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Magic Johnson Signed LeBron James; Now Comes the Hard Part

The Lakers legend and his front-office partner in crime, Rob Pelinka, succeeded in landing the best player in the league. For their next act, they have to keep him happy, nurture their young core, and maintain flexibility for next summer’s free-agency bonanza. They sure didn’t look worried at L.A.’s media day.

A treated photo of Magic Johnson Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Magic Johnson was in a good mood. He was excited. That was the operative word of the day. He used it so many times, I lost track. Of course, everything is relative. Magic is almost always in a good mood, and he’s pretty much always excited. It would be impossible to plot him on one of those mood scales, because how do you accurately measure the disposition of a man who’s been smiling and laughing for the better part of 59 years?

But even adjusting for Johnson’s glowing default position, he was clearly enjoying himself on Thursday. And why not? The Lakers president of basketball operations sat with general manager Rob Pelinka and addressed the media at the team’s El Segundo training facility and beamed about all sorts of things—mainly, as you might expect, the organization’s offseason acquisition of LeBron James, who signed a $153 million deal that should keep him in purple and gold for the next four seasons.

“It’s been really an exciting time for Lakers fans, Lakers Nation, since the signing of all the free agents, of course headlined by the greatest player in the world, LeBron James,” Johnson said. He went on to say how “amazing” it was to see them all play pick-up games earlier that day and detailed shots by LeBron, passes by Rajon Rondo, and blocks by JaVale McGee. “Oh my goodness,” he said, “it was something.” This is a man who won five championships, an Olympic gold medal with the Dream Team, three MVP awards, and three Finals MVP awards; was a 12-time All-Star; and is in the Hall of Fame. And yet Johnson couldn’t help insisting that there was “nothing like” the first training-camp scrimmage they had on Thursday. In September.

“It’s been fun for me,” he said, “and I’m excited.”

All that was probably to be expected. This is where Johnson predicted he’d end up—sitting in front of a bank of cameras and microphones, heralding the arrival of the greatest player of his generation and one of the two best players of all time. It was only a few months ago, before free agency began, when Johnson was asked why, exactly, the Lakers would be successful attracting top-tier talent this time around when they had so recently and frequently failed at that very endeavor. Johnson didn’t need to search for an answer: because, he told the Los Angeles Times, “I’m Magic Johnson.”

Johnson followed it up by going full flex and putting his reputation and job on the line: “This summer and next summer,” Johnson said. “That’s it. If I can’t deliver, I’m going to step down myself. [Jeanie Buss] won’t have to fire me. I’ll step away from it, because I can’t do this job.”

Astute Lakers Kremlinologists will no doubt recall that the last guy to hold Johnson’s job made a similar declaration just four years ago—and then got fired by his own sister. Back in 2014, Jim Buss told the Times that if things didn’t work out in three or four seasons—he defined being “back on top” as “contending for the Western Conference, contending for a championship”—then he would step down. He never got the chance. Buss is still a co-owner of the Lakers, but in late February 2017 he was stripped of his organizational influence when he lost a nasty and public family power struggle worthy of Succession and was fired by his sister, Jeanie.

Jeanie Buss and Johnson have been fast friends for decades, and it didn’t take long for her to install him as her brother’s replacement. It’s hard to imagine her dispatching a Lakers legend like Johnson with the same lack of compunction she marginalized Jim with should the organization not end up atop the Western Conference sooner rather than later. Of course, if Johnson is true to his word, she wouldn’t have to. This past summer and next. That’s how long he gave himself to reboot the franchise and get its operating system humming again.

Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson & Rob Pelinka Los Angeles Lakers Media Availability
Magic Johnson
Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images

Landing LeBron is an excellent start, but in a loaded Western Conference dominated by a Warriors team poised to put five All-Stars on the floor at some point this season, the Lakers still have a long road ahead. Depending on which oddsmaker you prefer, the Lakers should make a big jump from last season’s 35-win effort. At last check, Westgate has the Lakers’ over/under win total at 48, while BetOnline has them at 49.5. FiveThirtyEight is slightly less bullish, forecasting a record of 46-36. For playoff calculations, Bovada has them at 2-9 to make the postseason, while FiveThirtyEight gives them a 72 percent chance to finish as a top-eight team in the West.

