In 2012, after Magic Johnson bought the Los Angeles Dodgers, he quietly confessed to reporters that the team he really wanted to buy was the Los Angeles Lakers. But they weren’t for sale. He settled instead on the second most popular team in Los Angeles (sorry Clippers) the Los Angeles Dodgers, a good runner-up. Since his purchase of the baseball team five years ago, Magic has had sketchy duties in the running of the team. Magic is a basketball man not a baseball man.
Magic has never hid or been shy about how he feels about the Lakers, a team he loves like his own family. Jeanie Buss is a friend-sister to him. Dr. Buss was a de-facto second father. The Lakers are in his blood. So when he got an opportunity via Jeanie to run the personnel side of the team, Magic jumped at the chance. He is just too competitive a man to turn the Lakers down and, furthermore, to impart his knowledge on a franchise that is sorely lacking in leadership, originality and ideas.
Enter Magic and leadership and the Lakers world looks nothing like it used to. He traded their leading scorer, Lou Williams, in February. He got a draft pick and a player, Corey Brewer, from the Rockets. In the playoffs, Lou Williams was a boring 30% three point shooter. The Lakers were in the lottery but draft richer. The Lakers won the trade.
Magic then stunned everyone by trading D’Angelo Russell who was supposed to be the point guard the Lakers had yearned for since Johnson was forced into retirement. In return, he picked up another draft pick, a starting center in Brook Lopez who has great footwork and an array of post moves, albeit trashy defense. Then Magic said good riddance to Timofey Mozgov and that ridiculous contract via Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak. Lopez is a one year rental, on an expiring contract. The Lakers suddenly have cap room to make a run at LeBron James, if Magic can secure Paul George.
Speaking of which, reportedly, the Pacers want a veteran and two young players. They want the Lakers pick at #2 which will be Lonzo Ball now that Russell is headed east. The Lakers are fighting the good fight to give up next to nothing. But the gamble is obvious. Paul George might like the Cavaliers/Wizards/Celtics enough to stay there. Besides, Magic is a strike now kind of man. Patience has never been part of the Earvin package.
Before the Lakers offer fell in his lap, Magic had other chances at NBA chess. Four teams wanted him to assist them including the Knicks. But he just couldn’t see investing in any other organization.
Magic briefly coached the Lakers in 1993-94. It was a disaster. He went 5-11. He was exasperated by the young players mindset. “Dr. Buss wanted me to coach for 16 games and that was the worst time in my life. Coaching is difficult. You’ve gotta deal with egos, playing time and all of that. That’s not a specialty of mine.” That was 24 years ago, when Magic realized he couldn’t pace the sidelines for victories. If he couldn’t deal with those young players in a non-social media generation, how is he going to adapt now? The league has dramatically changed. The players are more thin skinned and social media dependent.
This is what we know about Magic. He’s business savvy, having created a business empire: movie theaters, coffee houses, fitness centers, schools. He is upfront and candid. Plus, he has good instincts with a dual background in basketball and business. He knows how to turn a profit and he has a ph.d in leadership, unselfishness and achievement. He doesn’t shy away from controversy either or being thought of as greedy for power. Remember it was a young Earvin who went to Dr. Buss and had him can Paul Westhead who had won a title with Lakers as a head coach. Westhead was pulling back on the fast paced offense that suited Magic’s game and the Lakers were mediocre. Once Dr. Buss pulled the trigger and fired Westhead, all the headlines screamed, “Magic fires coach.” Magic took it in stride. After Pat Riley was hired, the team and the organization took off.
The NBA as a macro structure heavily mortgaged by the salary cap and with narrow guidelines teams must follow in day-to-day business activities, trade rules, trade exceptions, contracts, extensions, is not Magic’s problem. That falls to Rob Pelinka, formerly Kobe’s agent, the Lakers GM. But a man who owns movie theaters and fitness gyms and Starbucks and schools understands details. Item #1: get out of that Mozgov contract that is suffocating the Lakers and ruining flexibility. So far so good. So far.
“In today’s NBA you have to really develop your own players because free-agent movement isn’t like it used to be. You have to make sure you hit a home run when you draft.”
A Lakers home run seems to be Lonzo Ball though no one knows what Magic is going to do next. He is out there swinging at both balls and strikes. Where is the home run going to come from. Lonzo? Josh Jackson? Trade the pick to the Pacers?
“I understand the game inside and out.”
Yes. He does. He’s Magic.