Jerry Buss was a gambler, a poker player.
The legendary Laker owner — under whom the franchise won 10 NBA titles and became the biggest brand in the sport — understood risks but also when to take them. He had an almost intuitive grasp of when it was time to be bold.
Now it is time for Jeanie Buss to show what she learned from her father.
Magic Johnson’s surprise resignation Tuesday night as the head of basketball operations completely caught the Lakers’ off guard — Jeanie Buss didn’t know it was coming, coach Luke Walton (who expected to be fired within the next 24 hours) didn’t know it was coming, and LeBron James and his team had no warning of this.
Magic’s decision can be a very good thing for the Lakers — he was not good at this job.
Magic was able to seal the deal with LeBron and bring him to the Lakers (how much work that really took is up for debate), but beyond that he fell short. Magic was a part-time executive who, sources told NBC Sports last summer, “parachutes in” a few days a month, makes a lot of pronouncements, then disappears again. Head of basketball operations is a full-time, hands-on job if done right. It’s not glamorous. Combine that with Magic’s confused ideas about team building — saying they had shooting but what they really needed was more playmaking around LeBron, something he saw watching the playoffs last season — which proved to be wrong, and the roster became a mess. Then there was his poor handling of the Anthony Davis trade situation midseason, which destroyed the already crumbling chemistry of the Lakers. There are also rumors of a major harassment story about Magic with the Lakers coming soon, something serious enough for Magic to tell the L.A. Times the story was not true.
Under Magic, the Lakers never built a cultural identity under Magic. For years now the Lakers have acted like the Lakers’ brand — doing things “the Lakers way” — is an organizational culture. It’s not. They need to build one.
That starts with Jeanie Buss, the most capable of Jerry’s children to run the Lakers’ franchise.
Jerry Buss understood the power of hiring good people (Jerry West as head of basketball ops, for example) and empowering them. Jeanie Buss seems willing to do that, she let Magic have the power he needed (she reportedly gave him the green light to fire Walton), he was just not up to the task.
Now it falls to Jeanie Buss to be bold, to reach outside her comfort zone and bring in the person who can give the Lakers direction again.
Do not think “Laker way” or someone with ties to the organization. Be bold and get the best person, give them power and get out of the way.
Pick up the phone and call the best team presidents out there. The Lakers may not be able to pry Sam Presti out of Oklahoma City, but call. Bob Myers may be impossible to get out of Golden State, but pick up the phone and try. There are others to try. This is where the Laker brand still has real currency — this is a coveted job. The Lakers should be able to hire an elite person for it.
Maybe that’s David Griffin, the former Cavaliers and Suns GM who built a title team around LeBron in Cleveland (then was let go because… go ask Dan Gilbert, nobody else can figure it out). He is the best “free agent” out there, a guy with a proven track record who understands culture building and team management. And LeBron. Look at what he told NBC Sports about the Lakers’ handling of their young players during the Anthony Davis trade situation.
“Again, if you don’t get in front of it from a leadership standpoint, if you let it just happen, the proliferation of sports media and social media, it just creates so much around your players that, to some degree, if you’re not telling them how to decipher it, they can’t help but to take it poorly. You need to do a really deft job as a leader of getting people to ignore those things. I think Kevin Durant called it a ‘toxic’ environment around a LeBron James team. I don’t think he meant that relative to LeBron and his actions. I think he meant it just relative to the sheer volume of noise around a team. That takes getting used to.”
Griffin also said this about his next job.
“As I look at it now, the thing that would attract me to an opportunity is just the opportunity to be in lockstep with ownership. To have ownership, the coach, and the front office all on the same page moving forward and sharing a vision… You have to raise a family, and if you’re not going to come at it with that approach it’s probably not a situation that would speak to me.”
Are the Lakers a family still?
Jeanie Buss needs to make sure it is still one, but that will require bold steps and strokes. It’s on her now to lead. She’s seen first hand how to do it.