The swell thing about family ownership in professional sports is the feeling that your team is being run by somebody with a deeply personal investment in its success.
The lousy thing about family ownership is, well, family.
Family members tend to forgive each other’s weaknesses, exaggerate each other’s strengths, and deal with each other emotionally instead of rationally.
When Jeanie Buss hired Magic Johnson as president of basketball operations for the Lakers two years ago, she didn’t view it as hiring a former player who had virtually no front-office experience. She was hiring a man she considers her brother. Magic was family.
When Buss hired Rob Pelinka to serve as the club’s general manager, she didn’t see him as a player agent with no front-office experience. She saw him as the former agent of Kobe Bryant, and Kobe was family.
In the wake of Tuesday’s stunning exit by one man and the lingering failures of the other, it’s time somebody sits Buss down for a piece of family advice.
As in, no more family.
For the Lakers to rise from the most unsightly pile of rubble in franchise history and rebuild themselves into champions, the Buss has to stop here. The owner has to ignore allegiances, cut ties, and hire someone from beyond the Lakers family to return some semblance of sanity to the basketball operation.
The most tight-knit outfit in pro sports needs an outsider. It needs a smart, inventive basketball mind not awed by the history of the place and is not beholden to anyone living there. Johnson actually gave Buss a gift by quitting, and she needs to use that gift to fill the staid basketball operations with new life.
In a reference that all Los Angeles sports fans will understand, she needs go find her Andrew Friedman.
It was never going to be Johnson, whose impromptu departure offered final proof he should not have been hired in the first place. He never had the focus, desire or even time to do the work required of today’s basketball bosses. He was always too distracted. His many businesses always beckoned. In the end, he was absent from work as much as his prize kid Lonzo Ball was missing from the court.
It was always this way with Johnson. The job didn’t change him. He changed the job. Buss surely knew this when she hired him. But then again, she didn’t hire him after an exhaustive interview process involving a nationwide search. She hired him after a dinner. He was family.
It also doesn’t seem possible that the answer can be Pelinka, who was hired despite a bad reputation among league front-office types after years of representing Bryant. Other general managers supposedly don’t like dealing with him. Agents supposedly don’t want to engage him. And then, in the most poignant quotes of his 45-minute goodbye Tuesday, Johnson leveled him.
“What I didn’t like was the backstabbing and whispering. … I didn’t like a lot of things that went on that didn’t have to go on,’’ Johnson said, and it was understood he was talking about Pelinka.
When asked about the front-office void left by his absence, he also pointed a finger at Pelinka by saying, “I think [Buss] is going to be hurt by not having somebody she can trust, that she knew that had her back.’’
Finally, when asked whether he thought Pelinka was the right person for the job, he couldn’t really answer.
“Do I think Rob in the right GM?’’ Johnson said. “That’s a decision Jeanie has to make. I worked well with him, I had no problems with him. Now they say he had some baggage. … I don’t know about that. A lot of my agent friends had called.’’
Pelinka did not suddenly become this difficult once he took the Lakers job. He has always worked this way. But Buss didn’t see it. All she saw was Bryant’s powerful advocate, and that qualified him as Lakers family.
Buss might still be blind to all of this. There was talk throughout the organization Wednesday that Pelinka might remain as general manager, and that Buss will proceed as if this is business as usual.
She can’t, because it’s not. Her organization’s reputation is in tatters. Her reputation is slowly crumbling. The Buss family name that she has worked so hard to protect is in danger of being irreparably damaged. By keeping it in the Lakers family, she has embarrassed the family, and it only grew worse Wednesday.
On a day when the young Lakers stood accountable in exit interviews with the media, neither Buss nor Pelinka faced the music.
Despite requests to answer questions in the wake of the departure of the franchise’s most visible and enduring symbol, neither official publicly spoke. At a moment in their history when the Lakers desperately needed a public show of leadership, there was none.
Maybe LeBron James could have offered reassurances? Yeah, right. He wasn’t even in town. After his scheduled pregame media exit interview was cancelled Tuesday night because of Johnson’s lengthy news conference, James could have talked after the game, but instead walked out without answering questions, thus offering a perfect bookend to a season that began when he also refused to do a summer introductory news conference.
This is a team without a face. It’s an organization without a voice. Somebody over there needs to get a clue.
Buss needs to clean out the rest of the top of the basketball operation and find a smart and savvy person to run the joint.
This person would make the decision on the future of coach Luke Walton, figure out the lottery draft pick, attempt to rework that trade for New Orleans’ Anthony Davis, and serve as the face in recruiting a top free agent to join James. Seriously, selling the Lakers is one thing that Johnson did really well, and now that he’s gone, who is going to close the deal? And if that deal can’t be closed, the new hire might have to make a tough decision on James, so he shouldn’t be tied to him either.
There are a dozen names that would be attractive candidates, from current general managers to personnel gurus to shoe company executives, but all need to have one thing in common.
They can’t be family. They can’t be friends. They need to be someone who views the Lakers as the outside world views them, as a once-strong franchise slowly withering from within.