It was 5:38 PM PST on Wednesday night as Magic Johnson was making his way down the 23 purple carpeted steps connecting the Los Angeles Lakers front offices to the parking lot. He was clutching his briefcase, signature smile in tow, even making time for small talk with a reporter, beaming about the new direction of the organization.
It had been 31 hours since Jeanie Buss announced that Magic would be taking over as Lakers President of Basketball Operations, removing both her brother, Jim Buss, and long-tenured Mitch Kupchak from their positions and things were moving quickly.
At about that same time, head coach Luke Walton was making his way from the back rooms of the training facility, where a couple hours earlier he addressed the media for the first time since Jeanie cleaned house, doing his best to balance his genuine sadness for both Mitch and Jim (who were responsible for his hiring) and also his enthusiasm to work alongside Magic.
Their paths crossed at the doorway.
“Luke!” Magic gleamed, affectionately clutching Walton’s shoulder, as he coolly strutted out with his inherited protégé.
“It was a strange day because I am very close with Jimmy and Mitch and I’ve really enjoyed working with them, so it was interesting,” Walton said of Tuesday’s sequence of events. “It was definitely a little sad. I think it’s important to really remember all the great things they did while they were here too. On the other hand, you have Earvin (Magic) coming in, he’s in there making phone calls, and it was great to work with him. It was a unique, interesting day in the sense of the different types of emotions, but the main thing everyone talked about is that we have a job to do still.”
That was exactly Magic’s message when he briefly addressed the team before Wednesday’s practice, that everyone still had a job to do, quickly going over his new role and reaffirming his commitment to Lakers excellence.
But, what about the timing of it all? Two days before the NBA trade deadline.
“My initial thought was why do it right before the trade deadline? But, Magic came in and got to work right away.”
That he did. Magic assumed his role, like he’d been waiting for this opportunity for years, quickly trading away the Lakers leading scorer in Lou Williams, and getting a first-round draft pick from Houston in return. If the Lakers priorities for the remainder of the season weren’t clear before, they sure are now: develop the Lakers young core and give themselves a higher chance to keep their Top-3 protected draft pick.
And Luke gets it, even subtly acknowledging the priority shift.
“As it’s gone on and we’ve dropped out of that realistic eighth spot… Now, the idea of we’re going to start Brandon (Ingram), and Zu (Ivica Zubac) is going to play bigger roles, has shifted a little bit to being more important to give the young guys the opportunity to really grow, even if that gives us maybe a slightly less chance of winning a single game here or there.”
(The Lakers are 19-39, have the third-worst record in the NBA, and as such currently have a 46.9% of keeping their top three pick. If their pick falls out of the top three, they not only lose this year’s lottery pick to the Philadelphia 76ers but also their 2019 first rounder to the Orlando Magic).
And amidst fielding all the phone calls leading up to the NBA trade deadline, Magic was also working to secure their new general manager, big-time agent Rob Pelinka. Although, Walton wasn’t involved in those calls.
“Everything happened pretty fast,” Walton said. “We don’t have days to figure it out; we’re all still working. We all had to kind of define roles pretty quickly. I hadn’t talked to Rob (Pelinka) at all.”
Walton acknowledged he doesn’t have much of a relationship with Pelinka, other than through the players he’s represented like Kobe Bryant, Channing Frye, and Andre Iguodala, and seeing him around at Staples Center. But, Walton also said he wasn’t disappointed that he wasn’t consulted about the Lakers next general manager.
“No, because I like Rob,” Walton responded when asked if he was disappointed. “If it was somebody I didn’t like, then there would probably be disappointment, and with how quick it all happened, I don’t even know how I could have been involved with it.”
And as the trade deadline passes, there will be an even greater shift to free agency, where Kupchak and Buss have repeatedly struck out over the years, and where many concluded that the Lakers didn’t have the right voice in the room.
Will it be any different now?
“I think if I’m sitting in a room with Magic from my experience, and he’s selling me on something, most times I’m buying it,” Walton said.
“He demands respect because he’s earned that, that is who he is.”
And what about Magic’s public proclamation to reporters about the supposedly ‘untouchable’ young core?
“We really like our young players…but nobody is really untouchable,” Walton said. “We love our young guys, we do, we have a lot of trust and faith in them, and we want to continue to build around them. I agree with him (Magic). I don’t want to see our young core go anywhere.”
As the 7 o’clock hour passed and the 8 o’clock hour neared, the whispers in the hallways about what had transpired over the past 48 hours had finally subsided, and the woman behind it all was walking down those same 23 steps.
Hands full and dressed to a tee, Jeanie Buss quietly and confidently strolled out of the Lakers offices.
She was the last to leave.