Before them were Rob Pelinka and Earvin “Magic” Johnson, who had been formally introduced in March 2017 as the Lakers’ new front-office leaders — with Johnson, an iconic player from the team’s 1980s “Showtime” era, serving as its president of basketball operations, and Pelinka, who had famously served as Kobe Bryant’s agent, as the general manager.
Neither possessed front-office experience but were chosen by Lakers president and governor Jeanie Buss, who had fired the organization’s longtime general managerMitch Kupchak and, separately, her brother Jim in February 2017.
This gathering would serve as one of Pelinka and Johnson’s initial attempts to address the basketball operations staff in a more formal setting — and to make an impression regarding their managerial style.
In his remarks, Johnson expressed excitement about the task ahead, but he also made clear he didn’t accept excuses or mistakes, and that those who weren’t on board with the new management and their mission should leave, according to six staffers who were present.
Pointing upstairs, toward his office, Johnson drove home his point. He had a large stack of resumes sitting on his desk — “a thousand” of them, multiple staffers recall him saying — and he could replace any of them at any time.
“It was shocking,” said one Lakers coaching staff member who was present. “If you’re going to be in this business, you bring enough pressure on yourself. You don’t need more pressure, especially from someone who’s supposed to be an ally.”
The message would set the tone for what many staffers describe as Johnson’s confrontational demeanor over the next two years. “If you questioned him on anything, his response was always a threatening tone,” said a Lakers front office staffer who interacted with Johnson directly. “He used intimidation and bullying as a way of showing authority.”
When Pelinka and Johnson ascended to their posts, there was talk of a new beginning, the start of returning the Lakers to greatness. The era was even given a sleek brand: Lakers 2.0.
But the era was short-lived, culminating in Johnson’s sudden resignation during an impromptu news conference on April 9. He cited “backstabbing and “whispering” as reasons for his abrupt departure. In just over two years, what was deemed a bold front-office experiment had failed.
During the nearly hour-long session with reporters in the halls of Staples Center mere minutes before the Lakers played their final game of the season — a loss — Johnson made tepid remarks about his working relationship with Pelinka, who would now be alone in attempting to chart a new path forward for the team.
Forty-one days later, Johnson’s remarks about Pelinka would sharpen. In an appearance on ESPN’s First Take, Johnson admitted that the duplicity and deceit were coming from none other than Pelinka, his general manager.
“I start hearing, ‘Magic, you are not working hard enough. Magic’s not in the office,'” Johnson told First Take. “People around the Laker office were telling me Rob was saying things. … So I started getting calls from my friends outside of basketball saying those things now were said to them outside of basketball, now just not in the Lakers’ office anymore.”
The conversation continued, but ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith wanted to circle back to comments about backstabbing.
“Does Magic Johnson feel betrayed, and if so, by whom?” Smith asked.
“If you are going to talk betrayal,” Johnson replied, “it’s only with Rob.”
On the court, the Lakers missed the playoffs in LeBron James’ first season with the team, ending his streak of eight consecutive NBA Finals appearances. Virtually all of the Lakers’ young talent was publicly dangled in trade talks for superstar Anthony Davis, sowing mistrust between those players and management — and between those players and James. Johnson and Pelinka allowed James’ management team what was considered unusual access by many people around the team and league. Andtensions boiled over in an early February locker room blow-up. All of it put the organization in a near-constant state of disarray, as epitomized on the night of their final regular-season game, when Johnson resigned without telling anyone in the organization, including Buss. Three days later, coach Luke Walton and the organization agreed to part ways.
After Walton’s departure, the resulting head coach search, led by Pelinka, proved rocky — with the Lakers’ top two candidates — Tyronn Lue and Monty Williams — turning down the job before Frank Vogel accepted. (Williams took the same position with the Phoenix Suns, and the Lakers’ negotiations with Lue, who was said to be their top candidate, broke down late in the process.) Multiple staffers described the aftermath of these moves as leaving the organization in a state of “shock” and “confusion.”
