Call ‘em the Showtime Lakers again, not because their utter organizational collapse of this past season was fun to watch—though it was definitely fun to watch—but because they melted down with levels of violence and obscenity that belong on premium cable. Luke Walton is gone as coach, replaced with a third-choice hire, and then a fourth-choice hire for when LeBron James decides he doesn’t like the first guy. Magic Johnson is gone as team president, resigning in favor of his new job: Obvious Tweeter and Burner of Bridges. Rob Pelinka is still there. So is LeBron, and all of LeBron’s hangers-on. That feels like more than enough shit to clog the fan.
ESPN’s Baxter Holmes has a big piece this morning with a wide remit—to determine what went wrong with the Pelinka/Magic/LeBron Lakers. The short answer is: So much went wrong, and at just about everybody’s hands, that it’s impossible to construct a single narrative from it. The executives were in over their heads. The power-seekers were indulged, not quarantined. The bosses were tyrants. There were too many cooks, all acting independently of each other and making sure they were insulated from any criticisms. Everyone, at seemingly all times, did what they shouldn’t have done, and made sure there was no one around to warn them that they shouldn’t do it. It’s all, frankly, a masterpiece of organizational rot—a well-run franchise couldn’t quickly achieve this level of dysfunction if it tried.
The Lakers, if it doesn’t become clear after reading Holmes’s story, or after, uh, paying attention to the entire last season, are not a well-run franchise. At well-run franchises, things like this don’t tend to happen:
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.
Oh hell yeah. That’s LeBron’s agent complaining to the commissioner of the NBA that he doesn’t like LeBron’s coach.
This, more than anything else—more than Pelinka’s obliviousness, or Magic’s bullying, or the weird, possibly incompetent Buss-Rambis bloc at the top—appears to be the through-line for so much of the Lakers’ misery. That the front office was so desperate to sign LeBron and to keep him happy that it’s afforded him and his people unprecedented power in the organization, to the alienation of just about everyone else.
Holmes stacks up the examples. How, the previous season, the Lakers let Kentavious Caldwell-Pope play in games while on a work-release program from prison, because, it’s implied, he’s a Rich Paul client and they wanted Paul happy in order to land LeBron. How the Lakers hired a bunch of LeBron’s friends to organizational jobs, including those of trainer, “personal security officer,” and something called “executive administrator, player program & logistics.” How Rich Paul was allowed to fly on the team’s charter flight.
While this may have kept LeBron happy, it reportedly played havoc with the rest of the team. It was an open secret that the entire roster was trade bait in the Lakers’ ultimately thwarted attempts to obtain Anthony Davis. Amid the rumors, players did not take kindly to the favoritism shown to LeBron and his agent.
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.”
The fallout may not end even when the A.D. derby does. ESPN reports that rival agents are wary of letting their clients sign with the Lakers for fear that Paul, with the access he has on the Lakers, will poach them away and sign them to his agency.
The defense, such as it is, for all of this is that it’s not new, that LeBron and his people were afforded similar preferential treatment in previous career stops. Therein lies the risk the Lakers took, and which appears to have backfired on them. It was all well and good to let LeBron functionally run a team when he was healthy and the best player in the world—that’s a trade-off most front offices make happily. But he’s 34 years old now, and surrounded by a flawed roster, and there’s not really much evidence that the folks nominally in charge really know what they’re doing. Winning may cure all ills, but the Lakers aren’t winning, and they have an awful lot of ills.
So, yeah, go read the whole thing. And don’t miss the Heath Ledger story.