This is the LeBron Effect. Given the totality with which he embraced Hollywood, it’s likely James was always destined to move to L.A. Whatever credit you want to give Johnson and Pelinka for signing LeBron—and they do deserve some—the Lakers front office will ultimately be judged on how it fills out the King’s court.

In the interim, while we wait to see how the team performs, the attendant Lakeshow circus has returned to L.A. The past few seasons of watching and following the franchise felt compulsory because of the name on the front of the jersey, but few of the names on the back were all that entertaining. Some of the young guys were curiosities at times, as was Luke Walton as a young coach, but that hardly holds the viewing public’s interest over the course of an increasingly long season. Why binge 82 games of Lakers basketball when you could stream a more thrilling out-of-town experience on League Pass? On Thursday, things were different. It felt like more local and national media were present, and there was a buzz as we chatted among ourselves about how no one who covers the Lakers will be making mid-April vacation plans for the foreseeable future thanks to LeBron.

But while the vibe surrounding the team was different than it has been these past few seasons, no one can be certain what these Lakers will ultimately amount to. Save Johnson and Pelinka. To hear them tell it, they’ve already done a pretty good job of roster construction. Johnson said he and Pelinka are always on the same page and thinking the same thing. Magic said they “built this team based on what we saw in the playoffs” and the direction they think basketball is going.

Feel free to wipe off the iced oat milk latte that you just spit-taked on your screen. (It’s California; oat milk is all the rage.) That’s the same supporting cast that has been mercilessly mocked and was instantly dubbed the Meme Team. Johnson, unfazed, said he had “no concerns” about the assembled cast of characters. “We needed some grittiness. We needed some toughness.” He figures that’s where McGee will come in. He called Rondo a champion and “the right guy” to mentor Lonzo Ball. He encouraged Lance Stephenson to “shake it up” (and did a pantomime shimmy for effect), and welcomed Michael Beasley to “come on, do your thing.”

“If I was concerned,” he continued, “I wouldn’t have signed none of them.” As you might expect, he said he was “excited to have each and every one.”

Pelinka sat by his side and nodded through all of it. When it was his turn to explain the roster they built and why, Pelinka launched into a lengthy sports car analogy “since we’re in L.A., the capital of sports cars.” Thank God my digital recorder was rolling and there were other reporters present because I nearly blacked out once he really got rolling. There are boring executives in the NBA who say next to nothing worth noting, and then there’s Rob Pelinka talking into the camera and not giving any of the shits that might be given by less-colorful GMs.

“We wanted this team to have a lot of engine thrust, and not just from one player,” Pelinka said. “I think, as [Magic] just pointed out, you could go down our list. We have playmakers and guys who can go get it. And not just come at you but come at you with force. It’s LeBron. It’s Rondo. It’s Zo. It’s Brandon Ingram. Michael Beasley. Kyle Kuzma. Josh Hart. Any of these guys can get it, and if they’re coming at you, you’ve got decisions you’ve got to make. And so that was one of the components we wanted to focus on. Pace is an overused word. I think every team in the league wants to play with pace. We wanted to have thrust with our pace. Like, strength.”

In case that wasn’t enough, Pelinka also compared the Lakers to a pride of lions in a way only he might.

OK. I’m not entirely clear on what any of that means, but sure. Again, it’s September. They haven’t played a preseason game yet, let alone one that counts. Every team and every executive in the league, with the exception of Tom Thibodeau, is probably hopeful about something right now, though they’d be hard pressed to riff on their enthusiasm the way Pelinka does when he goes all jazz stream of consciousness on us.

I don’t begrudge Johnson and Pelinka a little training-camp chest puffing. But at some point, when the season starts and they have more data, and the shine on their new sports car dulls a bit, or their young lions don’t quite follow the lead of their old lions, or the manna from heaven isn’t forthcoming, or whatever Pelinka-ism you prefer fails to materialize, a more critical eye about the roster will likely be necessary. And that’s when things will get interesting.

