Magic Johnson resigning as president of basketball operations will force the Los Angeles Lakers to adapt with the times, or remain clinging to past glories.
In a week with teams playing for the playoffs and seedings and two legends putting a cap on their careers, the Los Angeles Lakers found a way to steal the attention of NBA Twitter and the headlines on every website. This, of course, was not their choice, but one of Magic Johnson, who abruptly stepped down as president of basketball operations in a spontaneous press conference before the Lakers’ final game of the season.
Magic stepped down because he simply missed his whole life. He wanted to return to his mentoring role to players outside of the Lakers, and felt hamstrung by the tampering rules that limited his interaction with other NBA players, such as congratulating them in tweets. In short, Magic wanted to be Magic, and this job didn’t allow that to happen.
The bizarreness of this takes a daytime soap drama turn when he revealed he couldn’t face his “sister” and team owner Jeanie Buss to tell her that he was leaving his position immediately. This blindsided everybody in the organization, not just Buss, and adds another layer to a failed season for a franchise falling behind the rest of the NBA.
Hiring Magic Johnson seemed like a win at first. There is no better ambassador for the Lakers and what the franchise can offer players. Fame, business opportunities galore, Hollywood and so much more are there for the taking in Los Angeles. Magic used this to his advantage to develop into having ownership claims in multiple sports teams and being one of the best athletes-turned-entrepreneurs in sports.
His personality makes Magic, well, Magic. His smile and positivity accompanied with his competitiveness made him a lovable figure to pair with his basketball accomplishments. His close relationship with Jeanie Buss gave the Lakers a pair of leaders that represented the glory days of Showtime and a friendly front that fortunes would return to that time period, but the results failed dramatically.
It was easy to wonder how Magic would be able to balance everything he does with his business and personal brand while running a basketball organization. He said it himself in his press conference that, “When you gotta make trades, you’re not happy.” That doesn’t sound like somebody fully invested or wanting to work the daily grind of running a basketball team.
His team-building moves have come into question as well, mostly dealing D’Angelo Russell to the Brooklyn Nets for Brook Lopez and a first round pick that turned into Kyle Kuzma. D-Lo made his first All-Star team as a replacement for Victor Oladipo this season and led the Nets to the 6-seed in the Eastern Conference.
Outside of that trade, his free agent class of Rajon Rondo, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Michael Beasley, JaVale McGee and Lance Stephenson — instead of retaining Brook Lopez and Julius Randle — didn’t exactly exhume confidence that Magic understood where the game is going in terms of wings, spacing and 3-point shooting.
But with all that being said, the Lakers’ season was mostly derailed by extensive injuries to LeBron James, Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram. There were signs of positivity with the team coming together, even with the injuries, but the trade deadline rumor mill of the Lakers trying to acquire Anthony Davis was damaging, with KCP saying “everybody kind of lost themselves” during that time.
That may not be Magic’s fault, but the loose-lipped Lakers did little to quiet the rumors that every player on the team was on the trading block. From team-building to an apparent lack of commitment to not being himself, Magic leaving this job is best for himself and the Lakers, if they choose to adapt with the times.
Their first order of business is deciding whether to retain Luke Walton and his coaching staff. There was awkward tension throughout the organization because the coaches felt they were getting fired at the end of the season — something Magic was torn on doing, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.
Walton’s rotations should come into question, but he wasn’t dealt the best hand in terms of putting forth a team in his image. Great coaches adapt to their rosters, yet combining his players with injuries shouldn’t warrant a firing. He’s a young player’s coach and has a good rapport with the youngsters on the roster. Keeping him for at least the early part of the next season wouldn’t be the worst decision.
His staff could use some revitalizing, however. The Lakers, of all teams, don’t have a shooting coach, and you’d figure the league’s 29th ranked 3-point shooting team would invest some resources into this skill their team sorely lacks. They already fired head athletic trainer Marco Nunez, who caught the blame for some of the team’s injury problems.
Firing Walton would put forth a wild coaching search. Do the Lakers go with somebody LeBron would want? Juwan Howard (assistant with Miami Heat during LBJ’s tenure up to now), Tyronn Lue and Jason Kidd are among the betting favorites if Walton is let go, and all of them have a positive history with the King.
Rob Pelinka will remain on as general manager, and there has been plenty of talk that the Lakers will heavily pursue Bob Myers of the Golden State Warriors to replace Magic alongside Pelinka. Myers has been credited with building the Warriors, but is an UCLA graduate and may be tempted by rebuilding the Lakers.
Myers hasn’t been listed in betting odds, but names like Kobe Bryant and David Griffin are the favorites for the job. Kobe, like Magic, is involved in a multitude of businesses outside of basketball and who knows if he’d want the job? Griffin is a forward-thinking GM with experience in building a championship team with LeBron from their days in his second tenure with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Filling these two positions will signal which direction the Lakers will move in. Will they double down on LeBron and hire one of his guys, or find a long-term coach to build with LeBron and after his contract is up?
Who knows which angle they’ll pursue, but they need to have a united front office that embraces analytics and understands where the game is shifting. Magic, for all his smiles and positivity, did not. It’s time to put the Showtime Era to bed for good, stop relying on your brand and make sound basketball decisions, or the Los Angeles Lakers will continue to miss the postseason and on big-time free agents, and fall further behind the rising teams in the NBA.