LOS ANGELES — In a move that drastically reshapes the leadership structure of one of the NBA’s most illustrious franchises two days before the league’s trade deadline, the Lakers have named Hall of Famer Magic Johnson their new president of basketball operations while firing longtime general manager Mitch Kupchak and removing Jim Buss as executive vice president of basketball operations.
The Lakers, with the third-worst record in the NBA and 14th in the West, are in serious danger of missing the playoffs for a fourth straight season. Before this current drought, the Lakers missed the postseason just four times since moving to Los Angeles in 1960.
“Today I took a series of actions I believe will return the Lakers to the heights Dr. Jerry Buss demanded and our fans rightly expect,” Lakers president and co-owner Jeanie Buss, Jim’s sister, said in a statement Tuesday. “Effective immediately, Earvin Johnson will be in charge of all basketball operations and will report directly to me. Our search for a new general manager to work with Earvin and coach Luke Walton is well underway and we hope to announce a new general manager in short order. Together, Earvin, Luke and our new general manager will establish the foundation for the next generation of Los Angeles Lakers greatness.”
Sports agent Rob Pelinka has an agreement in principle to become the next general manager of the Lakers, sources told ESPN. Pelinka will divest himself from his clients at Landmark Sports agency, which he owns along with Kobe Bryant.
One of those clients, Eric Gordon of the Rockets, said the agent has told him and two other clients, fellow Houston players Trevor Ariza and James Harden, that Pelinka will be the next general manager of the Lakers.
“We’re kinda surprised,” Gordon said. “It kinda happened quickly.”
The blueprint for the agent-to-front-office transition was established by current Golden State Warriors general manager Bob Myers.
At 19-39, the rebuilding Lakers have the NBA’s third-worst record and the second-worst record in the Western Conference. They’re coming off a franchise-worst 17-65 season and have missed the playoffs for three straight seasons, the longest postseason drought in franchise history.
Johnson made his first major trade in his new role on Tuesday night, acquiring Rockets veteran forward Corey Brewer and Houston’s 2017 first-round pick in exchange for veteran guard Lou Williams, according to multiple ESPN sources.
Johnson was drafted by the Lakers in 1979, won five titles with the franchise during the 1980s and recently rejoined the Lakers in an advisory role. Johnson has held positions with the Lakers in the past, including honorary vice president, which he resigned from in June. He has also previously owned shares in the team, which he sold to Dr. Patrick Soon Shiong in 2011.
“It’s a dream come true to return to the Lakers as president of basketball operations working closely with Jeanie Buss and the Buss family,” Johnson said in a statement.
It won’t be easy to fix the Lakers, but the Hall of Fame player turned front-office executive likes his chances of leading them back to glory.
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“Since 1979, I’ve been a part of the Laker Nation and I’m passionate about this organization. I will do everything I can to build a winning culture on and off the court. We have a great coach in Luke Walton and good young players. We will work tirelessly to return our Los Angeles Lakers to NBA champions.”
Kupchak spent 30 seasons with the Lakers, starting as a player, and was in his 17th as the team’s general manager.
Johnson confirmed to Spectrum SportsNet later Tuesday that the search for a new general manager has already begun.
“It’s not about quick,” he said. “It’s about finding the right person who understands the new CBA because this is really important. This is a new league and a new NBA, and the CBA has made it such.”
He said he’s looking for somebody who already has league relationships.
“That’s important that they have relationships with teams, players, agents and with the league,” he said.
Jim Buss spent 19 seasons in the Lakers’ front office and was in his 12th as executive vice president of basketball operations.
In 2014, Jim Buss publicly announced in the Los Angeles Times that he would step down within three years if the team hadn’t made a deep playoff run by then. Both Buss siblings took on more responsibility after the death of their father in February 2013.
“Jim loves the Lakers,” Jeanie Buss said in the statement. “Although he will no longer be responsible for basketball personnel decisions, he is an owner of this team and we share the same goal: returning the Lakers to the level of greatness our father demanded. Our fans deserve no less.”
Magic Johnson has held several positions with the Los Angeles Lakers since he retired as one of the franchise’s most celebrated players.
In a meeting later with Spectrum SportsNet, Jeanie Buss described what it was like to fire her brother from his position.
“This was a very difficult decision. It was probably so hard for me to make that I probably waited too long,” she said. “For that, I apologize to Laker fans.”
The decision to fire her brother was a very long, involved process that Jeanie Buss has been leading, sources close to the situation said. It was her decision, not Magic’s, to fire Kupchak, Jim Buss and longtime Lakers publicist John Black.
Jim Buss had hired lawyers to represent his interests, sources said, but the provisions governing the family trust that owns and operates the Lakers very clearly gave Jeanie Buss the authority to make these moves.
Jeanie Buss said this new role for Johnson really began coming together in earnest in January, when he reached out to her after she and longtime fiance Phil Jackson split.
“He is like family with me and he was worried about me,” she said, adding that she and Johnson had dinner soon after.
“That’s where it seemed like the connection was right and [we] started talking and brought him in as an adviser,” Buss said. “I think everything has kind of opened up the right way and the timing was right and I couldn’t be happier and more proud. I think Dr. Buss would really be smiling right now seeing us together.”
Johnson and Jeanie Buss were asked how long it will take to turn the franchise around.
“It’s going to take us a while,” Buss said. “I don’t want to fool the fans. We’re going to build this thing the right way.”
Johnson added: “I can’t turn it around tomorrow. Or I really would be Magic, right?”
One thing both said was that they are not trying to bring back the Showtime Lakers of Johnson’s era.
“We’re not trying to turn back the clock,” Buss said. “The Lakers have figured out how to win in every era, and certainly the game has evolved and the rules have changed, and we know in our discussions about evolving with the game and looking at what the modern NBA is all about. This isn’t about going to the past and recreating Showtime. You can’t recreate Showtime. … This is about the future and about finding the right team for the style that Luke Walton wants to play.”
Johnson said he will fly on the team’s charter plane to Oklahoma City for the Lakers’ game Friday.
“I want to see how they practice, how they prepare for a game,” he said. “That’s really important. It’s one thing to see it on TV, but it’s another thing when you’re right there in person.”
He’s excited to get started.
“If you could draw up your dream job, what would it be? This would be it,” he said.
Johnson gives up his role on ESPN’s NBA Countdown to take the Lakers job.
“Magic informed us of his decision to accept this opportunity with the Lakers and thus end his current role on NBA Countdown in order to focus on his newfound responsibilities,” ESPN said in a statement. “We’re grateful for the terrific contributions Magic has made to our NBA coverage and we wish him all the best. We look forward to documenting the next step in Magic’s unprecedented basketball journey.”
The Lakers also announced that they have parted ways with Black, the longtime publicist who was with the team for 27 seasons. Lakers chief operating officer Tim Harris will immediately search for Black’s replacement, the Lakers noted in their statement.
ESPN’s Marc Stein and Calvin Watkins contributed to this report