It was the end of November 2016. It seemed the angels of Los Angeles had managed to glide under the layer of smog and signal to the city’s residents the franchise which has enjoyed the most success in this place was back in business.
The Lakers were 10-10, Luke Walton was installed as head coach and running his young squad the in the ilk of the Golden State Warriors, where he'd spent two years as assistant coach. The Gold and Purple hadn't been at .500 for what seemed an age. Then, over the course of what is always a long and gruelling season, the City of Angels was far less kind. Those little demons, representing not the magic and spirit of the city, but a sugary delight their product deals to all its customers; a quick hit of energy and high performance followed by a drop equivalent to 42 losses in 52 games.
Stability was a facet of the championship-winning Lakers taken for granted. On the bench you saw Phil Jackson sitting high in his chair, knees protruding toward the sideline and a coaching excellence far too good for any front office. On the court was number 24, the same Kobe Bryant now to be found talking alongside Little Mamba educating people not about winning titles but 'musecages'. In the front office was Mitch Kupchak, GM and former Laker. The Buss family was known only for greatness and savvy decision-making.
Over the last 12 months that list has dwindled. The 2016-17 Lakers have steered left then right, parked and reversed then attempted to accelerate again. The only thing that was left for them to do was empty the tank, and so they did.
When a conversation arises about the LA Lakers, one often hears questions as if their history should be equal to their present and future. Do they still have this player? That player? But they're still winning, right? Are they still making fun of the Clippers? Uh, awkward!
Talking of this season, the conversation might start with 'I remember when Magic Johnson left the organisation by mutual consent back at the beginning, was later re-installed as a team advisor then became the president of basketball operations shortly afterward.' 'Do you recall Jim Buss saying he would step down if the Lakers didn't make a serious playoff push and then when pushed aside by sister Jeanie decided he didn't much like that and got the lawyers involved?'
And the odds on favourite for highest said; 'I remember when the Lakers paid $136 combined for four years of service each to Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng. I was so pumped for veteran leadership at a great deal!’
This, sadly for Laker fans and to the probable delight of others around the league who basque in the suffering of the successful, barely touched the surface. Deng had a career average of 15.4 points per game before signing the dotted line, then went on to average less than eight on a ghastly shooting percentage. Mozgov, meanwhile, said he would celebrate the deal by sitting on an LA beach sipping a piña colada, which he is evidently still doing.
As the calendar turned to 2017, controlling owner and president Jeanie Buss saw the writing on the wall. She had her coach, who was trying to implement a winning and Warriors-like culture when it came to practice and application.
She had a core of young players, but none looked like a definite franchise cornerstone. Imagine, then, having to go to your brother one morning and tell him not that you wanted to get dinner that night but that he would be relieved of his duties as executive Vice President of player personnel.
Out the door too were Kupchak and communications director John Black, coming the other way five-time NBA champion, Dodgers dabbler and business extraordinaire Magic Johnson. Still, Jim Buss had a consolation most don't when they're fired: he still part-owned the Lakers. The moves from Jeannie were reminiscent of her late father Dr. Jerry Buss, who having passed away in 2013 left overall control to Jeannie. In the 34 years Buss Sr owned the franchise, they missed the playoffs twice.
Four years of pain later and it wouldn't be foolish to believe a brothers’ jealousy and envy began when the change most upsettingly occurred. But being removed from his role by his sister motivated Jim to remove Jeanie from her own. Jeanie, having had the awful task of firing so many people close to her, heard the news that her two brothers Jim and Johnny were concocting a plan to oust her from her high-octane position.
The Lakers have to vote on a board of directors and controlling owner every year, and Jeanie has since thwarted the legal attempt to remove her. With lawyers involved, the six Buss children - that own 66% of the Lakers trust - did something their father never wanted; business to be meddled with, and potentially decided on outside of the family.
On Monday this week, the Buss family asked a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge to enact an order keeping Jeanie as the controlling owner of the team, and additionally retaining her seat on the board of directors, as long as the team is owned by the Buss family, according to Nathan Fenno of the LA Times. In the same report, Jim Buss resigned as co-trustee as part of a requirement by Jeanie to resolve the dispute. Janie, Jeanie’s younger sister, is replacing him.
In the court documents, according to Fenno, Jeanie stated: “despite the fact that I gave my brother Jim ample time to prove himself in his role … I could not allow the damage being done to the franchise over the past few years continue.”
