LOS ANGELES >> The Spurs’ decades-long consistency through five NBA championships and 19 consecutive playoff appearances left Lakers coach Luke Walton shaking his head.
“It’s insane,” Walton said. “They play the right way and do things the right way. No matter if guys are hurt or not, they get the same effort.”
The Spurs also share the same visions, thanks to a symbiotic relationship between general manager R.C. Buford and coach Gregg Popovich for nearly the past two decades.
“Better than chaos and conflict,” Popovich quipped.
The Lakers would know that feeling. Lakers president Jeanie Buss recently fired general manager Mitch Kupchak and executive Jim Buss amid four coaching changes, three missed playoff appearances and several free agency strikeouts over the past several years. After rarely being on speaking terms with Jim Buss and Kupchak, Jeanie Buss hired Magic Johnson as the president of basketball operations partly to improve the franchise’s synergy.
“It’s good so far. We’re going to try to work together,” Walton said. “I don’t know how the Spurs’ front office works. You hear stories. But for us and what we’re trying to do, we believe in doing this together.”
Popovich quipped that the Spurs selecting future Hall of Fame forward Tim Duncan with their first pick in the 1997 NBA Draft “wasn’t a horrible thing either.” How the Spurs sustained consistency also hinged on something else.
“Owners who let people do their jobs end up being more successful in our business,” Popovich said. “Obviously if someone made a lot of bucks somewhere else, the pitfalls are to think you can do that no matter what business you might be in. That’s where some organizations get in trouble at. We haven’t had that problem.”
The Lakers had that problem through numerous instances. When the Lakers hired Mike D’Antoni over Jeanie Buss’ former companion (Phil Jackson) in the 2012-13 season, that negatively affected Jeanie Buss’ relationship with her brother. When the Lakers frequently shopped Pau Gasol after the NBA aborted the Chris Paul deal, Jeanie Buss became upset with how the Lakers treated a key player. After appearing in three consecutive NBA Finals from 2008 to 2010, Gasol left the Lakers in 2014 for the Chicago Bulls. He then joined the Spurs last summer.
“It’s not easy to do what the Spurs have done. That’s why they’re an exceptional franchise. It’s not fair to compare,” Gasol said. “They’ve not always won. But they’ve done a good job of keeping their core together and not panicking or making sudden moves at certain times when they could’ve.”
And the Lakers?
“There were some moves and decisions at times that affected them,” Gasol said. “Their team went from three consecutive Finals to now three straight consecutive non-playoff seasons and low number of wins at the end of the year. The good thing is you try to get good things on the right track and try to build on and understand this is going to be a process.”
The Lakers hope that Johnson’s presence will help speed up that process.
“Magic’s always been somewhat an idol in the sense of what he accomplished and what he’s done not just on the court but what he’s done (off) the court business-wise,” Popovich said. “Hopefully that will transfer. Hopefully he’ll be very successful. I’m one of those people that believe that having big teams in big cities is important for the league. Sure, we all want to win. But the bigger picture is big teams in big cities is good for everybody.”
Even for the small-market Spurs, who attracted LaMarcus Aldridge in the 2015 offseason after he thought the Lakers focused too much on Hollywood glitz instead of basketball substance. Los Angeles’ generous offerings of restaurants has left Popovich rarely turning down a meal or a drink as his team spent the past five nights here.
“I’ve had lunches, dinner and wine every day until I can’t wait to get out of here,” Popovich said. “I need to go dry out, both food and alcohol-wise. I’ve had a ball. It’s been great.”
Recent history has shown, though, that the Spurs’ organizational structure has proven more attractive to an NBA player than the endless pleasantries that Los Angeles offers.
“Ownership has allowed us to run the program and keep them informed as they should,” Popovich said. “If that piece of the puzzle is in the place, it becomes synergy between management, coaches and players. At that point, it becomes people. Hopefully, people have gotten over themselves and are comfortable in their own skins. They know how to maturely and objectively agree and disagree. That’s totally dependent on people.”
The famed Laker stood at center court, basking in all applause and adulation. The person was not Magic Johnson, who watched the Lakers’ loss to San Antonio in a private suite. Instead, it was former Lakers great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who was honored for earning the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“It was nice that it didn’t have anything to do with hoops,” said Abdul-Jabbar, who will have a book released this year about playing for former UCLA coach John Wooden. “It was very meaningful.”
The conversation steered back to basketball, including the Lakers’ persistent struggles.
“I’m sure all the die-hard fans are tired of waiting,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “A lot of what happens in this league is cyclical. Sometimes it takes a long time.”
Abdul-Jabbar believes Johnson’s new role will accelerate that process and help in landing free agents after arguing the Lakers need “a stud.”
“He’s had a long experience in terms of his knowledge of the game and his knowledge of how players fit together. That’s key for any management,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “Everybody knows who he is and what he stands for with winning. That might be a positive.”
It also might be a negative, considering Johnson lacks previous front office experience.
“He’s going to have to learn certain things on the fly,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “But he has enough experience as a player to be able to figure it out.”
Even though he has spent most of his time with the Lakers on street clothes than on the court, veteran guard Jose Calderon has sparked rave reviews within the Lakers for his positive attitude and mentorship presence.
“It’s been great. I love to be around these guys and it’s a great experience,” Calderon said. “The coaching staff has been great, and the young players as well.”
But Calderon is competitive, like any professional athlete. So his agent, Mark Bartelstein, has talked with the Lakers about a possible buyout. If Calderon is waived before March 1, he can sign with a new team. Numerous reports have pegged the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets as likely candidates.
“You always want to play,” said the 35-year-old Calderon, who has averaged 3.3 points on 41.6 percent shooting in 24 games. “That’s the only part. I feel like I can still play. But at the same time, I really have fun.”
How has Calderon kept that attitude through his 11-year NBA career?
“If I said, ‘This is the best (experience),’ it’s not. You always want more than that,” Calderon said. “But you have to accept whatever it is. This is my role, and I’ve been happy with it. I’m doing the best I can to help the team win and help the guys with whatever they need. I have no problem with that at all.”
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