Who's running the show? Inside the Lakers' hierarchy

ByOhm Youngmisuk and Dave McMenamin ESPN logo
Saturday, May 18, 2019

Editor's note: This has been updated with the news the Lakers will not replace Magic Johnson aspresident of basketball operations.

With the Los Angeles Lakershiring Frank Vogel as head coach after being rejected by Monty Williams and Ty Lue, questions are swirling about the team's power structure.

Who is calling the shots? Who is gaining influence? How are these individuals affecting the Lakers since the sudden resignation of Magic Johnson as team president on April 9 and the split with head coach Luke Walton on April 12? Who was involved in negotiating the coaching candidacies of Williams -- since hired by the Suns -- and Lue and Vogel in the last month?

No one from the front office has conducted a news conference since the Lakers' season ended, making it difficult to be sure how the org chart looks these days. What's known is there are plenty of people who have a stake in the proceedings. Though everyone in this group ostensibly shares the goal of seeing the Lakers return to prominence, there are varied personal motivations involved in getting there.Family pride. Legacy building. Respect. Money. Notoriety. All of it.

Perhaps the only clarity is who's at the top of the hierarchy.

The boss

Jeanie Buss | controlling owner, president

As Buss was ousting her older brother Jim -- who was executive vice president of basketball operations -- and general manager Mitch Kupchak in 2017, she received a text from Kobe Bryant encouraging her to see things through. "I sent her a meme from 'Game of Thrones' of Khaleesi riding on the ship, going to her homeland with the ships behind her," Bryant told ESPN's Rachel Nichols. "I said, 'Sometimes the mother of dragons has just got to be the mother of dragons.' And Jeanie went full Khaleesi."

Bryant was referring to the queen character on the popular HBO drama who cut through a crowded field of competitors to make a legitimate run at ruling the land.

Buss' position atop the Lakers' hierarchy is unchallenged, if not unblemished.

Buss, 57, took over as the Lakers' governor after the death of her father, Dr. Jerry Buss, in 2013. She had previously filled a variety of positions in her dad's pro tennis and roller hockey businesses. Later, Jeanie Buss cut her teeth as an executive in charge of The Forum in Inglewood, California, and subsequently transitioned to the business operations side of the Lakers.

As the controlling owner, she had publicly stated her trust in Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka to make basketball decisions. Those decisions had the potential to run counter to her personal preferences. Johnson told Nichols he was prepared to make the decision of whether to fire Walton, and it was going to be tough for Buss because she loved Walton and Johnson. But Johnson didn't make his decision official before stepping down.

Walton and the Lakers parted ways shortly after Johnson's departure, and Buss was tasked with reshaping her team with two major roles vacated.

The inner circle

Linda Rambis | executive director, special projects

Don't let the title fool you: Rambis is Buss' longtime best friend and most trusted adviser. League sources have described her as a "shadow owner."

And though the buzz over Rambis gaining the most influence in the organization has intensified since Johnson stepped down, the fact is she has been Buss' consigliere for four decades. Rambis, who was then Linda Zafrani, was one of the first hires by Jerry Buss when he purchased the Lakers in 1979, according to an article in The Beach Reporter. Linda Rambis told the paper that Jerry Buss introduced her to Jeanie, who was in high school at the time, and the two became friends and worked together while Jeanie was in college. They also worked together on Jerry Buss' pro tennis venture.

Jeanie Buss respects advice from senior basketball adviser Kurt Rambis -- Linda's husband and a former Laker -- as well as Johnson, Bryant and Phil Jackson. But it's Linda Rambis' opinion Buss has long valued the most, according to league and team sources. Many believe Buss has leaned on Rambis even more after Johnson blindsided the organization with his resignation.

Rob Pelinka | general manager

Pelinka has remained in his GM role since Johnson's departure and is the Lakers' highest-ranking basketball official.

With Johnson gone, Pelinka reports to Buss while communicating with Linda and Kurt Rambis. Sources around the league said those four operate as a group on basketball decisions.

The Lakers will not hire someone to replace Johnson as president of basketball operations, a team source told ESPN, according to Ramona Shelburne. So Pelinka -- with Kurt Rambis involved -- is expected to oversee the draft and free agency. Sources said Pelinka and Rambis worked in tandem during the coaching interview process.

ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported the influence of Rambis and Jackson weighed heavily in the hiring of Vogel and of Jason Kidd as an assistant coach.

On the night he stepped down, Johnson said he did not like "the backstabbing" and "the whispering" that was going on but would not elaborate. Johnson also was given opportunities to endorse Pelinka but said that it would be up to Buss to determine if Pelinka should remain as GM, offering that he and Pelinka had "worked well."

League sources said Buss and Linda Rambis trust Pelinka, who has been around the organization since his days as an agent representing Bryant, his longtime client and best friend.

However, some agents and executives around the league said they preferred to deal with others they felt more comfortable with, like Johnson, according to sources. Some longtime agents said they have gone directly to Buss, Linda Rambis or Joey or Jesse Buss when they need to talk.

Two other agents said Pelinka and the Lakers just have "a lot of haters" out there and that the agents do not have a problem with the GM.

Kurt Rambis | senior basketball adviser

Johnson hired Rambis, a former Lakers forward and assistant coach, to be an adviser to the president in September 2018. With Johnson gone, Rambis has emerged as a powerful voice in basketball operations and played a major role in the coaching search, as Wojnarowski reported.

