One of the most storied franchises in the National Basketball Association, the Los Angeles Lakers, has had a rough go of it as of late. The organization has not made the playoffs since 2012, and over the past year it has experienced its fair share of drama to say the least.
Let’s not cry for the franchise of Wilt, Kareem, Worthy, Magic, Kobe and Shaq. It still has one of the NBA’s greatest players ever in LeBron James and Forbes values the organization at some $4 billion.
While it really doesn’t matter why the Lakers have struggled over the the past seven years (cough, cough, the legacy of Kobe Bryant’s ego!), what does matter is that the health of an organization’s brand can, over time, have a significant impact on its value. Fans tire of losing and infighting as well as a revolving door of players and team executives.
But when one of the team’s most storied players and ambassadors quits his role as president of basketball operations — and then about a month later drops a bomb on the team by publicly airing dirty laundry — well, that’s when shit starts going sideways.
In a wide-ranging interview on ESPN, NBA Hall-of-Famer, beloved basketball icon and former Lakes president of basketball operations Magic Johnson described a dysfunctional organization in which his authority over hoops matters had been effectively neutered before he suddenly resigned in April. Magic said he’d been backstabbed by GM Rob Pelinka who is (allegedly) disliked league-wide. And perhaps worst of all, Magic shared his story on the same day the team was set to introduce new head coach Frank Vogel and at a time when the Lakers are entering one of its most important free-agent periods in recent memory.
Just imagine you are a top-tier NBA free-agent and you hear one of the all-time greats say that the wife of his former teammate (Linda Rambis) played a role in over-ruling his authority about on-court matters; or that the team’s GM is a backstabber and threw him under the bus; or that team owner and president Jeanie Buss can’t make an informed decision without asking an army of advisors — some of whom are totally unqualified to do so?
Clearly this is a significant problem organizationally, but think about the ramifications to the Lakers’ brand reputation. If they cannot bring in another top-tier free agent this summer, the Lakers could potentially miss the playoffs yet again and ultimately waste the final years of James’ historic career.
How does this get fixed?
If the Lakers are to salvage their reputation as a well-run team and destination for other top-tier players, as Buss addresses the obvious basketball operational challenges, the key is the transparency with which those decisions are made. She must convey the basketball operations structure clearly and openly while providing a tangible roadmap that articulate a cohesive path forward.
For example, is Pelinka the chief basketball decision maker? If so, make clear that is the case so free-agents and other GMs know who matters in key conversations. But words in a shallow press release are not enough. Pelinka and Buss should go on ESPN or another respected media vehicle together and directly say: “Rob Pelinka is the man and basketball decision-making begins and ends with him.”
Next, get Kobe Bryant on the interview circuit. Have him ensure Lakers fans and free agents that Pelinka — who is Bryant’s longtime agent and friend — is a brilliant basketball mind and that he will guide the organization back to the playoffs quickly.
Finally, as free agency progresses, use social media to show candid images of Pelinka meeting with key free agents, coach Vogel and King James.
Magic’s ESPN interview put the Lakers in an even deeper hole than it had been and will cause negative waves for weeks. But memories are short and all is not lost. Fixing the perception of the Lakers can potentially be a relatively quick fix if they can land a free agent and start winning out of the gate next season. Or, if they don’t land a stud this offseason, it might take time to strip the tarnish off the brand.
But either way, there’s a mess — albeit a repairable one — in Los Angeles basketball right now. And for a change, it’s not the Clippers.