Running an NBA team is a year-round responsibility, one that requires long hours, long road trips and unrelenting commitment. Magic Johnson didn’t have it, which could explain why Johnson abruptly quit as the Lakers president of basketball operations on Tuesday, ending a two-plus year run atop the franchise.
Shocking. In an impromptu media gaggle before the Lakers’ season finale against Portland, Johnson pulled back the curtain and laid bare his basketball soul. Jeanie Buss, the Lakers' controlling owner, didn’t know about his decision, Johnson said. The two held a three-hour organizational meeting on Monday and Johnson told her … nothing.
Luke Walton—and a stark difference of opinion with Buss on Walton—played a role in the decision. Walton fully anticipated being fired this week, a source close to Walton told The Crossover. It’s been a frustrating year for Walton, who never felt supported—publicly or privately—by the Lakers front office. Johnson made it clear—he wanted Walton to go. Buss, Johnson strongly implied, wanted Walton to stay. By quitting, Johnson said, “[Walton] can stay in place, coach the team.”
Added Johnson, “I like Luke a lot. We have different opinions on different things, that’s OK. That happens in life. My concern is really my relationship with my sister, Jeanie Buss. That’s all I care about. That’s all that matters.”
What Johnson returned to frequently during a surreal, 45-minute meeting with the media: His heart just wasn’t in it. He hated the NBA’s tampering rules—the Lakers have been fined twice for violating the league rule, including a whopping $500,000 tax for impermissible contact with the agent for Paul George—and the restrictions it put on him. He cited his desire to congratulate Dwyane Wade on a great career on Twitter, and the inability to see Wade off in person. He said he wished he could have congratulated Russell Westbrook on his historic 20-point, 21-assist, 20-rebound performance last week … which came against Johnson’s Lakers. He said he wants to mentor players like Ben Simmons, who sought permission to meet with Johnson this summer, only to have the Sixers, rightfully, reject it.
(An aside: The NBA would never, ever have fined Johnson for congratulating Wade, a retiring player. It’s unlikely they would have dinged Johnson for praising Westbrook, either.)
Incredible. Handed the keys to the NBA’s marquee franchise, Johnson tossed them back on the table; empowered by the Lakers to make difficult basketball decisions, Johnson quit rather than butt heads with the owner.
Here’s the reality: Magic Johnson doesn’t want to be an NBA executive. He didn’t want to be a coach, which we learned during a forgettable 16-game stint on the Lakers’ bench in 1994. He didn’t want to be a talk show host, which he was for eight even more forgettable weeks in 1998.
Magic Johnson wants to be Magic Johnson.
“I want to go back to having fun, being who I was before taking on this job,” Johnson said. “I’m going to go back to that beautiful life.”
Embarrassing. Johnson is entitled to do whatever he wants, of course. If he wants to pal around with players instead of doing the work of trying to win something with them, go for it. But the team that hired him to steer them out of the lottery should be livid. Johnson can claim he got LeBron James to L.A., but let’s be real—James was coming to L.A. anyway. And it was Johnson who was the brainchild of the inane idea to surround James with a collection of non-shooters, waving his hand dismissively at successful, shooting-heavy teams James has played on before. He can cite a solid draft record, but the reality is if he had not zeroed in on Lonzo Ball, the UCLA product, and drafted Jayson Tatum, the better player, Anthony Davis might be a Laker and Johnson might not be on his way out the door.
Somewhere, Jeanie Buss’s head is spinning. But when the drama dies down and Johnson reclaims control of his beloved 280-character pulpit, Buss is going to realize that Johnson did her a favor. She had to see Johnson’s lack of interest in the daily grind. And she had to realize the GM Rob Pelinka—whose history as a player agent has created mistrust of the Lakers among some rival front offices—was going to have difficulty becoming the next Bob Myers.
Johnson gave Buss a do-over. Now let’s see what she does with it.
The Lakers need leadership. Real leadership. The Anthony Davis debacle divided the locker room. The roster will need to be replenished, again, after the collection of one-year contract players (Rajon Rondo, JaVale McGee, Lance Stephenson) come off the books. James is still a force, but he’s 34, defensively disinterested and battled through the most significant injury of his career last season. On personnel, James should be listened to, as all superstars should, but a new top executive needs to have the gravitas to tell him no.
The Lakers can hire that person. The job will be coveted. The Lakers are still the Lakers, and there will be plenty of current front-office execs whispering to their agents to let Buss know they are interested. And Buss has the resources to entice anybody. The Lakers ranked No. 2 on Forbes list of NBA team valuations, at $3.7 billion. They are a few seasons into a 20-year local television deal, reportedly worth $180 million per season. And Staples Center prints money.
What’s a good executive worth, anyway? $10 million? $15 million? $20 million? If you are the Lakers, who cares? Is Sam Presti worth that to Oklahoma City? Is Masai Ujiri to Toronto? Tim Connelly in Denver? And maybe someone should check in with RC Buford and see what it would take to extract him from San Antonio. Buss should send a blank check to one of them and tell him to fill in the number.
Johnson will pack up his office soon, and the Lakers will begin a new chapter. Johnson says he will be part of the Lakers' free-agent recruiting efforts, if they want him to, adding that he believes the Lakers are one star away from competing for a championship. They won’t do it with Johnson, who will resume his place as a high-profile alumni, free to hit the golf course with Stephen Curry or pop on Kevin Durant’s new show.
“I always wanted to be a businessman when I stopped playing,” Johnson said. “I was doing just fine before I took this role.”
The Lakers weren’t doing fine before Johnson took over. But they might be better off with him gone.