Give Magic Johnson some credit. He vowed in January 2014 to stop publicly criticizing the Lakers and in particular, Jim Buss. From that day forward, there would be nothing but sunshine, rainbows and positivity. For 365 days and change, the Point God (and for my money, the Greatest Lakers of All-time) held true to his word. No shade was thrown. Twitter was limited to basic commentary on events 12-24 hours after the fact. But like an alcoholic at an open bar or Kanye West at an awards show, self control fell to the wayside. During last Tuesday’s appearance on ESPN’s ‘First Take,” Johnson was asked about Jim Buss’ ability to turn the Lakers’ fortunes, and he quickly backslid.
“Jim is trying to do it himself and trying to prove to everybody that this was the right decision that [his] dad gave [him] the reins… He’s not consulting anybody that can help him achieve his goals and dreams to win an NBA championship.”
“If Jim would say, ‘OK, Mitch. You run the show,’ I think it would be a lot better for the Lakers, too. Mitch Kupchak knows what he’s doing. He’s great. He’s smart. He’s hard-working. He’s at every practice. I think the fans would feel good [if he ran the team] as well.”
“If he doesn’t have a big summer with a free agent… it looks like they’ll have a good draft pick. Put that together with a good free agent, you can be right back into the mix. If this summer, that doesn’t happen where they can sign a great player, it’s over for us.”
On the plus side, Magic didn’t blame Jim Buss for America’s sluggish job growth. But it only takes one appearance on ‘Dan LeBatard Is Questionable’ to change that.
This latest round of barbs reflects two potential scenarios, and neither are particularly comforting nor productive for the Lakers.
At worst, Magic is actively attempting to undermine Jim Buss and pave a path for his early removal. Maybe he’s in cahoots with Jeanie Buss. Johnson is admittedly close with her, and, as most recently witnessed in a bizarre interview conducted by ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne, she’s no stranger to deflating her brother’s image. (When Magic spoke to Skip and Stephen A., you could practically see Jeanie’s lips moving.) Maybe Magic is going rogue in a personal beef with Jim. Despite denials to the contrary, perhaps he’s angling for another formal role with the organization, and views Jim as the primary obstacle. Hell, maybe Magic is passively-aggressively going after Mitch Kupchak’s gig by portraying him as a neutered figurehead. (On a related note, it’s fair to question how deeply informed Magic is with regards to how front office decisions are actually made by the Lakers. Jim Buss’ acumen may be rightly questioned, but the idea of him continually going over Mitch’s head feels more like Magic’s narrative than the factual narrative.)
These theories are all speculation, but speculating doesn’t feel irresponsible, because this many years’ worth of jabs don’t happen agenda-free. Something is fueling Magic. But whatever the intended endgame, every comment made only serves to further paint the image of a dysfunctional organization with more infighting and cliques than the ‘Mean Girls’ high school. And as Brian noted during our recent appearance on ESPN LA radio, Magic’s behavior actually disrespects the wishes of Jerry Buss, with whom he shared an incredibly close relationship.
And here’s the thing. Even if there’s nothing sinister happening, even if Magic is making a sincere plea from the bottom of his purple and gold heart, his words are still destructive. What possible good can from shoving Jim Buss under the proverbial bus for the umpteenth time? Magic rightly noted how the Lakers are at a crossroads, along with the premium placed on landing an A-List free agent. And while the odds of the latter goal may be low through no fault of the Lakers — there’s zero reason for LaMarcus Aldridge leave Portland, for example — they inevitably worsen every time Magic freaking Johnson presents Jim Buss as an incompetent boob. Magic knows the power his words carry, and thus should be able to recognize, intentionally or not, he’s engaged in negative recruiting. It’s impossible to believe a man this smart can’t make this connection.
And assuming his intentions are pure, then why offer ANYTHING other than positive comments?
Last time I checked, the ‘First Take’ set isn’t a court room and comments on that show aren’t the equivalent of a sworn deposition. Skip and Stephen A. may be fairly judgmental personalities, but they’re not actual judges. You are in fact allowed to lie while on their show. Guests lie all the time. And we know Magic is occasionally willing to lie. Case in point, last November, when he urged Lakers fans not to get down despite an 0-5 start because this was nonetheless “exciting basketball.” At the risk of calling perhaps the world’s foremost expert on exciting basketball a liar, dude was lying his a– off. And that’s fine. The Tweet, laughable hypocrisy notwithstanding, was Johnson covering for Byron Scott, a friend and former teammate he lobbied for as Mike D’Antoni’s replacement. Public figures lie all the time for image purposes. So do this, Magic.
Say that, after a couple of misguided seasons, the Lakers are finally on the right track with a former member of Showtime at the helm. (Again, Jim did what you wanted here.) Then keep spinning. Julius Randle will be healthy next season. Jordan Clarkson will be more seasoned. They’ll have a high draft pick. Cap space. Kobe will be back with a vengeance. And blah, blah, blah, etc.
Does Magic need to mean any of this? Of course not. For all I care, he can spend two hours a day, seven days a week b—-ing out Jim Buss behind closed doors for perceived front office idiocy. That’s perfectly within bounds. But if Magic would actually like to see the Lakers recover some time before LeBron James’ son becomes a first overall pick, it wouldn’t kill him to quit presenting the organization as a disaster. (What he really should do is shift all conversations to the Dodgers, and simply wish the Lakers luck and his undying support, but that ain’t happening anytime soon.)
Finally, whatever the impetus for his comments, they’ve created a terrible look for Magic. The act has grown beyond tired, and it needs to stop. Lashing out in ways that feel so personal should be beneath someone of Johnson’s credibility and achievements. Fans are increasingly turning on him, and we’re talking about one of the most beloved, iconic and Teflon athletes in sports history. Magic may be an eternal face of the Lakers, but he’s also no longer part of the organization. Until that changes and he decides to become a formal part of the solution, the least he can do is stop being part of the problem.[divide]