According to nearly two dozen current and former team staffers, ranging from occupants of executive suites to office cubicles, in addition to league sources and others close to the team, the Lakers under Johnson and Pelinka were fraught with dysfunction, on and off the court. These sources, who feared reprisal and weren’t authorized to speak publicly, describe Pelinka and Johnson as managers who made unilateral free-agent acquisitions; triggered a spate of tampering investigations and fines; berated staffers, including Walton; and created an in-house culture that many current and former longtime staffers said marginalized their colleagues, inspired fear and led to feelings of anxiety severe enough that at least two staffers suffered panic attacks.
As one ex-Lakers star privately told confidants, “It’s f—-ng crazy over there.”
ON JUNE 26, 2018, Johnson and Pelinka gathered at the team facility to introduce their latest draft picks. Sitting side by side, along with Moritz Wagner and Svi Mykhailiuk, the two executives shared enthusiasm about their newest Lakers. Then, late in the news conference, Johnson made headlines: The Lakers would sign star free agents that summer or the next, he said — or he would resign.
“If I can’t deliver, I’m going to step down myself,” he said. “[Jeanie Buss] won’t have to fire me.”
How would he do it? “I’m Magic Johnson.”
Not a week after Johnson’s declaration, Klutch Sports, the agency that represents LeBron James, announced the four-time NBA MVP and three-time champion would sign a four-year deal worth $154 million to join the Lakers. Pelinka called James’ signing “the ultimate validation for what we are building here,” while Johnson said L.A. had taken “a huge step” toward returning to the playoffs and Finals.
In the aftermath of signing James, Lakers management, tasked with building a roster around him, nabbed mercurial veterans — guards Rajon Rondo and Lance Stephenson, center JaVale McGee and forward Michael Beasley. The signings were criticized publicly, though Pelinka defended them. And James, who was consulted on the deals, signed off.
But coaching staffers and others in basketball operations said Pelinka and Johnson made the signings while seeking little to no consultation from them, even forgoing gathering intel from staffers who had previously worked with some of the players they had signed. Some employees learned of the signings through media reports. A Lakers spokesperson said Pelinka and Johnson consulted with everyone in the front office but that decisions ultimately rested with them.
“We all had the same reaction that the basketball world did, like what the f— are we doing?” one Lakers coaching staff member told ESPN. “Not only are we not getting shooting, but we’re also getting every basket case left on the market.”
“We were all confused,” a front office staffer said. “All of it made no sense.”
PELINKA AND JOHNSON didn’t hire Walton; they inherited him. Still, on the day they were introduced in their new roles, Johnson endorsed the former Lakers player who had previously been an assistant in Golden State (and for half of the Warriors’ 73-win 2015-16 season as the interim coach), calling Walton “the right man for the job.”
In September, five months after the Lakers went 35-47 in Johnson’s first season with the team, Johnson told reporters he had preached patience to Walton, saying, “Don’t worry if we get out to a bad start.” But by Oct. 30, with the Lakers holding a 3-5 record, Johnson berated Walton in a closed-door meeting, the details of which became public in an ESPN report by Adrian Wojnarowski.
Walton, according to members of the coaching staff and a source close to him, wasn’t clear why the organization had changed its message 13 days into the 2018-19 campaign.
In November, NBA commissioner Adam Silver and Maverick Carter, LeBron’s longtime business partner, met for lunch. James’ agent, Rich Paul, was seated at a nearby table, and at one point, approached Silver to complain about Walton, multiple sources familiar with the interaction told ESPN. Paul said he didn’t believe Walton was the right coach for the Lakers. Silver shrugged off the remark and asked whom Paul thought would be the right coach. Paul suggested Tyronn Lue.
