Magic Johnson’s Criticism of the Lakers Has Gone From Constructive to Destructive
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Earvin “Magic” Johnson

9100 Wilshire Blvd.#1000W

Beverly Hills, CA 90212

January 29, 2014

Dear Magic:

As a lifelong Lakers fan, I would be remiss if I didn’t make it clear upfront that you were my childhood hero and had more of an influence on me than any non-relative. It is your signed jersey that hangs on my office wall. Much of my life philosophy is built upon what you taught me. That it is better to make others look good than it was to let others make you look good. Perhaps that’s why I’m so confused by how you seem to criticize and disrespect the Lakers organization with every chance you get.

Look, I don’t know the whole story of what may or may not have gone down behind closed doors. I know that you and Jim Buss are the same age and maybe there’s some sibling rivalry that the rest of us don’t know anything about. Perhaps Dr. Buss made you some promises with regards to what your role with the franchise would be after his death that he later reneged on. Who knows? Whatever it is, I don’t know and right now I really don’t care.

What I do know is that you’re kicking the franchise that has treated you like royalty while it’s down. Your constant criticism isn’t deserving of a team that nobody expected to contend for a title, let alone make the playoffs. In doing so, you’ve riled up a large faction of the fanbase by implying that they would be contending for a title if they had either a different coach or a different owner.

Let’s be real here for a second. Numerous injuries have taken an average roster that was much more fun to watch than any of us anticipated and made them remarkably below average and maddeningly frustrating most of the time. These aren’t the Lakers. You and I both know that. These guys are stand-ins. Maybe two or three of them stick around beyond this season but the rest of them? It’s almost as if they dressed up as Lakers for Halloween and have refused to take their costumes off. That’s who Mike D’Antoni is being asked to coach and who you’ve decided to attack.

I’m trying to figure out exactly what your motives are with your criticisms. Do you think it’s helping to put pressure on the organization so they act faster to put forth a better product? Do you think by shining a spotlight on their shortcomings that maybe the Dodgers might somehow benefit? I could understand if you were spewing off during NBA Countdown but you’re no longer getting paid for your basketball opinions.

Magic, I know you must have at least some knowledge of the new collective bargaining agreement and what teams can and cannot do. This isn’t baseball where if a team like the Dodgers has injuries to pitchers making over $10 million a year like Ted Lilly, Josh Beckett, and Chad Billingsley they can just trade a minor leaguer for another high-priced pitcher like Ricky Nolasco.

When this new CBA went into effect in 2010, the Lakers were coming off a season that ended when they were swept by the Dallas Mavericks. They still had seven players under contract for at least two more seasons, making close to $100 million combined. Those were all contracts given out by Dr. Buss. A few of the contracts rewarded the guys who helped the team win two titles, while others were given to free agents who were brought in to help strengthen their title defense.

I need to be careful here and make it clear that I’m not blaming Dr. Buss for the team’s current struggles either. After three straight NBA Finals appearances, nobody can blame him for caring more about what was needed to win at the time than about a potential work stoppage and a new collective bargaining agreement. None of us could have predicted that those title-winning teams would have such a short shelf-life.

The league’s new CBA not only introduced new luxury tax penalties but it also did away with the old mid-level exception that allowed teams over the luxury tax to still sign free agents like Metta World Peace and Steve Blake to four or five-year contracts, with annual salaries in the $5 million range.

Gone was the one card the Lakers could go to every summer, the one that gave them the ability to either cover up a weakness or undo a previous mistake. That World Peace contract made up for the loss of Trevor Ariza. The Lakers probably don’t repeat without it. Steve Blake was brought in to replace Jordan Farmar and provide insurance for the aging Derek Fisher. Unfortunately for him, injuries and coaching changes have made his tenure with the Lakers a bumpy one. Regardless, it’s now gone.

It’s been replaced by a mini version of it that gives high-payroll teams like the Lakers only enough to sign someone like Josh McRoberts or Chris Kaman for only one or two years and around $3 million a year. To make things even more difficult for them, the new rules also made it illegal for those high-spending teams to be on the receiving end of a sign-and-trade deal.

That’s not all.

In addition to dealing with an aging, expensive roster and trying to adapt it to a new system of rules that gives them few assets with which to improve, the Lakers are now paying the price for years of dismissing the draft — another strategy that was around long before Dr. Buss passed away. Over the past five or six years they’ve made a habit of either selling their first-round picks for cash or including them in trades to get teams to take the undesirable contracts of guys like Sasha Vujacic, Derek Fisher, and Luke Walton so they can lessen their luxury tax bill.

While the Lakers current struggles are not because of anything Dr. Buss did, they sure aren’t a result of anything Jim Buss or Mitch Kupchak did either. I can make a very strong argument that no team was hurt more by the new CBA than the Lakers.