The 16-time champions have always been a family. Magic Johnson is the father figure, cuddly grandpa and charismatic son rolled into one. In his new position as president of basketball operations, Johnson is testing water even he hasn't tried in both his NBA and business careers. His role with Major League Baseball’s LA Dodgers doesn’t involve personnel decisions, and the biggest test going forward will be when a big basketball decision has to be made.
Does he sign off on a risky trade or free agent? What are his thoughts on the ceilings of D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle and Brandon Ingram? For his and Jeanie's sake, one hopes those players are striving for a higher ceiling than Michael Jordan's, which as we know only reaches the roof.
Speaking of Ingram, imagine being a 20-year-old rookie with the Lakers and suddenly Magic is walking around the practice facility in El Segundo with a coffee flask in one hand and gym towel in the other.
A few weeks ago, as Walton said on the Bill Simmons Podcast, Johnson came up to him and mentioned a move he had seen Ingram do sparingly in practice. He let it be known to Walton that it could play a big part of the youngster's game. Ever the forward thinker, Walton told Magic it would be better coming from the 5-time champ. So there was Magic working with Ingram on his game. This president’s role is different than most.
The idea of Magic recently camping out in New York under the tutelage of Adam Silver, learning the CBA with felt-tip pens and an eraser is worth your time. But if he failed Silver's exam, another new face can help him in GM Rob Pelinka. A former agent with a client list including Kobe Bryant, James Harden and Eric Gordon, the former Fab Five Michigan member knows the labour deal inside out and has contacts throughout the league. He is friendly with agents and can make a call as Magic can. It's ironic the two-year deal Bryant signed to conclude his two-decade career that sunk LA's relevancy ship was orchestrated by Pelinka.
Outside all of this, and it’s been hard to get past the Kardashian-level noise and hysteria, Walton has carried on as usual. His sense of humour and attitude have aided him. His laid back style keeping him outside the confines of the jawing and political in-fighting. Walton's jovial personality means there's no awkwardness when he’s had to answer to both Jeanie and Jim, and if this sorry story comes up in media sessions even the reporters believe what he's saying; building a winning foundation and environment is all he's concerned with.
Jeanie has made moves she believes will aid this. She has brought back parts of the winning Lakers: A GM whose biggest client, that recommended him no less, is the franchise’s best player through history. A president who, like Bryant, won five rings with the team. A coach who won two titles. The trend is clear here.
But who of the players will be winners? It’s just too hard to tell.
Walton believes Ingram will be a good NBA player, and if he can work on his shooting to make defenders more honest on pick and rolls can be very good. But he is still, in reality, a skinny and raw player. He's 19, sure, but how many have grown out of that body to do what Kevin Durant did? Time is on his side.
Russell, the Lakers point guard who Walton has surely noted is naturally a shooting guard, is creative in the pass but unable to fully utilise his off-ball talent due to his time with the ball. Right there is Magic's first task, selecting the right playmaker, assuming LA keeps its first round draft pick.
Julius Randle might be the guy you keep over the aforementioned duo considering his physical attributes. His problem is applying himself for every game, something Walton has explained as Randle's head dropping if he starts out 1-for-5 from the field. And did we mention that Jordan Clarkson can’t really defend?
We can be assured of one thing; the Lakers want that high draft pick. If they don’t get it this miserable run has been for nothing more than shedding Lou Williams' salary and inheriting a fun-to-watch Ivica Zubac. Deng and Mozgov, thought of as vital veterans who would push along the should-still-be-in-college crew through an 82-game season, have shown to be huge beneficiaries of the league's craziest summer spending spree since television contracts went nutso.
Hypothetically, if the Lakers do hold a lottery pick on June 22, Lonzo Ball, recently known as that irritating father's son, could plod over from the UCLA campus. Russell would move to the two and Ball could get more out of a team with an extra year on their experience dial. Jeanie and Magic would be an unstoppable duo. Maybe Bryant and Little Mamba could replace Phil Jackson’s famous meditation sessions.
The Lakers got as far away as is possible from their historical performance this season, even more so than the last three years when they lost a combined 181 games because of the off the court drama.
As the locals would like to believe, Lakers history is Lakers future, and the franchise has fought harder than ever to get the pieces in place to accommodate that. If Jeanie Buss’ fight for power signifies anything, it’s that she is a strong individual who wants nothing but the best for her Lakers.
If only she could play.