Paul was also letting it be known through back-channel conversations, including those with reporters, that he wasn’t on board with Walton. Paul criticized how Walton allotted minutes to players and his inconsistent lineups, which were partly the result of injuries and suspensions. Members of the Lakers’ coaching staff became aware of those conversations and wondered whether Johnson’s heated meeting with Walton was influenced by Paul.
That an NBA head coach would face criticism from an agent or associates of star players is not rare, nor was it new for a head coach to face pressure with James on the roster. It’s also not unusual for teams in any professional sport — and certainly the NBA — to make accommodations for superstars. For example, three people close to James are listed in the Lakers’ staff directory as employees: Robert Brown, whose title is personal security officer; Randy Mims, whose title is executive administrator, player program & logistics; and Mike Mancias, whose title is athletic trainer & athletic performance liaison. All three were also on the team payroll with James in Cleveland.
Still, under Pelinka and Johnson, the Lakers began allowing more access — to the team and around the facility — to players’ agents than prior leadership, Lakers front-office staffers, coaching staff members, agents and other sources close to the team said. One Lakers front-office executive applauded the change, saying the Lakers had been behind the times and weren’t giving agents the basic level of access that other teams were granting.
Yet when Paul, who represented Lakers guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope prior to the team signing James, was seen at the facility during the 2017-18 season, his presence created an uneasy feeling among some coaching staffers and others close to Walton who knew the Lakers were also pursuing Paul’s biggest client, James.
“It was clear to us that he was scouting [Walton’s viability as the head coach] — and Luke is aware of this,” said one member of the Lakers coaching staff who was present at the facility.
In that same season, Caldwell-Pope was allowed to practice and play with the team while serving a 25-day jail sentence for violating the terms of his probation stemming from a DUI charge — a decision that, multiple team staffers said, caused unrest in the franchise. Caldwell-Pope was allowed to leave the Seal Beach Police Department Detention Center to attend practice and Lakers games in California as part of a work-release program, but he wasn’t allowed to travel outside the state, resulting in him missing one game in Cleveland, one in Minneapolis and two in Houston. In all, Caldwell-Pope missed four games while serving his jail sentence but played in nine, starting each one.
“Anybody [else] would have put him on personal leave or suspended him,” one coaching staff member said.
“I had a major problem with that,” a Lakers front-office executive said.
When asked why Caldwell-Pope played during this time, a Lakers spokesperson said they were simply following the judge’s work-release ruling. Staffers within the organization and sources close to the team say they believe it was because the Lakers were trying to curry favor with Klutch in their efforts to sign James the following summer in free agency.
Coaching staff and others close to the team told ESPN there would continue to be an increased presence by Paul and Klutch Sports in ways that seemed strange to them. For instance, three Lakers sources familiar with team travel details independently told ESPN that Paul rode on the Lakers’ charter plane on multiple occasions this season, an act that front-office executives, other NBA general managers and other agents around the league said is highly unusual — if not unheard of.
Paul didn’t deny to ESPN that he had ridden on the Lakers’ team charter, though he said he also did so while James played in Cleveland and Miami. Sources who rode on those team charters while James played there dispute that claim.
A Lakers spokesperson confirmed that Paul has ridden on the team charter, though he said it happened only once — on a one-way cross-country flight — after Paul had travel complications. The Lakers wouldn’t specify when this flight occurred but said Walton was given the opportunity to deny Paul access to the charter, but he declined to do so.
And so the perception existed among the Lakers’ coaching staff that Paul sought to oust Walton. And some players also believed, according to coaching staff members and those players’ agents, that Klutch Sports was working to trade them away for a superstar. Given those perceptions, one former Lakers player described Paul’s presence on the team charter as a “culture killer.”
“Coaches know Rich is trying to get them fired, and players know Rich is trying to get them traded,” said one agent with ties to the Lakers, who called Paul’s presence on the plane “destructive.”
Given Klutch’s access, rival agents — even those representing players on the roster — said they were wary of allowing young clients to join the Lakers, fearing they’d be recruited or poached.
