Only Jeanie Buss Can Fix the Sinking Lakers' Ship
Accusations of a hostile work environment, evidence of LeBron James’s inner circle wielding far too much power and an embarrassing story the embattled GM is going to have to explain?
Just another day in Los Angeles.
The latest broadside to the Lakers sinking ship came courtesy of ESPN, which dropped an anticipated piece on Tuesday on the dysfunction inside the organization. The story described former team president Magic Johnson as a tyrannical, if often absentee, boss, threatening employees jobs on the days he bothered to show up at the office. It alleged a concentrated effort by LeBron James’s agent, Rich Paul, to exert influence over who coached the Lakers—and who James would play with. It depicted Johnson and GM Rob Pelinka as unilateral decision makers, disinterested in hearing differing opinions on their decisions.
And for Pelinka, the kicker: A year-old clip of Pelinka relaying a story to the team about how in his former client, Kobe Bryant, watched The Dark Night and became enamored by the performance of Heath Ledger, who submitted an Oscar winning performance as The Joker. Bryant, Pelinka said, asked for a meeting with Ledger, and the two had dinner.
Ledger died tragically in January, 2008—seven months before the film was released.
It’s hard to pin any kind of hostile work environment on Johnson, at least not with the evidence that was presented. Johnson was back on the ESPN airwaves on Tuesday—a safe place where he knows he won’t be challenged—and responded by noting that he has never been called before HR. That doesn’t matter, of course, as victims of inappropriate behavior in the workplace often don’t report it, but Johnson barking at an employee for making a mistake (Johnson, the mastermind behind the Lakers truly terrible roster construction last season, reportedly declared that he doesn’t make mistakes) is hardly evidence of improper behavior. Nor is the front office turnover—when you have been as bad as the Lakers have been for most of this decade, turnover is a consequence of it.
The influence of James’s inner circle is troubling, but far from surprising. James’s closest confidantes wielded considerable power in Cleveland, and that power has moved to LA. Miami created a blueprint for how to handle James—respect him as a player, an elite player, but make it clear his influence ends there—but no one has chosen to follow it. It’s become the cost of doing business with one of the greatest players of all-time.
(An aside: Can we stop with the LeBron has never played for a Hall of Fame coach narrative that has popped up recently? Erik Spoelstra is a Hall of Fame coach, or he will be when his career—still very much in the early stages—is over. Was Spoelstra a Hall of Fame coach when James came to Miami in 2010? No. Was Pat Riley when the Lakers elevated him in 1981? Nope. Was Phil Jackson when the Bulls tabbed him to coach Michael Jordan in 1989? Not close. Chuck Daly was fired midway through his first season in Cleveland and didn’t make the playoffs in Detroit until Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars linked up. James had a Hall of Fame coach—he chose to leave him.)
There’s a lot that’s troubling in the ESPN story, but what’s most troubling is that Lakers owner Jeanie Buss has known about all of it and still sees the Pelinka-led front office as the best group to lead LA out of the basketball wilderness. Buss has seen the in-fighting, the backroom dealings, the chilly relationship the front office shared with a coach she pledged to believe in, and what she hasn’t seen she has read about, exhaustively. She sees teams across the league deep with experienced NBA personnel—the one she shares Staples Center with, for example—and still sees a braintrust headed by Pelinka, a pair of Rambises and a few people sharing her last name as one that can compete. She knew more qualified top executives were available, could be available and decided the status quo was better than a GM with a championship ring and a relationship with James.
Perhaps the Lakers will have a strong offseason, which at this point is the only way to quiet the critics. Perhaps they will convince the Pelicans to trade them Anthony Davis. Failing that, perhaps they can sign Kemba Walker or trade for Bradley Beal. Perhaps they can surround LeBron with shooters, hand Frank Vogel some sturdy defenders and make a run in a conference that could be more open next year than ever before.
Perhaps. But the Lakers right now are a sinking ship, and the crew inside is blasting holes in it. A bad season has given way to an even worse offseason. And the dirty laundry continues to be aired out. Buss knows there is a problem. And she is the only one who can fix it.