If you look at it with a magnifying glass, you might actually be more encouraged than discouraged by what they’ve accomplished with so little to work with. In spite of having traded away nearly all of their first-round picks and having nothing to work with but the mini-MLE, Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak still managed to agree in principle to three trades that each of the 29 other GMs in the league would have agreed to at the time they were made.

Despite the fact that the franchise’s hands and feet were tied, they still managed to acquire the best center in the game for a center who is currently out of the league less than two years later. They also acquired a future Hall of Fame point guard for one first-round pick and two second-round picks. You can’t sit there and deny that you didn’t only applaud both moves at the time, but went so far as to publicly predict that Jim Buss would win the NBA’s Executive of the Year Award because of them.

Unfortunately for Lakers fans, the commissioner intervened and blocked the one trade that would have enabled them to remain championship contenders and avoid their current predicament; a trade that not only would have prevented the Steve Nash trade, but would have also enabled them to rid themselves of Pau Gasol’s contract, provide Dwight Howard with the running mate Houston was able to satisfy him with, and gracefully transition the franchise from Kobe to Chris Paul and Dwight Howard.

So when you say things like, “Everybody’s telling me free agents don’t want to sign [with the Lakers],” and “They’re looking at the Lakers now as a team that’s dysfunctional …,” what you’re doing is not only reinforcing that negative perception and worsening an undeserved reputation, but you’re simultaneously making the front office’s job much more difficult when they can finally make moves this summer.

That’s not what family does.

What bothers me most about your comments is the timing of them. With less than six months to go until the Lakers can finally get the handcuffs off and try to rebuild after three miserable seasons under new CBA, you’ve chosen to kick them while still they’re still handcuffed by old contracts and new rules. We’re so close to the house finally going on the market and now is the time you’ve decided to tell prospective buyers that you’re hearing there are termites in the walls and cracks in the foundation? We can do better than that, Earvin.

What exactly do you expect them to do right now, fire a coach who’s had to start Ryan Kelly, Robert Sacre, and Shawne Williams this season due to numerous injuries to better players? Did you expect Jim Buss to step down and cede his title just because you think he should, even though he has no reason to do so? The truth is, none of us know what Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak are capable of doing once they finally have legitimate assets with which to rebuild, including you. They have significant cap space for the first time in 18 years and the chance to pick in the single-digits for the first time since drafting James Worthy in 1982.

If you want to express your concerns and frustrations about the team on Twitter or on late-night talk shows, I can’t stop you. I’d also be lying if I said that I wasn’t nervous about the team’s future or that I haven’t been tempted to destroy personal objects after some losses this season. I just know that when you speak, people listen and they repeat those things, and oftentimes what you’re saying is just flat-out wrong and misleading.

I’m writing this to you because I never thought I’d see the day where Lakers fans turned on you, but that’s where it seems we’re headed. Not all Lakers fans. There are still many who feel that you are voicing your frustration on their behalf.

Speaking only for myself, my biggest issue is with you undermining the front office at such a critical juncture; including your former teammate Mitch Kupchak. If you don’t have faith in those currently running the team, keep it in-house. Seeing as that you’re no longer involved with the team on a day-to-day basis, you’re doing the entire organization and their fans a disservice by feeding the public perception that there’s dysfunction where none might actually exist. If someone tells you that they’re hearing the organization is dysfunctional, either tell them they’re wrong or tell them you don’t know instead of feeding into it. Maybe you spent too much time around Bill Simmons last season. What did he do to you?

When you combine all that negativity with your new “don’t shoot the messenger-style” rumormongering about free agents and organizational dysfunction, you can understand why your name now elicits a negative reaction amongst many fans when it’s brought up. Don’t be surprised if you hear a few boos or you get heckled the next time they show your face on the Dodger Stadium jumbotron.

I can’t imagine someone who is now part-owner of one local team would trash another team’s owner under the guise of only wanting what’s best for them. Nor can I allow myself to believe that you, the ultimate team player, would maliciously intend to try and bring down the very franchise that helped make you the global icon that you are.

Magic, I’m not asking you for much here. I’m just asking you to think twice about the ramifications of those things you say. The positive things you say about the team usually disappear into the ether within minutes of you saying them. But the criticisms manage to echo and become the subject of newscasts, talking heads shows, newspapers, and social media for days.

Now is not the time for the attacks. Whatever issues you may or may not have with Jim, just sweep them under the rug. At the very least, you owe that to Dr. Buss, to Jeanie, and most importantly, to the fans.

If there was ever a perfect time for one of your legendary assists, right now would be it.

Best regards,

Andrew M. Ungvari

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