Why all of these disparate events occurred or were allowed to occur became a topic of conversation at various levels of the organization. The general consensus? Inexperience on the part of management.
“Rob and Magic have never done this job, they have no idea how to do it, let alone how to do it in the space with those guys [from Klutch Sports],” said one NBA front-office executive who worked with James on a different team.
When contacted by ESPN, Paul denied every allegation against him except riding on the team charter. Paul declined to publicly comment beyond those denials, providing a statement instead: “I understand my position. I respect all those in our industry. At the end of the day, all I can do is continue to do a job for my client. That’s it. I can’t worry about what somebody thinks, the perception. All I can do is work hard and continue down the path that I’m on.”
Adam Mendelsohn, a longtime media adviser to James, also provided a statement: “Rich’s access and influence is no different than any other elite agent. It’s a convenient narrative to suggest anonymously that it was unique to him. But anyone in the NBA knows that’s just how the NBA media game works.”
A FEW DAYS before the Feb. 7 trade deadline, with so many players involved in trade talks for Anthony Davis, the Lakers endured a locker-room blow-up after a loss in Golden State. ESPN’s Dave McMenamin reported that Walton had criticized specific players — Michael Beasley and JaVale McGee — for playing selfishly, and those players answered back at their coach.
In the end, after weeks of rumors, no agreement for Davis was struck, but the impact of having so many of their players dangled in trade talks damaged team chemistry, according to coaches, agents and others close to the team.
Multiple coaching staff members and sources close to specific players said the players’ trust in management had all but evaporated — and that players also felt, fairly or not, that James was complicit.
“Guys know there’s no trust there,” one Lakers coaching staff member told ESPN before the season ended. “Guys know the new [administration] has completely bent over to the agent world and were overly sensitive to having these one-sided relationships with these guys where they kind of control our every move because we’re ‘big-game hunting.'”
Soon after the trade deadline, Johnson addressed the team in Philadelphia, though his message to the players fell flat, according to members of the coaching staff and others close to the team. And the displeasure didn’t end there. According to multiple staffers, those in and around the organization were dismayed by Johnson’s comments to the media in Philadelphia on the same day.
“Quit making this about thinking these guys are babies because that’s what you’re treating them like,” Johnson said then. “They’re professionals. All of them. And this is how this league works. They know it, I know it — that’s how it goes.”
Johnson also said he believed the New Orleans Pelicans operated in bad faith during negotiations for Davis. “We knew that basically at the end of the day, what happened, happened,” he said.
Said one Lakers front-office staffer: “What wasn’t in good faith? We proposed something and they turned it down. It’s very arrogant on our part.”
Meanwhile, considerable doubt remained within the Lakers organization over the ability of Pelinka and Johnson to plot a path toward contention.
As that same front-office staffer said before Johnson’s resignation, “I don’t think we have a plan.”
ON MARCH 10, 2017, the day he was introduced as the team’s new GM, Pelinka was asked about the steepest learning curve in his new role.
“This franchise consists of 200-250 employees,” Pelinka said, “and our job is to make sure that all of those team members are functioning as a well-oiled machine and together.”
Johnson, sitting beside Pelinka, added that they were evaluating everybody in the organization. “We’re going to see if we have the best people,” he said, “and hopefully we do in house, and if not, we just have to get the right people.”
As Johnson and Pelinka foreshadowed, change would follow. At least two dozen staffers throughout the organization would depart, a figure that includes not only basketball operations and coaching staffers but also athletic training officials, analytics staffers, administrative assistants, the team’s equipment manager and the head athletic trainer.
In the Lakers’ 2016-17 media guide, the directory lists 72 staffers who aren’t a part of the ownership group. That figure does not include players, cheerleaders, security members, ball boys, interns, outside consultants, team broadcasters, players and coaches of the team’s development league team, among others; nor does it include the six Buss family members listed in various positions throughout the franchise. Of those 72, at least 27 are, as of this date, no longer with the organization, a turnover rate of 37.5 percent.
