The Los Angeles Lakers are heading in a fresh direction toward the future as they desperately try to rekindle the success of their past. The firing of Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak felt like an inevitability weeks ago when Magic Johnson joined the franchise in a special advisory role, but that vision came together on Tuesday, February 21.
The franchise is now in the hands of Johnson, who suddenly finds himself in control of the Lakers’ fate. The same hands the franchise wanted the ball in decades ago to lead them through championship runs are now steering the team from the offices in El Segundo.
“For [Jeanie] to say, 'Earvin, I want to entrust you, I believe in you. I'm going to put this franchise in your hands, to make basketball decisions,’ has been unbelievable,” Johnson said during the nearly 30-minute long interview both he and Jeanie Buss held on Spectrum SportsNet.
“I had to pinch myself, and I said a little prayer, thanking God Jeanie put me in this position. I don’t take it lightly, I'm a worker. So, she's going to get all of Magic Johnson, all of Earvin Johnson. I'm a guy who understands what this team needs and this organization needs.”
Make no mistake, the Lakers have a new caretaker to the purple and gold shield with Magic Johnson taking on the role Jim Buss held for so long. These are now Magic’s Lakers, perhaps more-so than he was a player. Everything the Lakers do off the court, and the product they put on it, falls squarely on his broad shoulders.
Johnson, for his lack of experience as an NBA front office executive, has a tall order in front of him. Both Magic and Jeanie noted how much the league has changed over the past few decades, and the importance of evolving across all fronts to match it. That includes analytics, the collective bargaining agreement and trends that have set across the league.
He doesn’t intend to chase that rabbit down the hole on his own, either. Johnson stressed the importance of sharing that growing experience with the to-be-named general manager — with all signs pointing to high-profile agent Rob Pelinka taking that role. Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical reports the Lakers have agreed to hire Pelinka as their new general manager, but the team has yet to make an offical announcement.
“As we bring in the new general manager, both of us will go to school to learn the new CBA and understand the new CBA,” Johnson said when asked about his understanding of the logistics behind the NBA. “But I'm a guy who loves to learn, I love to read, I love to educate myself on what's going on. That's why it's exciting to build the new Lakers.”
As for what he’s looking for in Pelinka as a partner, Johnson understands he will need to rely on his general manager to lead with him.
“[I] just [want him to] have a work ethic like mine, and be super-duper smart because I want him to be smarter than me, and that's what it's all about. I'm not going to have every answer, but I think with Jeanie, with myself, with that [general manager], with Jesse [Buss], Joey [Buss] .... We'll come up with the right answer.”
That partnership between the remaining Buss’ involved with basketball decisions, Pelinka, and Magic is key in getting the Lakers brand on the same page. Part of the dysfunction that’s hung over the organization like a rain cloud has been how much discord there’s been. The endlessly leaked reports of brewing inner turmoil have been red flags of a serious problem for years.
It’s an aspect of the culture Johnson plans on addressing.
“It's going to be all of us, working together in communication with one another. That's how I built my organization, that's how I want to build this one too.”
The decision to bring Magic in and completely overhaul the Lakers’ front office wasn’t an overnight decision, either. Johnson pointed to the years of losing — hitting franchise low after franchise low — that brought this sweeping change to fruition.
“It wasn't about the last couple weeks. It's been about the years,” Johnson said. “I think, first of all, I wanted to work side-by-side with Jeanie, and I think if it was any other situation I probably wouldn't have left my business aside. I left my business to focus fully, 150 percent, on Lakers business.”
What his 150 percent brings the Lakers is the question, but Johnson refrained from painting a picture that everything would turn around immediately now that he was officially in the building.
“It's going to take us a while. I don't want to fool the fans, we're going to build this thing the right way,” Johnson said. “It' s not a quick fix, I'm not a quick fix. I can't turn it around tomorrow ...”
And then, on cue, he reminded everyone why he’s such a beloved figure beyond being one of the most tremendous basketball players of all-time.
“ ... or I really would be magic, right?”
The Lakers’ young core hasn’t produced much by way of wins yet, but he repeatedly spoke of the importance of developing the talent already on the roster, and his love of head coach Luke Walton. Johnson was clear that their immediate focus is on reinvigorating a winning culture that’s alluded the Lakers since being swept out of the playoffs by the Dallas Mavericks, not shaking that group up.
The start of Johnson’s process begins with getting through the trade deadline before jumping on the team plane when the Lakers head off to Oklahoma City once basketball resumes. Magic plans on talking about basketball with Luke Walton, getting on the court with the talent and observing how the team itself operates on a day-to-day basis.
“We have really good young talent, and we've got to develop that young talent,” Johnson said. “I'm looking forward to getting out on the court with them, talking to them.”
“I want to go on the road with them, I want to watch them practice.”
His thoughts and word on giving the kids time to develop is incredibly important, much as his hands-on work can be as well. It also jibes with the same kind of patience Kupchak exhibited when just days ago he reportedly refused to include Brandon Ingram in a trade for DeMarcus Cousins that may have saved his job.
“[I’ll] try to build an organization that the fans can be proud of. Build a winning culture around the Lakers organization, both on the court and in the offices,” Johnson said of his goals going forward. ”Re-energize everyone that works for the Lakers organization, and make sure our fans understand that we're here to win.”
The work it will take to dig the Lakers out from the hole they’ve continued to tumble down for years won’t be easy, but Magic’s devotion to the Lakers was evident. That kind of motivation is a factor that’s hard to put value on.
All we can do is wait and see. Magic, take the wheel.
*Quotes transcribed via Spectrum SportsNet. The interview can be watched in its entirety right here.