The Magic Power Play

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 give input to the team of his heart of course 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.

Magic had other offers, four teams wanted him to assist them including the Knicks. But he just couldn’t see investing in any other organization.

These are the facts. The Lakers are still doing business the old way but the NBA has changed. General Managers are younger, the players never saw Michael Jordan’s flu game; the league has been upgraded while the Lakers have stayed the same. Mitch Kupchak has run the front office for the Lakers going on 17 years and frankly there has been nothing new about his stale leadership. Magic Johnson gives a jolt to the franchise. He is direct, honest, enthusiastic and strong willed. He knows what he knows.

But how much decision making is he going to have and how much should he have?

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. Has Magic changed with it?

This is what we know so far. He’s Magic so he is upfront and candid when talking about the expectations he has for the franchise and himself:

“Right now I’m advising. I get that. But at the end fo the day, then we all got to come together and somebody’s got to say, ‘I’m making the final call’, all right? And who’s that going to be?”

Magic implies it should be him because of his 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.

It might be messier if Jim Buss were Magic-lite, if Jim Buss exhibited any level of basketball acumen, if he understood relationship building, if his tenure had been anything less than a disaster. But Magic has the moral argument here because of Jim Buss’ ineptitude.

“Look Jim knows where we are, Jeanie knows where we are as a franchise and some decisions have to be made.”

Magic is brushing up on the GM part of the job. The NBA as a macro structure, the salary cap, the narrow guidelines teams must follow in day-to-day business activities, trade rules, trade exceptions, contracts, extensions. But a man who owns movie theaters and fitness gyms and Starbucks and schools understands details; that isn’t going to be a problem for Johnson. Ironically it is the basketball part of it that he is going to have to establish. What is the Lakers philosophy. Do they want to be a young team that is developing talent and want to keep their core of young players together? Or do they want to flip some of them for veterans? What is their style of play? Once that is established, it is easier to find players who fit in their system.

“It’s a lot of things but I am excited. I’ve been working on all of those things and then meeting with the staff.”

Translation: Jim Buss you’re history. Magic is here and he is in charge. Whether it works or not remains to be seen but the Lakers cannot get much worse than four years and no playoff appearances under Jim Buss. Magic, unlike Buss, is realistic.

“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.”

Where is the home run among D’Angelo Russell, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr., Ivica Zubac, Jordan Clarkson? Magic admits to a 3-5 year window. Never one to shy away from a challenge he said, “I understand the game inside and out.”

It sounded like shade, like Magic is everything Jim Buss can never be.