Some executives in other NBA organizations — including general managers — have expressed surprise at the number of departures, even for a top-down administration change.
“That’s like saying no one there is any good,” one rival front-office executive told ESPN.
A Lakers spokesperson said the team currently employs about 300 staffers but said it didn’t have data immediately available of how many staffers have departed or have been replaced since Pelinka and Johnson were hired.
The spate of changes increased the workloads for several staff members — and in one instance in 2017, a longtime female staffer was called into an office with Johnson and Pelinka after making a mistake, according to multiple staffers present and others familiar with the incident. The mistake, sources said, involved arranging a car service to the team’s facility for a draft prospect.
“I don’t stand for mistakes!” Johnson shouted at her. “I don’t make mistakes.”
Johnson also made clear, according to multiple people familiar with the exchange, that if the staffer made one more mistake, she would be fired.
In the office, the staffer apologized and later, off site, began to cry, according to multiple people with knowledge of the incident. In the months ahead, she would suffer increased anxiety and panic attacks. She was prescribed anti-anxiety medication, quit the Lakers after more than two decades with the team, and began several weeks of therapy, multiple people familiar with the matter said. She gave her notice on Dec. 18, 2017, the same day Kobe Bryant’s two jerseys were retired.
A Lakers executive said he also suffered panic attacks and had to be prescribed anti-anxiety medication. “Every day you go in there and you get this horrible feeling of anxiety,” the executive said. “In the last year, I can’t tell you how many panic attacks I’ve had from the s— that has happened there.”
Multiple current and former Lakers staffers who interacted directly with Johnson would describe a striking duality to his personality. One ex-staffer noted that when Johnson was present, there was often a question of who employees would face that day: Would they see Magic? Or would it be Earvin? The cameras love Magic, the charismatic one, but there was also Earvin, who could be manipulative and impulsive.
“It was a roller-coaster ride of up and down with him,” one coaching staff member said.
Current and former team staffers told ESPN that Johnson, who has business interests outside the Lakers, was frequently absent, sometimes appearing only once a week or every two weeks. But, these same people said, when Johnson was there, he could make his presence known in a demonstrative way.
“He comes off to the fan base with the big love and the smile,” said one ex-Lakers athletic training official who interacted directly with Johnson. “But he’s not — he’s a fear monger.”
A Lakers spokesperson said Johnson wasn’t reprimanded for unprofessional workplace behavior and that no official complaints were filed. The NBA also has not received complaints about Johnson through its confidential hotline or through any other means, a league spokesperson said, nor has the league investigated the Lakers in the past two seasons for issues related to its workplace environment.And Johnson, in an appearance Tuesday night on ESPN’s SportsCenter NBA Finals Preview Special, reiterated his denial.
Several Lakers staffers, both current and former, said they didn’t feel comfortable going to the team’s human resources department with complaints because they feared reprisal and doubted complaints would make an impact. Several staffers said that feeling represented a general consensus in the office.
While with the team, Johnson declined an interview request for this story. Since departing, he declined another request. But on the night Johnson resigned, he publicly denied any unprofessional behavior with employees.
“Never disrespected nobody, never did anything bad,” Johnson said. “Now, am I tough? Hell yeah, I am. You work for me, I’m demanding. That’s who I am. But at the same time, I’m fair.”
IN HIS INTRODUCTORY news conference in March 2017, Pelinka declared, “I’m a little bit of a storyteller by nature.”
During the session, Pelinka quoted scripture. He compared joining the Lakers to “When Harry Met Sally.” He talked about camping in Montana with Kobe Bryant. He talked about seeing a picture of a boy in a Syrian refugee camp wearing a Kobe Bryant jersey. He called Kobe Bryant a “North Star” and said Bryant’s impact on the team was like sugar dissolving in coffee: “Once it’s there, it’s there forever.”
