A lot has been made over the last several weeks about how nearly the entire Los Angeles Lakers roster being put into trade rumors might be affecting the team, but president of basketball operations Magic Johnson doesn’t want to hear it.
In a discussion with the reporters before the Lakers’ 143-120 loss to the Sixers, Johnson made it clear that he doesn’t think his roster can use hearing that Johnson did everything he could to ship them out for Anthony Davis as an excuse for poor play, and that the media shouldn’t either (via Dave McMenamin of ESPN):
“Quit making this about thinking these guys are babies because that’s what you’re treating them like,” Johnson said. “They’re professionals. All of them. And this is how this league works. They know it, I know it, that’s how it goes.
”So we’ve got to move forward and we are moving forward. They played outstanding against Boston, give them credit. And we want to play well today and continue on. This is a part of the league. You’ve got a good side of the business that we get paid to be professional basketball players and there’s deals like this.”
The results of Johnson’s speech were... the second-worst defense the Lakers have played this season and a tepid response from the locker room. “Win one of the Gipper” it was not.
Still, Johnson seemed to push back on the notion that the team needed that type of speech anyway. After telling reporters in Michigan that he planned to hug it out with his roster, he told the media in Philadelphia that he didn’t think the talks for Davis were any worse or more public than other deals that are made around the league:
”All deals are... A lot of them are made in public,” he said. “We didn’t make it in public, but that’s part of it. That’s what happens, man. We’ve got big boys here and they bounce back. They’re fine.”
”I don’t want them focused on this other stuff,” he said. “What happened, whose name was mentioned, all that. That’s over with. That was Thursday. This is now. Everybody got to buckle up and we’ve got to move forward.”
It’s fair to question that first line about the Lakers not making any of this public. It doesn’t always take two to leak, but some of the leaks certainly seemed to be to the Lakers’ benefit, and we can leave that at that for now.
The rest of this is not much better. Yes, Johnson is technically right that the Lakers are professionals and that players get included in trade rumors all the time. What that ignores is that the normalcy of those situations doesn’t make it more pleasant while players are having to deal with it.
We don’t know what Johnson’s tone was like with the team, but if it was similar to the combative one he took with the media, it’s hard not to imagine that this heart-to-heart might have done more harm than good. The players’ unenthusiastic descriptions of the meeting to the media after their loss to the Sixers — as well as the defensive effort (or lack thereof) — would seem to confirm as much.
JaVale McGee was asked how he felt about what Magic said.— Tania Ganguli (@taniaganguli) February 11, 2019
"I felt good. How am I supposed to answer that? How did I feel? Tingly inside? I don’t know."
Was it productive?
"Yeah, I got so much out of it. It’s crazy. (deep exhale) I don’t get what you’re trying to ask."
It’s absolutely true that the Lakers have to be professional and deal with this, it’s just also hard to imagine that they needed to be told that by the guy who just tried to trade nearly all of them a week ago. It’s one thing to try and make genuine amends and get the group to come together, it’s another to essentially come a pair of crossed arms away from Byron Scott’s “man up” rhetoric.
Johnson doesn’t seem to be primarily concerned about mending fences, though. He just wants his team to do their job, whether he publicly just tried to send almost all of them to find employment elsewhere just days ago or not.
”Listen, we get paid to do a job,” Johnson said. “And we’re all professionals. I’ve been in this league for 40 years. A lot of players got traded on Thursday and Wednesday. Guess what’s going to happen next year? A lot of players are going to get traded. A lot of players will stay home. And I talked to our guys, they’re in a good place. That’s all that matters. We’re heading towards, hopefully, getting into the playoffs. And so, that’s a part of it. A part of NFL, a part of NHL, a part of Major League Baseball, a part of the NBA.”
Again, Johnson is right, but he’s also probably not the person to deliver this message right now. Ultimately every member of the Lakers will be better off individually if they make the playoffs, which is why they’ll probably come together collectively and do it.
However, wasn’t part of the reason Johnson was hired his off-the-charts charisma and ability to sell people on how wonderful it is to be a Laker? About how he’d be an incredible recruiter and a guy players would want to play for? Someone players could relate to and communicate well with? That’s all well and good in theory, but his words and his actions are making that an awfully hard argument to make right now.
If Johnson just wants to play the cold, calculated executive, that’s also fine, but it means you’re going to be judged a lot more by how trade negotiations like the one with the Pelicans played out. After how ugly, public and ultimately successful those talks went as New Orleans detonated a smart bomb of trade rumors in the Lakers locker room through strategic leaks, it’s hard not to think Johnson and the Lakers got punked in that department.
Whether he thinks thinks the Pelicans doing so was negotiating in good faith is immaterial — using the same standards he’s applying to his team, Johnson and general manger Rob Pelinka are professionals, and have to come together and perform regardless. Johnson’s public remarks and the response to his actions since would seem to be just as ugly as the Lakers’ two blowout losses in less than a week, and so by his own standards, no one should baby him either.