LeBron James’s first season with the Los Angeles Lakers has been full of things nobody anticipated, from spit fights and suspensions to career-worst injuries and a season-scuttling failure to add a second superstar. But hours before the Lakers’ disastrous 2018-19 season ended—against the same Portland Trail Blazers who kicked it off by handing them the first of many Ls—it seemed like all drama had been drained from the proceedings.
Then Magic Johnson started talking. And suddenly, on a night that was supposed to belong to Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki, the Lakers were the no. 1 story in the sport—for all the wrong reasons yet again.
In a move that reportedly caught everybody in Lakerland completely off guard, Johnson announced that he was stepping down from his position as the franchise’s president of basketball operations, a little more than two years after taking the job in a stunning front-office shakeup. He shared his decision with reporters at Staples Center in an impromptu pregame press conference before discussing it with either controlling owner Jeanie Buss or general manager Rob Pelinka ... which is both baffling and more than a little reckless, considering the unenviable position his surprise resignation puts the organization he says he loves so much in.
Johnson spoke about his desire to go back to being a “statesman of the game” unshackled by things like tampering rules (although Magic’s grasp of those remains a bit fuzzy). He also shared his discomfort with being between Buss and Luke Walton, the head coach he inherited, bristled about, kept on the hot seat all season, and was reportedly expected to fire as soon as later tonight or tomorrow. (Which, I guess, means that Walton’s staff may now be coming back next season? Who knows?) Johnson said multiple times that he was happier before he’d taken the reins of the franchise he once led to championship glory as a player—before he’d assumed responsibility for ending the Lakers’ half-dozen years of slumming it alongside the other lottery lizards and restoring them to their former “Showtime” prominence.
He said a lot in a 40-plus-minute media session that reportedly featured laughter, tears, and no small amount of “rambling.” It was a pitch-perfect finale to the often absurd debacle that was this Lakers season.
Maybe the only thing left unsaid is that, on that score, he might be right.
With Buss’s imprimatur and the aid of Pelinka, the high-powered agent who’d repped Kobe Bryant throughout his L.A. heyday, Johnson set out to revive the Lakers by jettisoning the troublesome contracts signed in the latter days of the Mitch Kupchak–Jim Buss regime and clearing out enough cap space to sign multiple maximum-salaried superstars. In fact, Johnson staked his job and reputation on it; after the 2018 NBA draft, he told reporters that if the Lakers didn’t land multiple marquee stars in the summers of 2018 and 2019, he would step away from his position “because I can’t do this job.” (It’s perhaps worth remembering that, according to ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne, nobody knew Magic was going to say that, either.)
He landed one star when James decided to take his talents to Southern California. The second, though, has proved tricky. Paul George, tipped as a #FutureLaker for ages, never gave the Lakers a chance, reupping in Oklahoma City at the start of free agency. The Raptors swooped in to trade for Kawhi Leonard. The Sixers won the Jimmy Butler sweepstakes. The Klutch Sports–kick-started pursuit of Anthony Davis didn’t go quite how Magic planned it. And the Magic-and-Pelinka-concocted plan of surrounding James with alleged defense-first playmakers—Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, JaVale McGee, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Michael Beasley—on one-year contracts? Well, James himself recently summed that one up with a great big fart noise. (In the meantime, D’Angelo Russell developed into an All-Star this season in Brooklyn, Julius Randle put up big numbers in New Orleans, and discarded center Brook Lopez turned into a vital floor-spacing rim protector for the league-leading Bucks.)
Suddenly, the ranks of secondary stars who might be available for the Lakers to pluck seem awfully thin. Suddenly, the rumblings about elite players not really wanting to sign up for life with LeBron are getting louder and louder. Suddenly, the Lakers’ young trade chips are all hurt or devalued, and the losses have piled up. Maybe the Lakers’ return to the league’s elite has simply been delayed rather than derailed; in what wound up being an extended and very public exit interview, Johnson said he still believes that the Lakers are “one guy” away from the Western Conference finals. But maybe the road back to the promised land is longer and more treacherous than Johnson believed when he took the gig … and maybe moving from making decisions on the court to making them in the front office was more challenging than he anticipated.
Since taking over as president of the Lakers, Magic Johnson never fully committed to the job. Often he was traveling and away from the team. His office hours were limited. He didn't do a lot of scouting. Running an NBA team takes a tremendous commitment of time and energy.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) April 10, 2019
All is not necessarily lost. The Lakers still have LeBron for three more years. They still have Los Angeles. They still have a projected $36 million in salary cap space, plus those dinged-up but still intriguing young pieces to go big-game hunting with this summer. There are raw materials with which to build something better. What the Lakers need now—what they’ve lacked for years, and what they hoped they’d found in Magic—is the architect to draw up the plan that puts those materials to their best use.
“As we begin the process of moving forward, we will work in a measured and methodical fashion to make the right moves for the future of our organization,” the Lakers said in a statement hours after Johnson’s shocking announcement. Those moves must include mustering the Lakers’ considerable resources to do everything in their power to land experienced, seasoned, well-regarded executives to lead the organization—not just friendly faces familiar to the franchise, but bona fide operators versed in player evaluation, negotiation, and team building who understand how to move at the speed of the modern NBA.
Selling a time-honored brand isn’t enough, especially after a mostly down and dire decade; the Lakers need smart, strategic planners who can build a roster that fits where the league is going. Investing in such a basketball brain trust has worked wonders for the Warriors and Clippers. Given the chance, it could pay major dividends for the Lakers, too.
For that to happen, though, Buss will have to deviate from the way the franchise has historically done business and commit to the hard work of constructing a winner like everyone else. Until now, the Lakers have had a hard time doing that, continuing to hang their hopes on sizzle and salesmanship while lagging the pack when it comes to investment in and prioritization of analytics, sports science, and player development strategy. But after another disappointing and absurd season ending with the way things unfolded on Tuesday night …
Nearly two hours after he spontaneously stepped to the podium, a door leading to the loading dock swung open, a cold wind whipped through Staples Center, and Magic said, “Bye for good this time.”— Bill Oram (@billoram) April 10, 2019
... maybe Buss and the Lakers will be more willing to let the old ways die.