He once called point guard Lonzo Ball “transcendent” and mentioned him alongside Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. He compared the young Lakers’ potential to Taylor Swift. After signing Caldwell-Pope, Pelinka again referenced the Bible. In a news conference after signing James, Pelinka put on glasses and started reading from Paulo Coelho’s “The Alchemist,” noting that James had read it and that Bryant had also given him a copy.
Pelinka’s penchant for “storytelling,” multiple Lakers staffers told ESPN, is viewed as disingenuous — at best.
One story shared around the organization unfolded in March 2018, when Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was addressing the team at the Lakers’ practice facility as part of the franchise’s “Genius Talks” series.
Standing beside Johnson, Pelinka told a story about his former client, Bryant.
“There was one time when Kobe, who I worked with for 18 years, was going back to play in Madison Square Garden, and he had just seen ‘The Dark Knight,'” Pelinka said. “Obviously, you guys saw that movie, and he’s like, ‘Hey, hook me up with dinner with Heath Ledger, because he got so locked into that role. I want to know how he mentally went there.’ So, he had dinner with Heath, and he talked about how he locks in for a role.
“And Kobe used some of that in his game against the Knicks.”
“The Dark Knight” was released in July 2008, six months after Ledger died. A source with direct knowledge said no such arrangement was made and no dinner ever took place.
Another story took place on June 21, 2018, when Lakers staffers gathered at their practice facility for that year’s NBA draft. The Lakers had two “war rooms” set up inside their training facility: Johnson and Pelinka were in one; front-office executives, scouts and others who had helped evaluate prospects were in another, according to multiple team staffers present.
As the Lakers neared their 25th pick in the first round, staff members in the second war room expected — and, according to one basketball operations staffer present, were excited — that they would select Villanova power forward Omari Spellman, who was the highest-ranked remaining player on the Lakers’ draft board, according to multiple team staffers present. Instead, the Lakers took Wagner, the forward from Michigan. Sources said that inside the second war room, scouts and other staff members watched the pick on television and were shocked.
Later, Pelinka told staffers he had heard negatives about Spellman and that he had discussed the issues with Lakers forward Josh Hart, who had played at Villanova before Spellman. Hart, he said, agreed there were concerns. Staffers were taken aback, and some said it represented another instance of a unilateral decision being made by Pelinka or Johnson without the involvement of key figures who would normally be central to the decision. “For him to covertly go to a player and go behind everybody’s else’s back, that’s the problem,” one coaching staff member said.
It also represented what multiple basketball operations staffers said was one of several instances in which Pelinka was quick to say that others — such as agents or players — were at least partly if not wholly responsible for certain decisions, which staffers believe was Pelinka’s way of deflecting blame and from taking ownership or responsibility.
Some staffers have even sought out those whom Pelinka has said he has spoken with, just to confirm whether such conversations took place. In this instance, a source close to Hart said the two spoke briefly, for less than a minute, and Hart offered that Spellman had a great work ethic, but he was concerned about his fitness. (A Lakers spokesperson said Pelinka and Johnson consulted with everyone in the front office but that the decision on whom to draft ultimately rested with them.)
Pelinka has also been known to sit in on pregame and halftime coaches’ meetings, something staff members and other front-office executives — including general managers — said is irregular for an NBA GM.
“It’s weird from the player’s standpoint,” a Lakers coaching staff member told ESPN. “The players are not able to open up and speak freely, because you’ve got the guy in the room who supposedly controls your future, so why would you open up and be honest and confrontational when that might be what is required for that moment?”
The staffer described those meetings by saying, “It’s very quiet in there.”
At least once, Walton addressed the issue with Pelinka, telling him that his presence was, at the very least, uncomfortable, coaching staff members said. Walton also pointed out to Pelinka that when he coached as an assistant at Golden State, Warriors GM Bob Myers didn’t sit in on such meetings. Pelinka responded to Walton that he had communicated with Myers — and that Myers was now, in the years since Walton’s departure from Golden State, sitting in on these meetings. Sources in and around the Warriors’ organization told ESPN that Myers does no such thing.
