There was a time not long ago when the roles were reversed. The Los Angeles Lakers were considered state-of-the-art and the Golden State Warriors were sympathetically patted on the head.
Times have a tendency to change, however. And a quick glance at the sports page tells you how different the league’s landscape now is.
The Warriors are land barons. The Lakers are court jesters. The last few days have provided a perfect example of the changing culture.
On Monday, the Warriors completed their sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers in the Western Conference finals with Stephen Curry dropping bombs. On the same day, the family feud between Magic Johnson and Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka intensified with a few bombs of its own being hurled.
You may have heard Johnson say the other day he felt betrayed by Pelinka and that the dysfunction of their relationship was at least partly responsible for Magic’s sudden resignation as the team’s director of basketball operations.
Johnson went on ESPN’s “First Take” and insinuated Pelinka was talking behind his back, telling his friends and confidants Johnson wasn’t working as hard as he should at his job, that he wasn’t in the office often enough. Tough words.
“If you’re going to talk betrayal, it’s only with Rob,” Johnson said. “But, again, I had to look inside myself. I had been doing that for months. Because I didn’t like that Tim Harris [Lakers executive] was too involved in basketball. He’s supposed to run the Laker business, but he was trying to come over to our side. Jeanie [Buss has] gotta stop that. You gotta stop people from having those voices.
“So I start getting calls from my friends outside of basketball saying those things now were said to them outside of basketball. Now not just in the Laker office anymore, now it’s in the media and so on.”
Truth is, when Buss was trying to convince Magic to take the job, he told her he wasn’t willing to give up other business ventures that made him a boat load of cash.
“I said listen,” Magic said. “I can’t give up all my business. I make more money doing that than I do becoming the president of the Lakers. So you know that I’m going to be in and out. Is that ok with you? She said ‘Yes.’”
On Monday, at the press conference introducing Frank Vogel as the new Lakers coach, Pelinka aggressively denied saying or doing anything to defame the NBA Hall of Famer.
“The two years of getting to work side-by-side with Earvin are some of best memories I have in sports and work. … It’s saddening and disheartening to think he believes things are a misperception,” Pelinka said. “I think all of us in life have been through things where maybe there’s third-party whispers or he-said, she-said things that aren’t true.”
This is not an easy time for Johnson. He has not emerged from this unscathed. His spontaneous resignation, made without consulting anyone in ownership and the front office, has people wondering exactly how suited he was for a position that required making tough decisions.
Johnson initially blamed it on his perception he didn’t have the decision-making power he felt he needed. But after his comments about Pelinka, the thought process has shifted a bit.
Maybe Johnson was a bit too sensitive and thin-skinned. Perhaps he was unwilling to devote the time to completely think through the complex issues, like when the pressure began to rise on former coach Luke Walton and he had to decide if he should stay or go.
It could be Pelinka sensed Johnson’s hesitation to make waves by questioning owner Jeanie Buss. Perhaps Pelinka sensed ambivalence and began to mention it to those close to him.
What’s true in these behind-the-door give-and-takes is the truth likely lies somewhere in between the stated versions.
“These things are surprising to hear and disheartening,” Pelinka said. “But I look forward to the opportunity to talk with him and sit down with him and work through them — just like in any relationship. Because they are simply not true.”
What’s come out of it is the impression that the Lakers are a mess top to bottom.
There is talk the Lakers may be ready to give up on the Lebron James experiment after just one failed season. And if they expected Anthony Davis to be a part of the rebuild, that idea was quashed last week when the owner of the New Orleans Pelicans publicly forbade her organization from dealing the disgruntled superstar to the Lakers.
The Lakers have won 16 NBA championships but have not made the playoffs since 2013. And after sifting through a number of candidates they finally settled on Vogel, who has extensive NBA experience as coach of the Indiana Pacers and Orlando Magic.
Yet even this move has been clouded by suspicion because former NBA coach Jason Kidd has been added to Vogel’s staff. People are wondering whether Kidd is in town to serve as a successor should Vogel get off to a slow start in 2019-20.
Vogel played coy on Monday. He welcomed Kidd, calling him an incredible asset to the organization. He said he had a lengthy conversation with Kidd, the former coach of the Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks, and that they had “connected.”
“No, I am very good at blocking out noise,” Vogel said when asked about Kidd. “I have been around this business a long time. I really don’t give that a second thought. You can say that about every coach in the league about their assistant coaches. It happens from time to time. I believe if you treat people with the right respect and do the job at the highest level, build an environment of positivity and collaboration, you can’t worry about that stuff.
“You can’t worry about looking over your shoulder. You got to worry about getting good damn coaches, and that is how I feel about this hire.”
Kidd interviewed for the job before the team tried to lure former Cleveland Cavaliers coach Ty Lue. Lue said see you later when the Lakers refused to budge from its three-year, $19 million offer. It’s been reported that Lue was thinking of adding Vogel to his Lakers staff.
Kidd was 44-38 and reached the second round of the playoffs with the Nets in 2013-14 and was 138-152 in Milwaukee (2014-18).
“I didn’t know Jason very well prior to that,” Vogel said. “But, obviously, great respect for his playing career and his coaching career. I think he’s done a good job as a head coach. … This has been the model that’s best for me, in terms of building my coaching staff: find a respected player with coaching experience that can help strengthen my message.”
The Lakers made a mistake in hiring Johnson, expecting too much and receiving too little. Now we’re about to find out if they’ve hired the right coach to move forward.