights of back-to-back championships in 2009 and 2010. They haven’t made the playoffs since 2013, and they’ve won only 84 of their past 386 games since then.
After an extraordinary trade for Pau Gasol propelled the Lakers to three straight NBA Finals appearances, Kupchak and Jim Buss made a series of high-profile personnel moves that didn’t pan out.
In 2012, they made a pricey trade for Dwight Howard, who fled the franchise after one year, and another deal for Steve Nash, who barely played thanks to back woes. The Lakers are still feeling the effects of that deal, which will cost them their first-round pick this summer if it isn’t in the top three.
The Lakers finished 17-65 last season, a franchise low in the last year of Bryant’s two-decade run with the franchise.
Pelinka is in line to become the latest player agent to move into an NBA front office, following a similar path as Bob Myers in Golden State and Arn Tellem in Detroit, among others. For years Pelinka has been a league power broker, representing Bryant, James Harden, Eric Gordon and other high-profile players. His addition could also pave the way for Bryant to return to the organization in some capacity.
In order to join the Lakers, Pelinka would have to divest himself from his current clients. Those players could either be represented by another certified agent at his firm or look outside Landmark for representation.
Johnson’s return earlier this month made Jim Buss’ departure seem quite likely, particularly given Jim Buss’ vow several years ago to leave the franchise if they weren’t in contention for a Western Conference title by this year or next.
But Jeanie Buss still picked a dramatic way to break up the family business structure.
Johnson has been a successful businessman and investor since his playing career ended, owning pieces of the Lakers, the Dodgers, the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks and MLS expansion franchise LAFC. He dropped his ceremonial title as a Lakers vice president last June after his frequent public criticisms of Jim Buss and former coaches. He also sold his ownership stake in 2010.
The Lakers’ recent ineptitude didn’t hurt their place as Los Angeles’ most beloved sports franchise and a worldwide brand, and they finally have a talented young core with D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Brandon Ingram and Jordan Clarkson. But they haven’t been able to translate that potential into wins despite playing an exciting style under Walton.
The Lakers also parted ways with longtime top public relations executive John Black.
The Lakers return from the All-Star break on Friday at Oklahoma City. They face San Antonio at Staples Center on Sunday.
AP Sports Writer Beth Harris in Los Angeles and AP Basketball Writer Jon Krawczynski in Minneapolis contributed to this report.