According to executives leaguewide, the flow and accuracy of information — for scouting, potential trades, free agency, the draft, personnel hirings — is paramount to team building, but current and former Lakers staffers, as well as others close to the team, expressed serious concerns about Pelinka’s credibility. Pelinka, through a team spokesperson, declined multiple attempts to be interviewed for this story.
“We think, more often than not, he’s not being truthful,” a coaching staff member said. “That goes throughout the organization.”
Johnson, in his comments on First Take on May 20, referenced Pelinka’s reputation, saying, “When I took the job, you know how many agents called me and said you got to watch out for [Pelinka]?”
Those comments came hours before the Lakers introduced Frank Vogel as their new head coach. Facing rows of reporters, Pelinka called Johnson’s claims “saddening” and “disheartening,” adding that, “They’re just simply not true.”
When asked whether he’s concerned about a perception around the league that he can’t be trusted, Pelinka said: “My job is to not worry about what other people may think or say about me as a person. My job is to do the work and what’s best for this franchise, and that’s where my focus is.
“We all know in sports when you’re winning, great things are said. When you’re losing, the naysayers and the negativity comes out. That’s just the nature of this business. And right now, we’re coming off a season where we lost.”
UNDER PREVIOUS LAKERS administrations, current and former staffers and team executives told ESPN, the team carefully followed league rules, with an emphasis on frequently reviewing the NBA’s operations manual to make sure procedures were above board.
According to team staffers, that standard disappeared when Johnson and Pelinka ascended to their roles — and it would become obvious when the team was disciplined three times in less than 12 months for tampering.
Initially, the NBA warned the Lakers after Johnson winked and made comments about Paul George during an appearance on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” in April 2017. George was under contract with the Indiana Pacers, and the NBA prohibits teams from interfering with other teams’ contractual relationships with players, including publicly expressing interest in a player or informing a player’s agent of your franchise’s interest.
The Pacers filed tampering charges against the Lakers in August 2017, and the league found that Pelinka had been communicating with George’s agent. The NBA fined the Lakers $500,000, the largest tampering fine in league history. Afterward, the Lakers, in a statement, swore they’d be “hyper-vigilant” in the future.
Then in February 2018, the Lakers were fined $50,000 for violating league tampering rules when Johnson discussed Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo in an interview with ESPN.
A year later, Johnson said Philadelphia 76ers rising star Ben Simmons “reached out to me, not to me directly, to the Lakers to find out if we can get together this summer.”
Johnson’s comment on Simmons triggered a tampering investigation, but the NBA later announced the Lakers did not violate league rules. Still, the comment shocked staffers, several of them said, in no small part because of the tampering penalties they had previously incurred.
“It felt and still feels like they removed everyone from their immediate inner circle that would have knowledge of the rules and would have the balls to challenge them and say, ‘Hey, we can’t do that,'” one Lakers coaching staff member said.
JEANIE BUSS BELIEVES in fate.
More specifically, a source familiar with the inner workings of the Lakers who has been in direct contact with Buss told ESPN that Buss believed Johnson was meant to be in his role, that Pelinka was meant to be in his, that James was meant to be a Laker, and whoever is no longer with the organization wasn’t meant to be there.
“It’s not like she’s in complete denial,” the source said prior to Johnson’s resignation. “But she doesn’t give things the proper weight and attention, in my opinion, as she should.”
Through a spokesperson, Jeanie Buss declined multiple requests for an interview.
One coaching staff member said they have “100 percent confidence” that Buss knows of general concerns within the organization, adding that they’re aware of specific confidants — including her siblings Jesse and Joey Buss, both executives with the team — who “are continually telling her this stuff.”
