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The Lakers are back

The Lakers are once again the crown jewel of the NBA, with the basketball talent to match their brand name

NBA: Preseason-Golden State Warriors at Los Angeles Lakers Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Magic Johnson used to have a favorite catchphrase when he hopped on the TNT broadcast during All-Star Weekend. For several years, after some marginally exciting dunk, Magic would proclaim, “The Dunk Contest is BACK.”

When Magic was brought in as the President of Basketball Operations, it seemed only a matter of time before he busted out some variation of that phrase for his beloved Lakers, and he did not disappoint.

In a postgame interview with Cassidy Hubbarth of ESPN after winning the 2017 Summer League title, Magic spoke about the excellence he and Rob Pelinka would demand of their team, and how the Summer League championship was just the first step in that process.

Then, as if he was hurrying the statement so that everyone would quickly forget about it, he said, “And so, the Lakers are back. We’re going to try to make sure we build and grow. We’re going to have great year.”

(To be fair, there is also some lovely stuff Magic added immediately afterwards about building towards sustainable success, but kudos to Hubbarth — she delivers a knowing nod after “the Lakers are back” comment, completely aware of the moment she has just created.)

The Lakers had a reasonably successful season last year after Magic spoke those glorious words, but it was more about building and growing for the future while featuring their young players. It would be hard to classify 35 wins as a great year, especially for a franchise that has won 16 titles and been a part of almost half of the Finals contested in the NBA.

This year is an entirely different story. As Silver Screen & Roll’s esteemed Anthony Irwin put it, now we have LeBron James, and you don’t.

It’s almost impossible to overstate what having LeBron has done to the collective psyche of Laker fans, already a group that wasn’t exactly lacking in self-esteem, or pride in their franchise. Even though there are added expectations with the burden of contention, or pseudo-contention, the mere presence of James has revitalized the most exceptional corners of Laker fandom and emboldened some genuinely rose-colored glasses perspectives.

Signing JaVale McGee to be a starting center when he hasn’t played 20 minutes per game in over six years? That makes perfect sense when Chris “Birdman” Andersen was such a successful big man counterpart for James, even if that was five years ago.

Adding the combustible Lance Stephenson and Michael Beasley in the same offseason? The Lakers have always been a place for the misunderstood to thrive: Just ask Ron Artest.

Basically, this guy is our spirit animal once again:

The Lakers’ brand has never solely been about the on-court product — it’s about the attitude and the aura that the name carries everywhere else. The Lakers haven’t even had to perform well as a basketball team to be “the Lakers” recently. They’ve dominated the national conversation even though the team hasn’t won a playoff game since 2012, and there’s another franchise in the same state going for a three-peat. Los Angeles was already fifth in national television games last year, and now they lead the league in that category.

But for the past few years, it has only been the Laker name doing the heavy lifting for the franchise. Now, the basketball side can finally start to carry its own weight.

The first step was hiring Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka. Magic has already spread his charm throughout the Los Angeles sports scene. He was part of an ownership group that spearheaded franchise turnarounds for both the Dodgers and the Sparks. The Dodgers have won six straight division titles, and the Sparks went to back-to-back WNBA Finals, collecting their third championship in the process. He also co-owns LAFC, which is on track to be the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference for the MLS playoffs.

Magic’s, well, magic is starting to make its way through the Lakers. After Johnson and Pelinka joined the team, Los Angeles collected a first-rounder for Lou Williams to select Josh Hart, kept the No. 2 pick that became Lonzo Ball, and acquired the pick that became Kyle Kuzma in the Mozgov/Russell salary dump.

Most importantly, Magic Johnson was the closer who brought LeBron James to Los Angeles. James made it imminently clear how much he admires the former Showtime great, and how the prospect of learning from and partnering with Magic enticed him to don the purple and gold.

And though it might have been facetious to say the Lakers were back last season after winning a title in July in Las Vegas, just as it was silly to say the dunk contest was back when Nate Robinson dunked over Spud Webb, it no longer is. We have reached the point when Magic has earned the right to say those words without couching them in some other broader statement about team building.

It’s October 18. The season starts tonight. And the Lakers are back.