On Tuesday morning, before the phones started ringing, Magic Johnson said a prayer. What a life he’s led, a national champion in 1979 and a NBA champion a year later, the face of Showtime and the pride of Jerry Buss, an icon and an entertainer, an entrepreneur and an activist. Twenty–six years ago, he was diagnosed with HIV, and since then he’s been a coach, a TV star, a record producer, a movie mogul, part owner of the Lakers as well as the Dodgers. When Buss was on his death bed, he called for Magic, the very picture of vitality. He wanted to smile once more.
Magic has proven across four decades in L.A. that he can do just about everything, except perhaps evaluate professional basketball players, the role for which he was tabbed Tuesday. If the Lakers were a college football team, they would always hire the old middle linebacker who carried them on one leg in that unforgettable Sugar Bowl. The quest to recapture the glory days takes different forms: making Byron Scott their head coach, giving Kobe Bryant a max contract with a torn Achilles, and now, and putting Magic Johnson in charge of basketball operations.
This is only day one. Johnson may very well become the next Pat Riley, his old coach, forever reinventing in Miami. At the moment, all we know of his personnel acumen is what we read on his timeline. Twitter provides access to thoughts that otherwise might never go public, and Johnson’s account has become notorious for broadcasting the most self-evident observations. Yes, Kevin Durant can play, and LeBron James is worth pursuing in free agency.
Those posts, while obvious, are also innocuous. There are others, though, comparing Michael Carter-Williams to Jason Kidd, calling JimmerFredette “the real deal,” claiming Rajon Rondo will make the Mavericks contenders, condemning Mike D’Antoni, endorsing JahlilOkafor, hailing the Bulls' dysfunctional backcourt. Of course, it’s just Twitter, and outdated posts can make anybody look foolish. But with Magic fielding the calls before Thursday’s trading deadline—“wheeling and dealing,” he announced—Lakers fans might want to say prayers of their own while rubbing purple and gold rosaries. The Bulls must be blowing up Magic’s cell.
Jeanie Buss took a flamethrower to the Lakers front office Tuesday, firing Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss (who probably deserved it) and expert PR director John Black (who surely did not). Kupchak and Buss bungled nearly every free-agent period they entered for the past five years, culminating with the $160 million they handed TimofeyMozgov and LuolDeng last summer, ludicrous contracts the organization will mourn for the entirety of Trump’s first term.
But Kupchak and Buss did help the Lakers in ways beyond inadvertent tanking. They didn’t screw up the draft picks for Brandon Ingram or Julius Randle. They chose D’Angelo Russell over Okafor, though in hindsight, KristapsPorzingis was better than both. Still, they stole Larry Nance Jr. at No. 27, IvicaZubac at No. 32, Jordan Clarkson at No. 46. You can debate whether any of those are centerpieces, but they’re all young rotation players who haven’t scraped their ceiling, enviable assets that savvy rivals will inquire about.
The timing of this move is questionable, and not only because of the looming deadline. President of Basketball Operations for the Lakers is still a highly attractive post, and if Jeanie had waited, she could have chosen from a handful of decorated candidates. The list of executives willing to work as a general manager, under Johnson, is not the same. The team is reportedly finalizing a multi-year deal with agent Rob Pelinka.
“It’s not about what I did when I played, what Kobe did when he played,” Johnson said. “It’s about the new Lakers.” That’s a start, and during Tuesday’s coup, the Lakers did purge 76 years of history between Kupchack, Black and Jim Buss. But Johnson goes back farther than any of them and Pelinka happens to be Bryant’s agent. During an interview with Jeanie and Magic on Spectrum SportsNet, they said they would distance themselves from Showtime and all the old stories—but then they started talking about Showtime and all the old stories.
Maybe those memories hold value. Riley famously recruited LeBron by dumping his championship rings on a table during a free-agent meeting in Akron. But shiny jewelry has not had the same effect for Phil Jackson during his tenure as Knicks president. Many of the brightest execs in the league (including Bob Myers, who lured Durant) never played in the pros.
Johnson acknowledged that he requires a lieutenant who is “super duper smart,” specifically in regard to the Collective Bargaining Agreement, and what he terms the new NBA. After Byron Scott was introduced four years ago, Johnson declared, “If I don’t see another three-pointer from a Laker team, I’ll be happy.” In the so-called new NBA, that may not be such a sound strategy.
When Johnson was brought on as a consultant earlier this month, the role sounded ornamental, as if he were just going to provide cover for Jeanie when she inevitably dismissed her brother. Jeanie admitted Tuesday that she waited too long, a lapse that likely allowed Mitch and Jim to go on that mindless spending spree last summer. But Johnson is no figurehead, after all. He is already talking about accompanying the Lakers on the road and reportedly pulled off his first move by sending Lou Williams to the Rockets on Tuesday night. “I’m a guy who understands what this team needs,” Johnson said.
To his credit, he promised no quick fixes, no three–year plans. No magic. What’s ahead for the Lakers can’t be accomplished with a big smile or a blank check. Rebuilding in the NBA is slow, arduous work. Johnson has watched, and critiqued, from afar. Now he will experience it himself.