Still, multiple rival NBA executives have noted the unique nature of the Lakers — that they are a family-owned, family-operated franchise, the only one of its kind in the league. And the familial nature of the franchise can be seen through many of its hirings; the team has employed many of those with deep ties to its past, such as Pelinka, Johnson, Walton, Jerry West and Mitch Kupchak.
Rival executives have defined this tendency as more of a weakness than a strength, specifically with respect to Pelinka and Johnson, noting that they were principally chosen not for their experience or qualifications but for their connection to Buss and the Lakers.
Multiple team staffers, as well as others close to the organization, cast doubt on the possibility of the team changing its pattern of “Lakers family” hirings or on overhauling the culture itself. As one source close to the coaching staff said of Buss, “She has accepted that this is who they are.”
Regarding Pelinka’s fate, front-office staffers, coaching staff members and others close to the team point to the power and influence held by Linda Rambis. Her title within the Lakers is executive director of special projects, but Rambis, the wife of former Laker Kurt Rambis, is better known within and around the organization as perhaps Jeanie Buss’ closest friend and confidant. And Linda Rambis, team staffers said, has long been an ardent supporter and ally of Pelinka for reasons some staffers said they don’t fully understand. “Nobody gets it,” one coaching staff member said.
In some circles around the NBA, Linda Rambis has been referred to as a “shadow owner” of the Lakers, a title that one front-office staffer said Rambis enjoys, noting: “She loves it,” and that “she controls and manipulates Jeanie.” Kurt Rambis — a Lakers senior basketball adviser and close associate of Phil Jackson, the former Lakers coach and Jeanie Buss’ ex-fiance — sat in on the team’s coaching meetings throughout the season, creating a sense of unease. Staffers had already suspected he would report back to Linda and thus Pelinka and Buss, but a Lakers spokesperson insisted Walton invited Kurt Rambis to those meetings.
During a chaotic season, sources close to Walton described the coach as “frustrated,” in part because of the instability around him. Following a practice more than a month before the season ended, Walton, who knew he would potentially be fired after the season, was asked by his coaching staff whether he would be better off leaving the team and its dysfunction behind, according to another team source.
Sources close to Walton said he wanted to make it work until the very end and was willing to stay if management wanted to keep him. But Walton also knew — and told his staff in response to the question about his future — that departing the Lakers had to be considered too. Walton joined the Sacramento Kings on April 13, one day after he left the Lakers. One week after the Kings officiallyannounced his hiring, Walton was sued by a journalist who alleged he sexually assaulted her while Walton served as an assistant coach with the Golden State Warriors.
Before Johnson departed, Buss said: “In terms of basketball decisions, I will always defer to Magic. He’s brought a vision of the kind of team we’re going to build and a vision of what Lakers basketball is going to be. And I think you can see that.”
Less than one week later, Johnson announced his resignation without telling Buss first. After speaking with reporters for more than 40 minutes, Johnson walked toward the Staples Center loading dock, saying, “Now I’ve got to see if the boss is here.”
Buss hadn’t yet arrived.
Johnson continued to wait, speaking to reporters. Eventually, he was told Buss wasn’t going to show. She wouldn’t address reporters the following day during exit interviews at the team’s facility either. When the team announced Walton’s departure, her name was absent from the release; instead, it included a quote from Pelinka. And when the team introduced Vogel as Walton’s replacement, she wasn’t present and wouldn’t address reporters.
Looking back to the day the Lakers appointed Johnson to his role, Buss, in a statement, referenced her late father and the team’s patriarch owner, saying she believed her moves would “return the Lakers to the heights Dr. Jerry Buss demanded and our fans rightly expect.”
Jerry Buss died in February 2013. In the six seasons since, during which Jeanie Buss has principally been in charge of the organization, the Lakers, with 329 losses, are tied with the New York Knicks for the most in the NBA.
“I feel like everyone that’s no longer there, as sad as it is that they’re no longer there, it’s a blessing,” one former staffer said. “It’s not a good place to be. It’s not what Dr. Buss wanted it to be.”
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