Rambis has held positions with several organizations over his career, from assistant coach to head coach to assistant general manager, many of them served under Jackson with the Lakers and Knicks. His most recent job before rejoining the Lakers was as associate head coach of the Knicks from 2014-15 to 2017-18. Wojnarowski reportedJackson and Rambis strongly considered Vogel's candidacy in New York before hiring Jeff Hornacek in 2016.Vogel would later tell New York reporters that he was surprised the Knicks didn't hire him based on how his interview with Jackson went.

Rambis and Jackson remained good friends after each was fired by the Knicks.

The star factor

LeBron James|forward

James signed a four-year, $153 million deal with the Lakers in the summer of 2018, bringing with him four MVPs and three championships' worth of experience. Yet Year 1 as a Laker for James, who will turn 35 in December, could not have gone much worse as he got hurt, missed five weeks and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2005.

James said he was "stunned" by Johnson's departure, saying on HBO's "The Shop" that he joined the Lakers after a conversation with Johnson and had no clue the resignation was coming.

James has a strong relationship with Kidd, multiple sources told ESPN, which may have helped Kidd's leverage in landing the job on the Lakers' bench.

James was taken aback by how the Lue negotiations broke down, a league source told ESPN, but James "liked" several Instagram posts touting the Vogel/Kidd hires. It has been James' only public endorsement of the team's recent hires.

Known as the ambassador who ushered in an era of athlete empowerment, James has found ways to leverage his situations. He helped convince Kevin Love to request a trade to Cleveland that coincided with James' return to the Cavs in 2014. He also influenced the Cavs' hand into reshaping the roster at midseason in 2017-18 to salvage a stretch run, because, sources said, it was the only way Cleveland brass believed it could "get back Bron" due to the disconnected vibe he was projecting.

Rich Paul | president/founder of Klutch Sports, James' agent

Paul represents Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, among others, and learned the lay of the land with the Lakers when Caldwell-Pope signed a one-year deal in 2017-18. Caldwell-Pope returned for a second season and James joined L.A., but Paul's most notable move during the 2018-19 season went awry. Anthony Davis, also represented by Paul, requested a trade from the New Orleans Pelicans, leading to a very public pursuit by the Lakers that damaged the chemistry and on-court results for both teams.

The team executives

Tim Harris | president, business operations/NBA alternate governor

After a professional soccer career playing goalkeeper, Harris -- like Jeanie Buss -- parlayed a gig with The Forum into a career on the business side with the Lakers that has spanned 30 years. He was included in the Lakers' traveling party that interviewed Williams in Philadelphia. Harris negotiated one of sports' largest regional TV deals, with Spectrum SportsNet in 2011, and helped secure partnerships with UCLA Health for the team's training facility and Wish as a jersey sponsor. He also serves as a Lakers alternate governor and has been a part of planning and executing the Lakers' free-agent pitch meetings in the past.

Joe McCormack | chief financial officer

McCormack was included in an emergency meeting Buss convened with trusted advisers in El Segundo the night that Johnson stepped down. McCormack has been involved in projects with the Lakers over the years ranging from locking up their 20-year local TV deal to installing solar panels at the new training facility.

The family ties

Joey Buss | co-owner/team president of the South Bay Lakers

Many fans first saw Joey, the second-youngest of the Buss children, when he filled in for his father during the Lakers' championship celebration in Orlando in 2009. Joey started with the title of coaching associate for the Lakers in the 2006-07 season and has worked his way up the ranks. Most recently, the Lakers' G League president engaged in one-on-one conversations with Williams and Lue during the interview process.

Jesse Buss | co-owner; director of scouting and assistant general manager

The youngest of the Buss siblings, his responsibilities in the organization focus primarily on the team's draft process. For all of L.A.'s struggles in recent seasons, the draft decisions have generally been considered sound. He was also part of the Lakers' interview process with Williams and Lue.

Ryan West | director of player personnel

The older of two sons of former Lakers general manager Jerry West, Ryan often finds himself on the road, scouting for the Lakers. Having started his NBA career in Memphis when his father was the GM for the Grizzlies, West has been with the Lakers since 2009 and now works closely with Jesse Buss.

The alumni

Phil Jackson | former Lakers head coach

The Zen Master proved that his influence remains strong with the Lakers, with whom he won five titles as head coach. He is also Jeanie Buss' ex-fiancé.

Jackson spends half the year at his Montana residence, but he remains close to Kurt Rambis and has been a regular visitor to the Lakers facility.

Kobe Bryant | former Laker

Bryant told Slam Magazine in March that he has no desire to be a GM or own a team or coach. Still, Bryant will always make time for Pelinka. The two talk often and share the same passion and outlook. And Bryant is always available to advise Buss, with whom he remains close. Bryant could have considerable influence over the Lakers' matters if he so chooses.

Magic Johnson | former Lakers team president and player

He may have left the building, but Johnson said he still talks to Buss regularly and wants to help the Lakers. "I'm still helping them," Johnson told TMZ in April, less than two weeks after he stepped down. "It's almost like I never left. I'm still talking to them every day. I'm going to help them get the Lakers back right. You can believe that."

"I love Jeanie," he added. "I've been talking to her almost every day. I'm trying to help. Listen, I may not be in there physically, but I'm still there." Despite his intentions, Johnson's departure shook the franchise and sent the Lakers into a chaotic start to the offseason.

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