Magic Johnson's impromptu news conference before the Los Angeles Lakers' final game of the season Tuesday was another fitting event for an organization consumed with its own narrative. The broadest smile in basketball was stepping down from his position as team president because the job was no fun. Millions of fans would list "running my favorite team" as their dream gig, but Magic's general appraisal of the role is correct. Serving as the senior basketball executive for an NBA team is drudgery.
For every LeBron James recruitment, there are a dozen uninspiring tasks, from humdrum transactions to the building of systems in a front office. You can't celebrate the success of a transcendent talent in the sport you love with so much as a tweet without violating some arcane statute of the collective bargaining agreement. When Serena Williams calls, you're reduced to telling her, "Hold on, I've got the NBA's general counsel on the line." Then there's the sheer volume of information management, personnel management -- you even have to manage your general manager. In the end, Magic logically reasoned that he'd rather be a mogul than a hostage.
He was so overwhelmed at the prospect of breaking the news to owner Jeanie Buss, that he decided to forgo a one-on-one conversation altogether and instead emote to the assembled media at Staples Center. Buss and the rest of the Lakers' principles learned Johnson resigned when everyone else did. Johnson's choked-up farewell address, in which he said he far preferred being a big brother, was further testimony that family shouldn't always work together. If an employee is so paralyzed by torment at the thought of compromising a professional relationship with a personal choice, chances are he was hired for the wrong reasons at the outset.
Though it wasn't the most dignified departure, Johnson's resignation presents Buss with an opportunity to correct her franchise's worst instincts: its lazy fixation on legacy in an era when expertise wins.
Before she assembles a list of potential replacements, Buss needs to audit her franchise, which has lost more games than any other NBA team over the past six seasons. She should catalogue its recent successes and failures, and determine its near and long-term goals. But then it's time to look outside: identify a handful of rival NBA organizations she admires, and find out how they go about their business.
While there's no love lost for the Lakers' front office, Buss carries a fair amount of goodwill around the league. Unlike some of her big-market brethren and sistren, Buss has recognized the plight of the small-market franchise as central to the core mission of the NBA. Her noblesse oblige has conveyed that what's good for the NBA is good for the Lakers, and it's a sentiment that hasn't been lost on fellow owners and executives.
Whether it's the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder or Boston Celtics, Buss should study the anatomy of these organizations, and the philosophies at work. Why have they been successful from a basketball and leadership perspective over a sustained period of time? How are decisions made, and how did these systems and processes originate? How have the Celtics avoided the parochial thinking that has plagued the Lakers even though they installed a franchise legend as their top leader and remain devoted to their past?
If history serves as a guide -- and it generally does for the Lakers -- Buss will be tempted to look inside the Lakers' family to fill the leadership void. She could continue to rely on Rob Pelinka, Kobe Bryant's agent and longtime Lakers confidant who has served as general manager for the past two years.
Or she could end this recursive cycle now. While the Lakers have been behaving like an insular tribe that bestows power and membership only to those with bloodlines, the rest of the NBA has produced a generation of dynamic managerial talent with diverse skill sets, life experiences and sensibilities. It's a peculiar irony that the one NBA franchise that can make a legitimate pitch to just about anyone has never tapped this vast brain trust. It has never occurred to this massive global brand that sometimes the best leaders for an entity at a moment in time will hail from other places and traditions. It's OK to hire outsiders because building trust with strangers is an important entrepreneurial skill. It might even be good for business.
There are few top executives in the NBA who won't give the Lakers a listen. If Buss wants to take the temperature of R.C. Buford (San Antonio), Bob Myers (Golden State), Sam Presti (OKC), Masai Ujiri (Toronto) and Neil Olshey (Portland), she has the standing to do so. It's unlikely the Lakers job is attractive to all of them. For instance, no organization reflects its lead executive more than the Thunder reflect Presti, and that's not something he'd be able to replicate in Los Angeles. Buford has little to gain starting over with an organization that's a decade behind the curve.
Myers has presided over the most prolific dynasty in a generation with an easy touch, though there's no certainty his existing employer would allow him to be lured away to a rival. Ujiri and Olshey are each fluent in every facet of basketball operations from scouting to owner relations, skilled at both messaging and listening, understand the whole of the enterprise, and have achieved consistency in headwind markets.
These are just five high-profile names, but all over the league, from Salt Lake to Brooklyn, creative front offices are flourishing. The Clippers might be a source of ridicule in Buss' email correspondences with her courtiers, but if the Lakers' basketball operations department mirrored the Clippers on opening night in 2019, Buss would be in a very strong position. They would be well-equipped to grapple with the multitude of decisions facing this franchise, from hiring a new head coach, to talent recruitment this summer, to the handling of an unsettling situation with Brandon Ingram's health, to, most broadly, identifying which of the many routes available to the Lakers is the right one.
Hiring an external candidate who has succeeded elsewhere is relatively simple, but empowering the person to install a value structure that might run counter to how you understand the Lakers should be run -- how the Lakers have always been run -- will be a challenge to Buss' inclinations. How it was done with Showtime or Kobe, or how it should be done to someone who feels like family, are no criteria for 2020.
Whether it's one of those big names, or any number of lesser known young front office thought leaders who would be an upgrade, this individual will install protocols for tasks like free-agent recruitment, standards for hiring folks, player development, the aggregation of information, and other mundane stuff that those who know the Lakers' workings say has been performed on an ad hoc basis for too long. Idle whims or impressions of how a storyline will play in the media won't factor into those systems -- and ownership needs to be entirely comfortable with that.
Then there's the matter of LeBron James, who carries enormous gravity as the biggest force in the sport since Michael Jordan. His well-being and performance dictates the mood and success of the team, but Buss must allow any new lead basketball executive to operate under the belief that LeBron, who matters greatly, is temporary in a way in which the Lakers aren't. If Buss decides that her primary objective is setting up the franchise for sustained success five, 10, 15 years down the road rather than a 2020 or 2021 title, a thoughtful front office might conclude that keeping James makes that goal more difficult to obtain. If she's uncomfortable with the prospect of moving James (who can opt out in the summer of 2021) at any point, that's information that must be made clear before she empowers said front office.
During the high drama of Magic's departure, the Lakers quietly fired their head trainer, Marco Nunez, on Wednesday. Nunez might have been ill-suited to the job or he might be a medical genius who got a raw deal. As the Lakers consider if or how they want to remake their front office, here are some questions to pose internally about the Nunez firing that could help inform that overall effort:
What was the process that inserted him in that role to begin with? How did you measure his talents and potential? What system of oversight did you use in real time to evaluate his medical practices, diagnoses, the rehab protocols he installed, and the return-to-play programs? If you believe that the rash of injuries the Lakers have endured in recent seasons are his fault, how do you know? Is this about process or result? Did you review all that information -- assuming such information exists -- carefully when you decided to fire him, or was the decision a reaction to general frustration in El Segundo about player health? Was this a decision you made because you now know a better way, or was it to service a media narrative that says injuries and not organizational failure doomed the 2018-19 Los Angeles Lakers?
Finally, if the Lakers' misfortune is the result of hiring the wrong person for the job, what are you going to do differently next time to ensure a different result?