Recent history has taught us that LeBron’s teams in the fall tend to look a lot different than his teams post-trade deadline in February. There’s a good chance the Lakers make a play for another superstar—or, better yet, superstars—between now and Magic’s self-imposed deadline next summer. Johnson and Pelinka have certainly put themselves in a good position to move pieces around the board. The Lakers have a host of short-term contracts they could dump in potential trade packages, among them Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (one year, $12 million), Rondo (one year, $9 million), Stephenson (one year, $4.4 million), Beasley (one year, $3.5 million), and McGee (one year, $2.4 million). We can laugh at some of those signings—and we have—but it won’t be hard for the Lakers to clear cap space for max-money talent. They also have a handful of attractive (and cheap) young players they could dangle in front of potential trade partners, including Ingram, Ball, Hart, and Kuzma (who Magic said got mad when he found out he didn’t make the cut on Sports Illustrated’s list of the top 100 NBA players).

The hard part for Johnson and Pelinka will be figuring out how to supercharge today’s Lakers without exhausting tomorrow’s resources. Here, again, we are reminded that LeBron’s implacable win-now/win-always ethos hasn’t always left his old organizations in good shape long-term. The Lakers have a lot of questions to answer on that front. Is Ingram ready to take the next step and serve as the 1A option next to LeBron? Can Ball play next to James—or, for that matter, Rondo? (Johnson said he was “blown away” that Lonzo wanted to watch film with him this offseason, inadvertently hinting that Ball perhaps didn’t do much of that previously.) What kind of minutes can Kuzma and Hart expect? And how, and at what cost, might the Lakers scoop up another already established superstar or two to fold into the mix?

On that last point, in a vacuum, the fallout between Jimmy Butler and the Timberbulls initially seemed to present an excellent opportunity for the Lakers. They’re a storied franchise, located adjacent to Hollywood, with max money and assets to offer. Not to mention that the organization’s unending quest for championships would theoretically dovetail with Butler’s stated desire to “chase greatness.”

Alas, acquiring superstars isn’t easy. There are often obstacles to overcome. In Butler’s case, according to Adrian Wojnarowski, he only wants to be traded to the Clippers, Knicks, or Nets—with the Clippers reportedly the preferred destination. Not only would Magic have to cajole Butler into adding his organization to that list (and, by the way, Thibodeau is going to have a say in all this), he’d also have to convince the disgruntled would-be free agent that signing a new deal in L.A. is the right move—but with the Lakers, not the Clippers. None of that would be an easy ask. In an early version of his story, Woj revealed that Butler would have considered the Lakers once upon a time, but “LeBron James’ arrival as the franchise’s cornerstone made it less appealing for Butler in the prime of his career.” Oddly, that information was later scrubbed from the piece for unknown reasons and doesn’t appear in the current iteration. Either way, it would seem that getting Butler to reconsider his feelings on the Lakers would take some effort—if the organization is even interested in the first place.

While they’re looking around and trying to figure out how to add another superstar between now and next offseason, the hype-men routine that Johnson and Pelinka are presently doing doesn’t hurt. Propaganda is powerful stuff. If they pump up the young guys, maybe they really will purr like little lions. If they trumpet the old spare parts, perhaps they’ll hum like new cars when assembled. Or some such. Fake it until you make it. That kind of thing. It’s worth remembering that, while the Lakers nabbed the biggest prize of all when LeBron signed on, they couldn’t close the courtship of Paul George despite the fact George spent all of last season gushing about how much he loves Los Angeles. It’s one thing to identify complementary superstars; it’s evidently another to actually get them in a Lakers uniform. Pulling off the latter isn’t so simple as perhaps it used to be and requires more than a reminder of all the championship banners hanging from the Staples Center rafters.

The offseason was a good start for the Lakers and Johnson, but that’s never been enough for either in the past. Relevance is good, but dominance is better. There’s a long way to go and a lot of work to do before the Lakers are atop the Western Conference again. But they must know that. They must realize they still need more even while glowing about what they currently have in place. The bar is just higher for them. They are, after all, the Lakers. And as he put it himself, he’s Magic Johnson.