The Lakers landed LeBron James this summer, but it wasn't the foregone conclusion many followers of the league have surmised. No, it took an embrace of power as serious as Daenerys Targaryen's on Game of Thrones. That's the metaphor running through the first part of Sam Amick's densely reported Athletic feature on how Lakers owner Jeanie Buss actually went about landing the NBA's most unstoppable force, while simultaneously turning over a new leaf for the franchise. The metaphor wasn't Amick's idea, either. Kobe Bryant invoked the popular HBO protagonist when he met with Buss for a lunch date that may have changed the entire trajectory of the franchise.
In early February 2017, Buss hired retired Hall of Famer Magic Johnson as an advisor to the team. But she wasn't done. The Lakers heiress was contemplating the future of the franchise her father had built, but had fallen on hard times since his passing—missing the playoffs in four consecutive seasons. So she decided to meet with Kobe for lunch to get some advice on her next move. He didn't disappoint.
“He said, ‘If you’re going to do this, then go all the way,’” Buss recalled. “He’s Mamba, so he said, ‘If you’re going to play [around], then they’ll come back and kill you if you don’t go all the way. …Be decisive, and be quick, and go all in or don’t do it at all, because you’ll sabotage yourself before you even get to start.’"
Some backstory: At the time of his passing, Jeanie's father, Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss had given his son Jim the reins to the basketball side of the franchise as the executive vice president of player personnel. Buss would run the business side of the operation. However, in Dr. Buss' trust, he also named Buss the controlling owner. The Lakers' internecine grab for power could be its own HBO show, but eventually Buss kept her role as controlling owner after fighting off a power play by her brother.
After solidifying her status as the Lakers' matriarch, Buss hired Magic, but she didn't know how to handle her brother's continued involvement on the basketball side. He and GM Mitch Kupchak were a large reason why the Lakers had been so dreadful for the longest period in their history (even Nick Van Exel made the playoffs). Enter Bryant, who gave her the advice she needed to make the tough decisions that would lay the groundwork for LeBron's arrival.
“Cut it all out at once," Kobe told her. "I know it’s hard to do, but if you want to turn this ship around, and turn it around sooner rather than later, then you’ve got to make those hard decisions.” Decisions that could lead to things like scoring the GOAT, LBJ. Kobe's advice to Buss continued:
“Jeanie, I know who we’re trying to get; we know who we’re trying to get, so that player is not going to come here with all of this shit going on. It’s not going to happen. So if you do want to have that focus, and go after that player, then I’m telling you that you’ve gotta clean house, and you’ve gotta just reshuffle the deck and start anew. You have the new practice facility [the UCLA Health Training Center] that we’re just moving into [in the summer of 2017]. We’ve got new management, and off we go. But that player is not coming here unless you do that."
After the conversation with Bryant, she fired her brother as head of basketball ops, as well as general manager Mitch Kupchak and communications director John Black. In the process, she promoted Magic to head of basketball operations and hired Kobe's agent, Rob Pelinka, as their new general manager. The Lakers' clean slate appeared to do the trick, with Magic going over to LeBron's house the Saturday before free agency, which officially started to close the deal.
Kobe stans now get to say Bryant was the real reason LeBron even signed with the team, furthering the annoying mythology they've built up around him.