Of all the criticisms the Los Angeles Lakers received this year, potentially the most legitimate was the organization’s failure to acquire the level of shooting an NBA team needs to have even a moderate amount of success. Instead, former president of basketball operations Magic Johnson bragged about how he had watched the playoffs and discovered that the best shooting teams didn’t win (despite literally the best shooting team ever winning the title), while still employed general manager Rob Pelinka talked about how the Lakers had “thrust.”
Neither of those things proved true, or at least not true enough for the Lakers to make the playoffs, and one of the biggest (and most persistent) individual knocks on the front office was not re-signing veteran center Brook Lopez. After expressing some level of interest in a Lakers return at exit interviews in 2018, Lopez left for the Milwaukee Bucks, taking the bi-annual exception of $3.3 million to leave a team near Disneyland for a team not near Disneyland.
During his lengthy appearance on ESPN’s “First Take” on Monday morning, Johnson took responsibility for that error, but he wasn’t willing to accept criticism for not re-signing Lopez’s fellow outgoing free agent, Julius Randle, who took a two-year, $18 million deal with the New Orleans Pelicans:
“The only one we could’ve re-signed was Brook Lopez, and I made a mistake there. Julius, we couldn’t offer what he got. He wanted two years, we were only offering one. That was a good deal for Julius, and he played well. Him and LeBron wasn’t going to fit, no way. We needed some space.”
To espouse needing space as a reason for not re-signing Randle in the same breath as admitting you made a mistake in not re-signing Lopez is a borderline miraculous level of cognitive dissonance, but Johnson is right about the contract portion of this (at least in part). Randle’s deal isn’t bad value in a vacuum, and the second-year is a player option Randle likely won’t pick up, but whether you agree with them or not, the Lakers weren’t going to take the chance that Randle would when their whole plan was centered on signing a superstar like Kyrie Irving or Kawhi Leonard this summer. They clearly just didn’t want to risk cap space, as evidenced by their words, and not handing out any deals longer than one year in length last summer.
Johnson tried to use a similar reasoning for trading Ivica Zubac for Mike Muscala at the trade deadline, but in this case, it doesn’t really line up. Let’s break down his exchange with “First Take” host Stephen A. Smith of ESPN:
Johnson: Now, Zubac, let’s go to that. Give me some numbers for him at the Clippers... He didn’t even play during the Golden State series.
Smith: He’s 23 years old!
A few notes, before we let Johnson and Smith continue. To be fair, Zubac did only average 9.7 minutes per game during the Clippers’ series against Golden State and did mostly get played off of the floor. However, he also had 18 points and 15 rebounds in the third game of the series. It wasn’t a close game, but still, those are productive minutes for such a young player in the postseason.
Also, to sort of correct Smith, somehow Zubac is still just 22 years old, but that hardly undermines his point. Anyway, let’s continue:
Johnson: Listen now, LeBron James and Lonzo Ball made Zubac better. Why? Pick and roll, rolling for the dunks. Boom. He was going to be a restricted free agent. We knew we was going to use that cap space for a superstar.
Zubac’s cap hold for this summer would have been just over $1.5 million, which is only marginally more than the mandatory cap charge for an empty roster spot. The Lakers also could have simply renounced his rights if they needed the space. Also, Ball and James were both (and are both) still on the team. It wasn’t as if they could not have kept helping Zubac produce in the future, and Zubac almost certainly could have given the Lakers more than Muscala did.
Anyway, let’s let Johnson finish his thought:
Johnson: Now, I had to try and space the floor, so the trade I made I wanted to make sure we could space the floor, and it didn’t work out. Now, Zubac has got a long way to go to be special, but we had to try things. So that wasn’t a trade like we traded a guy to win a championship for the Clippers, but I will say Brook Lopez, I didn’t get it done. I didn’t get it done.
Well, that’s actually admirable accountability from Johnson on a day he didn’t show a lot, and he should be applau... -- oh, hold on, Stephen A. is back with Zubac’s averages:
Smith: By the way, Zubac 5 points, 5.5 rebounds per game (in the playoffs).
Magic: Say it a little louder!
Smith: I said 5 points, 5.5 rebounds in the postseason!
Magic: Thank you, thank you.
That is pretty lame and classless stuff from a legend of Johnson’s stature, or really any former team executive. It’s one thing for him to not feel as though he’s made a mistake or justify a decision, but it’s another to cheer on a TV analyst as they read off underwhelming playoff numbers for a 22-year-old who used to play for him. It’s unbecoming for someone who held the job Johnson held, but was also unsurprising given what he said about D’Angelo Russell on the way out. At least Zubac was able to laugh about it shortly after the comments aired.
— Ivica Zubac (@ivicazubac) May 20, 2019
Make no mistake, he’s not the only one laughing at the Lakers, or Johnson’s tenure in management, and from the antiquated roster-building thoughts to his second instance of kicking a young player on the way out, the appearance also perfectly summed up why Johnson wasn’t a great fit to be a team executive in the first place.
But that wackness aside, later in the show Johnson made it clear that he had seen the error of his roster construction strategy, and would have tried to course correct this summer if he hadn’t quit his job:
“I know we needed more shooting. I didn’t get that done. And so that was my fault. Let me just say this: You learn year to year, and this year in the offseason we would’ve corrected that. Lopez, yes it did hurt us not having a big man who could space the floor and give LeBron more room to operate. I learned from a bad decision.”
Lakers fans will just have to hope the team did too. On all fronts.