Column: Magic Johnson makes Lakers situation messier by citing Rob Pelinka’s ‘betrayal’
Los Angeles Times sports writer Dylan Hernandez and sports columnist Bill Plaschke discuss the hiring of Frank Vogal as head coach for the Los Angeles Lakers and Magic Johnson’s new comments on the team.
It was Magic Johnson lobbing grenades from a TV studio in New York. It was Rob Pelinka stiffly absorbing the shelling in a gymnasium in El Segundo.
It was LeBron James showing up and idly dribbling and shooting and standing far from the media while refusing to say or do anything that would calm the situation.
It was Kurt Rambis showing up and hanging out after being publicly thanked by new coach Frank Vogel, an innocent comment which led to a horrifying question: Did Rambis actually do the hiring?
It was Jeanie Buss in hiding, again.
It was the most awkwardly awful day in the Lakers’ recent sordid history, a Manic Monday in which a team legend blew up a scheduled celebration before it started, leaving the dazed participants staggering for the exits as if wading through rubble.
The occasion was the introductory press conference for Vogel, and he was positive, smiling, giddy, clearly thrilled to be there.
He was the only one.
“You’re going to be happy with the product we put on the floor this year and where we’re going as an organization, you really are,” Vogel said.
Well, maybe so. But right now, as Monday so vividly illustrated, the Lakers are a wreck.
The day began with Johnson appearing on ESPN’s “First Take’’ talk show to expound on all those hints he dropped when he suddenly quit as president of basketball operations before the Lakers’ final game of the season in April.
He confirmed he felt betrayed by general manager Rob Pelinka. He confirmed he quit because he wasn’t allowed to fire Luke Walton. He said the Lakers have too many voices involved in the decision making, including owner Jeanie Buss’ confidant Linda Rambis, former coach and Buss boyfriend Phil Jackson, and business boss Tim Harris.
“If you’re going to talk betrayal, it’s only with Rob,’’ Johnson said.
The day ended with Pelinka denying he was a backstabber and confirming that, indeed, he is the new basketball boss and answers only to Buss. He then retreated to his office after the 30-minute press conference without conducting the traditional post-presser interviews.
“Truly it’s saddening and disheartening to think he believes things [that] are a misperception,’’ Pelinka said of Johnson, adding about his accusations, “They’re just simply not true.’’
Truly it’s saddening and disheartening that Lakers’ front office has fallen to this level, a billion-dollar operation being run by a small group of friends and family clawing at each other for control while ripping the franchise apart.
This is an organization desperately in need of a leader. Monday showed they don’t have one. This is an organization crying out for at least the perception of stability. Monday was a rickety mess.
On a day the Lakers had planned to put on their best face for a dubious city and questioning league, almost none of them looked good.
Magic Johnson looked selfish.
He certainly earned the right to speak his truth, and to be respected for it, but did he have to unload it all on the morning of a Lakers press conference introducing a new coach? The timing was clearly not coincidental. Johnson obviously wanted to overpower an event that had been planned for a week.
Pelinka looked lost.
Everything Johnson said about him has been echoed by other NBA employees for weeks, yet Monday’s criticism seemed to particularly wear on him, his expression blank, his words seemingly scripted, his refusal to answer post-presser questions revealing, and the Lakers face an increasingly serious dilemma.
How can your organization be led by a man who obviously has league-wide trust issues? How can they maximize their dealings with other teams when the person doing the deals has just been accused of betrayal on national television?
“The most important thing is that players look to who we really are and not what the impression is of what others are trying to create us to be,” Pelinka claimed. “There is stability and strength and togetherness here.’’
LeBron looked disengaged, again.
While some might like to give James credit for actually showing up for the press conference, he once again abdicated his responsibility as this team’s most important player by refusing interview requests that would have allowed him to publicly endorse Vogel.
How hard would it have been for James to wander over to the media and give a quick quote of support for a new guy who clearly needs it? Vogel said he talked with LeBron and it was all positive, but LeBron’s body language told an indifferent story, one which he easily could have refuted if he bothered to invest one ounce of emotional energy in team. Then again, he probably needs to save that emotion for his TV show.
Kurt Rambis looked influential, and that’s scary.
At the beginning of the press conference, Vogel actually thanked Rambis, along with Pelinka and the Buss family, “for showing faith in me to be their next coach.’’
That statement turned heads. Considering Rambis has a 65-164 record as an NBA head coach — that’s 99 games under .500 — one might think Vogel was confused. Surely, there is no way this former Laker and husband of shadow owner Linda Rambis really was put in the position of making this hire?
Turns out, it was all true, with Pelinka saying of Rambis, “He was a valuable resource in getting to this place of choosing Frank to be our next head coach.’’
When I asked Pelinka about the influence of Linda Rambis, who is known mostly as a close friend of Buss, he was equally clear that she also has a place at the table.
“Linda Rambis is an incredibly trusted colleague and partner for all the employees of the Lakers,’’ he said.
Finally, by not showing up, Buss looked overwhelmed.
Her appearance alone could have calmed the storm. A few strong statements could have protected the brand. On a day when her voice was the only voice anyone wanted to hear, she remained silent, and that silence adds to the perception of an organizational instability.
It seems like she doesn’t know what to say, she doesn’t know what to do, so she says and does nothing while her family heirloom slowly grows tarnished and dim.
Probably nothing will happen with this front office until at least this summer, when team officials will have a chance to show their ‘’stability, strength and togetherness’’ by landing a top free agent or making a big trade.
If that happens, all this criticism will become forgotten noise. If it doesn’t happen, Manic Monday will seem like a picnic.
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