The Los Angeles Lakers have dealt with a downpour of drama in recent years including Kobe Bryant vs. Dwight Howard, Jim Buss’ deadline, D’Angelo Russell’s video camera, and LaVar Ball being… well, LaVar Ball.
Through it all, the Lakers managed to stay afloat, but this latest downpour as Magic Johnson dumped all over ESPN’s First Take just may sink the offseason. Johnson put the franchise that he is synonymous with in his crosshairs and fired away, with the damage being magnified by the fact that it was one of the most beloved Lakers ever inflicting it.
LeBron James’ shoulders may be tattooed with the moniker “Chosen 1″ but for Los Angeles, that title belongs to Johnson — the man who helped transform the franchise and the NBA into the powerhouse it is today.
He first captivated the city with his smile and no-look passes, then gave the world hope as he publicly battled a deadly disease. Johnson’s deft touch on the floor eventually translated to the business world, setting the model for professional athletes looking to continue their success after their playing days ended.
Even as he spread his wings, Johnson always stayed in the team’s orbit, reminding us of the bygone days of Showtime and what winning basketball means to Los Angeles. Kobe Bryant may very well be the greatest Laker ever, but Johnson has the charisma to claim the heart of the city.
The franchise struggled following the passing of the great Dr. Jerry Buss in 2013 and daughter Jeanie Buss was empowered to make the tough decisions where she eventually ousted her brother from the helm of the basketball operations department. She handed the role over to Johnson, hopeful that a new era of prominence would begin as he used his unique magnetism to bring All-Star players back to the purple and gold.
There was something so perfect about Johnson — now a revered businessman — running the Lakers. It felt only right that it would be him. The once and future king, who would return from Avalon to restore the Lakers to their former glory.
In a franchise-altering moment, Johnson landed James in free agency last summer. It was a time to celebrate and rejoice at the return of the Lakers, but little did we know at the time that the good times would be so short-lived.
During a season filled with injuries, trade rumors, roster issues, and questionable coaching decisions, rifts formed within the front office and Johnson took it upon himself to step away and scorch the earth on his way out the door.
First came his bizarre and abrupt resignation just hours prior to the team’s final game with vague references to backstabbing going on within the franchise. He blindsided the front office, leaving them scrambling and setting off a wave of negative press, something he knew the team couldn’t afford heading into a massively important offseason in which they will try to sell All-Star players on the idea of playing alongside James in Los Angeles.
Weeks went by as the negative storylines piled up with most questioning the team’s leadership and the roles of general manager Rob Pelinka, Kurt and Linda Rambis, and anyone else who had Buss’ ear. Johnson’s departure, the firing of Luke Walton, the organization’s collective silence, and a botched coaching search all added up to a firestorm of negativity swirling around the Lakers.
The franchise finally seemed to be turning things around when they leaped from the No. 11 to No. 4 in the 2019 NBA Draft Lottery and settled on new head coach Frank Vogel.
They took two steps forward towards the light and that’s when Johnson’s chose to go on the attack on First Take — undercutting any positive momentum that had been building.
He fired one volley after another, claiming that Buss is not an effective decision-maker, pulled in too many directions by a plethora of advisers who shouldn’t have a voice in basketball decisions. Pelinka was characterized as a backstabber, violating Johnson’s trust by letting those inside and outside of the organization know just how infrequently he was actually in the office doing his job — which he asserts was always part of the plan due to his outside business interests.
Johnson began to question whether he truly had the power to make decisions as the call to fire Walton was second-guessed by those who he didn’t think had the authority to overrule him. It was for those reasons that he felt it was necessary to quit his job as president of basketball operations.
Even if we assume that Johnson’s claims are completely true (Pelinka used the phrase ‘misperception’) and that his goal was to force positive and necessary change within the organization, his timing is damning. Blasting the organization on live television just hours before Vogel was set to be introduced guaranteed that Pelinka would have to field a horde of uncomfortable questions and that the team’s reputation would take a major hit.
These were criticisms that would have been better served if they were saved for another day after the major moves of the summer had been made. No one comes out the victor with the way things played out.
Whether he is right or not, the bottom line is that a little over a month until free agency, Johnson guaranteed the front office would have the stench of chaos all over them as they attempt to re-tool the team. That’s a bad look for all parties involved including Johnson, who either comes across as malicious or woefully oblivious to the effect of his words.
Given Johnson’s reputation as a favorite with players around the league, will any of the top free agents trust the Lakers now when it’s Pelinka — who Johnson claims stabbed him in the back — is sitting across from them attempting to sell his vision of a brighter future? And will they trust in Buss’ ability to make the correct decision after Johnson’s unflattering depiction of a dysfunctional chain of command?
There is zero doubt the Lakers organization has done more than enough to damage their own reputation around the league without Johnson airing their dirty laundry. The 2018-19 NBA season had seen them spiral downward under the weight of one self-inflicted wound after another.
But those mistakes, as grievous as they may have been, could be righted. The Lakers have James, plenty of cap space, and young talent to work with — which provides the opportunity to pivot this summer and get things back on track.
Johnson’s deliberate and dastardly attack, on the other hand, won’t be so easy to heal. It came from within, from the person who was supposed to be the best of us, and that only makes the fallout that much more painful. We may not fully understand the scope of the damage until the bell sounds and free agency begins and maybe by then, we will have a better understanding of why.
For now, all the Lakers can do is attempt to spin the narrative as best as they can and push forward without their former talisman.