- Magic Johnson joined ESPN's "First Take" to shed light on why he stepped down as Lakers president and his "backstabbing" issues with Rob Pelinka. But while Johnson made some valid points, he was never deeply involved with the day-to-day operations in Los Angeles to begin with.
Just when you thought things were looking up in Lakers-land, when they hired a good, qualified coach, when they scored big in the draft lottery, when they got through an NBA draft combine without looking like the basketball Clampetts, Magic Johnson returned the scene to trample all over them.
Appearing on ESPN, Johnson pulled back the curtain. He identified Rob Pelinka, his former GM, as a backstabber. He claimed the Buss brothers, Joey and Jesse, were power hungry. He tagged Tim Harris, the Lakers COO, as being too involved with basketball decisions. Harris, Johnson said, attempted to block Johnson’s decision to fire then-coach Luke Walton, leading Johnson to realize that he didn’t have the autonomy he was promised, and to quit.
“It was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Johnson said.
In an incredible interview, Johnson napalmed the only organization he has ever known. This was the fire that took down the Hindenburg. Drogon to the Iron Throne. Johnson was clearly motivated to air the Lakers' dirty laundry, and he let it all hang out.
He made some valid points, of course. There are too many cooks in the Lakers kitchen, and not enough qualified to be one. Linda Rambis—the wife of ex-Laker Kurt Rambis—has emerged as an influential voice in the inner circle of Lakers owner Jeanie Buss, with no qualifications to be there. Kurt Rambis, a visible presence at the draft combine, has assumed a role within basketball operations. Pelinka is nominally in charge but it’s unclear if he has the final say.
“You can’t run a corporation like this,” Johnson said. “You can’t have everybody think that they can have a voice or have an opinion about the final decision. That was supposed be me, as the president, having that final say.”
Johnson was clearly irked by Pelinka, who he claims was thrust on him by Buss. He said the first year working with Pelinka was “tremendous,” with the team having success clearing some of the bad contracts off the books and fleshing out the roster with good young talent.
Johnson said the whispers started in Year 2, when he began to hear from allies inside and out of the Lakers organization that Pelinka was putting the word out that Johnson didn’t work very hard. He recalled how rival agents (big surprise here) warned him about Pelinka, an ex-agent himself. He expressed disbelief that Pelinka would operate this way when he told Pelinka that after three years, he intended to hand the reigns over to him.
“If you’re going to talk betrayal,” Johnson said, “it’s only with Rob.”
At a press conference—a flawlessly, perfectly timed press conference—to introduce Frank Vogel on Monday, Pelinka denied Johnson’s accusations.
“It’s saddening and disheartening to think he believes [that],” Pelinka said. “I think all of us in life have probably been through things where maybe there are third-party whispers or he said, she said things that aren’t true. I have talked to him several times since he decided to step away. We have had many joyful conversations. In fact two days ago, we were reliving the combine and the fourth pick and talking about the great future this organization has.
"So these things are surprising to hear and disheartening. They’re just simply not true. I stand beside him. I stand with him as a colleague and a partner. I’ve always supported everything he’s done and will continue to."
Maybe Pelinka was a backstabber, but it was an open secret league-wide that Johnson wasn’t deeply involved with the day-to-day operations of the Lakers. Maybe there were too many people with Jeanie Buss’s ear, but Johnson never really said he wasn’t allowed to make basketball-related decisions, just that it had become increasingly difficult to do so.
Here’s what you have to remember, and it’s something Johnson effectively confirmed during the interview: Magic Johnson wanted to be president of the Lakers. He just didn’t want the work that came with it.
In a surreal moment, Johnson described his early conversations with Buss about taking the Lakers top job.
“I said, ‘Listen, I can’t give up all my businesses’. I make more money doing that than becoming the president of the Lakers.’” Johnson said. “’You know I’m going to be in and out, is that OK with you.’ She said yes. I said, ‘do I have the power to make the decisions.’ Because that was important for me to take the job as well. She said you have the power to make the decisions.”
Think about that for a minute. Under Johnson, the Lakers were attempting to rebuild a franchise that had crumbled. And Johnson wanted part-time hours. Worse, Buss was willing to give them to him, delegating final say on draft picks, coaching hires and personnel decisions to a man who could not possibly have been versed enough to make them.
Bonkers, absolutely bonkers. Running an NBA team has become the closest thing to a year-round responsibility. The basketball world has grown bigger. To win, you not only have to mine the U.S. for top talent, you have to travel the globe. You need to be able to spot Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, a pair of mid-major stars who have transformed into NBA ones. You need to look at a stringy, 6'9" Greek forward and believe that Giannis Antetokounmpo can be a star. You need to see Kawhi Leonard and his broken jump shot and realize that his relentless work ethic will help him overcome it.
The executives and scouts who identified these players probably grew up dreaming of playing like Magic Johnson. Johnson wasn’t willing to spend enough time trying to be like them. In discussing the failed Anthony Davis deal, Johnson had the nerve to blame ex-Pelicans GM Dell Demps for leaking the Lakers trade offers, as if there weren’t people inside House Lakers with the knowledge and motivation for those details to become public.
Buss now has a decision to make, because Johnson reportedly, and incredibly, still has her ear. The Lakers need stability. They need Pelinka to have final say on personnel. They need Frank Vogel to have the front offices full-throated support as head coach. Johnson had a chance to run basketball operations, officially. He can’t do it in a shadow capacity.
He wanted out, now he needs to be out. Maintain a relationship with him, have him at the arena in his capacity as a Lakers legend. But the moment Johnson offers input on a trade, shut it down. The first time Johnson questions a Vogel coaching move, hang up the phone. On Monday, Johnson made it clear he’s a pundit again. Pundits don’t get a say.