As she pondered hiring Magic Johnson first as an advisor and subsequently to oversee the team’s basketball operations, Lakers governor Jeanie Buss pressed Johnson on one specific topic to make sure they held similar views.
“What was important to me was how he felt about our coach, Luke Walton,” Buss said on a recent podcast with Forbes Sports Money. “Luke Walton is somebody I believe can be our coach for the next 10 or 15 years as long as we don’t kill him.”
It turns out Johnson agreed with Buss with as much conviction as the beliefs they share in holding the previous front office in Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak largely responsible for the Lakers two weeks away from missing the NBA playoffs for the fourth consecutive season.
“I believe if we build with Luke in mind, he is somebody that can be around a long time,” Buss said. “That is exactly what Magic Johnson said.”
Buss reported that Johnson said those words when the two had dinner prior to the Lakers’ game against the Denver Nuggets at Staples Center on Jan. 31. Jeanie Buss and Johnson have both said they had dinner partly to console Jeanie Buss grieve after she and Knicks president Phil Jackson recently canceled their engagement. But the meeting also entailed talking about the state of the Lakers, which then led to Jeanie Buss offered Johnson an advisory role.
“Wherever anybody felt he could help, they were asking for the help except in the basketball department,” Jeanie Buss said. “That was disappointing to me. I felt like it was time to make a change.”
So, Buss fired Kupchak and Jim Buss on Feb. 21, about three weeks after Johnson’s initial hire and two days before the trade deadline.
Since then, Johnson traded veteran guard Lou Williams to Houston for a first-round pick and veteran forward Corey Brewer while also exchanging 32-year-old guard Marcelo Huertas for 22-year-old guard Tyler Ennis. The Lakers also negotiated a buyout with veteran guard Jose Calderon before signing David Nwaba after he spent the past season with the team’s Development League affiliate, the D-Fenders.
Johnson also hired Rob Pelinka as the team’s general manager after serving as a longtime players agent, including former Lakers guard Kobe Bryant. Since then, Johnson has often watched Lakers’ practices and provided individual feedback to players in collaboration with Walton.
With the Lakers’ rebuilding fortunes mostly resting on the NBA draft lottery on May 16 and in free agency beginning on July 1, Jeanie Buss stated, “I have complete confidence Magic will lead us there.” Meanwhile, Johnson and Pelinka have offered the same optimism regarding Walton.
“He would build the team around Luke Walton,” Jeanie Buss said of Johnson’s plans.
Jeanie Buss wanted to hear those words, citing Jackson’s presence with the Lakers that yielded five NBA titles and the sustained success of the San Antonio Spurs.
“I saw from my experience with Phil Jackson that if you can build a foundation of players who know the system that you want to play, the style of play you want to play,” Jeanie Buss said. “The Spurs have done it the best where they have a core group of players, and then they have kind of switch pieces as they need to.”
All of which Buss leaves wondering about one thing.
“Next season Los Angeles is hosting the NBA All Star game at Staples Center and I’m concerned we won’t have an All Star on the team,” Buss said. “That would break my heart.”