It’s no longer a matter of whether Jim Buss had to go — duh — and if Mitch Kupchak had to go with him.
Buss was a playboy on a lark who was rarely in the office other than public appearances, if a benign one who fell in line behind Kupchak.
Kupchak proved himself in better times, rebuilding the Lakers from the ruins after trading Shaquille O’Neal into a two-time champion, but was seen as joined at the hip to Jimbo ... not that Mitch had any choice in the matter.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that the organization just fired its first owner and its first GM. The 21st Century Lakers were a walking contradiction, combining slick function with comic dysfunction, doing so many big things right, it made up for Kobe Bryant feuding with Shaq and Phil Jackson... and Jeanie feuding with her brother while dating Phil, wierding out GM Jerry West who fled ... after which the Jim-Jeanie split manifested itself in Phil and Jimbo exchanging jibes on talk radio ... prompting Jerry Buss to let Phil walk in 2004 and 2011 when his contracts ran out.
Amazingly, they won five titles in the process, by being as lucky as they were smart. There wouldn’t have been a Shaq-Kobe Era if the NBA hadn’t changed its rules in 1995, one year before Shaq’s rookie deal ran out, briefly doing away with restricted free agency.
Instead of Orlando having the right to match any offer, Shaq became an unrestricted free agent, making it possible for the Lakers to grab him with both teams offering the same $118 million deal.
All that ended in the current era, symbolized by Kupchak’s trade for New Orleans’ Chris Paul which David Stern spiked.
What goes around comes around, even if it takes decades. The Lakers landed Shaq and Kobe in 1996 and won their fifth title of the era in 2010. After that they were old, slow and, worse, no longer the darlings of the basketball gods.
Responsibility for going into their black hole was collective from Jerry Buss who was in charge through 2013 when they hired Mike D’Antoni over Phil, to Jimbo who hired Mike Brown in his failed audition to take an active role, to Jeanie who gave Kobe that $55 million extension, to Kupchak who was in the wrong place at the wrong time before the costly signings of Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng that doomed him.
Showing how fragile this transition is, Jackson might have assumed Magic’s role this summer if Phil and Jeanie didn’t break up. Jeanie. Instead of Phil who’s shy and insulated, the Lakers get the effervescent Magic, a genius at dealing with people.
If it took a human sacrifice, as it does when times get bad enough and last long enough, Mitch and Jimbo at least started the painful turnaround. Three seasons ago, the Lakers had only one of today’s prospects--Jordan Clarkson — on the floor. From that perspective they’ve come a long way.
Three years later, they have a lot of prospects and, finally, leaders they believe in enough to withstand the long way they have to go from Magic to Coach Luke Walton.
GM-to-be Rob Pelinka is all but beside the point, even if it would have been good to hire someone with experience instead of still another beginner.
Hiring agents as GMs is the new vogue with the success of Golden State’s Bob Myers, who was the Lakers’ first choice, prompting the Warriors to hurriedly extend him.
Of course, Myers had Jerry West to consult when he was new in his job. If it would be good to invite West to consult for the Lakers, insiders see no sign that it will happen.
It’s all about Magic who hit the ground running, announcing — wisely — it will take “three to five years to get them rolling again,” calling their young prospects “untouchable” and trading Lou Williams for a No. 1 pick.
In other words, the Lakers are still on the Kupchak Plan:
Slow and steady wins the race or, at least, gets you back into it because it’s all that’s possible now.
Whatever Johnson lacks, he’s night and day as face of the franchise compared to the lowest-key Kupchak, even joining Friday’s telecast in Oklahoma City to ask for patience, heap praise on the young guys, note that first and foremost he wants competitors and extoll the effect of practice the day before as the team kept it close in the first half.
The Thunder then blew the Lakers out in the second half of a 110-93 romp.
The real question is Magic’s learning curve ... and what his cachet will mean in free agency in which if it wasn’t for bad signings, they would barely have had any signings at all.
We’ll get an idea in June with Paul George, the local native who’s a 2018 free agent — who’s reportedly leaning toward the Lakers if he decides the Pacers aren’t close enough to winning to sign an extension.
It’s a brave new Laker world with all beginners in charge. Whether they should inspire hope or prayer, we’ll see soon enough.
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