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The Lakers’ Palace Coup

Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak are out, as Jeanie Buss and Magic Johnson take over

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Jeanie Buss has finally won the tug-of-war with her brother Jim, and Magic Johnson is now making the basketball decisions for the Lakers. Long-serving general manager Mitch Kupchak has been relieved of his duties, and Jim Buss is no longer the Lakers’ executive vice president of basketball operations. One of the most storied franchises in pro sports is having the kind of day made for tabloids.

This should come as no surprise for Lakers Kremlinologists. Johnson returned to the team where he was once a player and, for a brief period, coach, at the beginning of February, at the reported urging of Jeanie Buss, the team’s president and part owner. Jeanie and Johnson are longtime friends, and Johnson looked to Buss’s late father, Jerry, as a father figure. His ties with the family are as deep as his ties with the team.

Magic’s return was seen as a move against Jim Buss, whose oversight of the Lakers’ on-court product has faced sharp criticism over the years. In 2015, he set a deadline of three years to make the Lakers a contender again. Back then, Jeanie Buss described the self-imposed deadline like this: “‘We’ll be contending,’ that’s what he said. ‘We’ll be in the Western Conference finals within three years.’ I think as long as you have Kobe Bryant on your team, anything can happen in the playoffs.”

The Lakers are nowhere near this goal, and it looks like Jeanie Buss has held Jim to his word. From the official Lakers press release:

After a promising start under new coach Walton, the Lakers are the second-worst team in the NBA. They have a good young core of players, with second-year point guard D’Angelo Russell and rookie Brandon Ingram, but contention is a pipe dream. Furthermore, their local rivals, the Clippers, are likely to re-sign their superstar core of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, and the Golden State Warriors appear to be on the doorstep of a dynasty. The Lakers have failed to lure free agents in summer shopping sprees, missing out on LaMarcus Aldridge and not even getting a meeting with Kevin Durant. No team’s reality is further from its own self-image than the Lakers’.

Bringing back Magic Johnson certainly adds a degree of star power to the front office, and may get the Lakers into the meetings with free agents they feel like they were being shut out of. Perhaps this is another ripple effect of the DeMarcus Cousins deal; after seeing what the Pelicans gave up to get the All-Star big man, maybe there was some second-guessing about whether Kupchak was the right man for the job. We’ll know soon enough. Nothing with the Lakers remains secret for long.