Magic Johnson went on ESPN to “share his truth” this week, and it seems like the Lakers will be dealing with the fallout for quite some time.
It wasn’t so much that Johnson’s candor was unexpected, but rather that he chose to lay out his grievances with the organization, Rob Pelinka in particular, without giving Jeanie Buss any notice. This is the second time in the last month that Johnson has chosen to blindside the organization that he claims to love, and whose ownership he says he considers family.
The hope is at this point that Johnson doesn’t have any arrows left in his quiver to fire at the Lakers. In order to ensure that, the front office needs to consider doing something that would have been unthinkable a little while ago: they should cut ties with Magic Johnson.
Let’s consider the extent of the damage that Johnson has inflicted since he resigned as president of basketball operations, most specifically with the “First Take” interview.
He painted the picture of a front office in disarray by outlining the lack of singular decision-maker atop the chain of command. He complained that Tim Harris, an executive from the business side of the Lakers, was being given too much leeway in basketball decisions and also suggested that the younger Buss brothers (Joey and Jesse) were trying to punch above their weight class.
Johnson also spotlighted Rob Pelinka as an untrustworthy executive who betrayed him, belittled Ivica Zubac’s playoff contributions for the LA Clippers, and said that Frank Vogel wasn’t who he would have chosen for head coach on the day that Vogel was set to be introduced for that very job.
Essentially, Johnson added to the narrative around the league that the Lakers are incompetent, no one really knows who is in charge, and Pelinka should not be dealt with. That’s a lot to come back from — however, much of it can be pretty easily dismissed as the workings of a front office who was scrambling under the leadership of an absent president.
That would require throwing Magic under the bus, something he should be pretty familiar with at this point.
The Lakers lack a clear decision-maker? Of course they do. The man they hired as president, who claimed to be willing to give 150% of himself to the job, was never in the office, apparently didn’t even check his email regularly, and then left completely unexpectedly.
Johnson claimed to want to groom a successor given that he only wanted the job for three years, but was unwilling to cede authority to either Pelinka or the Buss brothers. Most successful front offices feature a collaborative approach, which is something that Johnson should have expected given his other time commitments. After rumors spread that Pelinka was running a one-man operation, it actually behooves the Lakers to show off their breadth of decision-makers.
Even Johnson’s supposed victories are easy to reject. Losing Zubac for nothing in order to create cap space doesn’t make any sense when the center’s cap hold is less than $2 million. That’s something a lead executive in charge of basketball operations should probably understand.
The Lakers have even attempted to address the weaknesses that Johnson highlighted since his interview. Pelinka clarified their organizational hierarchy at Vogel’s press conference. Vogel was introduced, giving the basketball product a clear direction and identity. And the Lakers still have max cap space, a core of intriguing young players, the no. 4 pick, and LeBron James to attract free agents during the offseason.
The problem is that Magic made a mockery of this organization, and so long as Jeanie Buss and Pelinka continue to maintain a relationship with him, they are implicitly lending credence to everything he said. The Lakers need to distance themselves from these comments in order to present a more desirable destination for superstars. The reports about James being in contact with max-level free agents is a good step to reverse some of the negative energy created by all this dysfunction.
To be clear, the Lakers don’t need to go out on the offensive against Johnson, but what Pelinka did during Vogel’s introductory press conference is instructive. He deflected the blame to a third party and moved forward with Lakers business. It would be even more impressive if Buss were to do so, given the fact that she has remained in contact with Johnson since his resignation. She needs to rebuke what Johnson said in his First Take appearance, and assert that the Lakers are on the right track and moving forward without him. Whether with a statement, a tweet or an interview, she needs to openly dispute this, or risk giving it more plausibility.
Over the past week, and frankly the past decade, Magic Johnson has made clear that he doesn’t need to be involved with the Lakers in order to blast his opinions about the franchise. But it was easy to dismiss his musings on Twitter when he didn’t have a direct line to the front office, namely Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss.
Even though he isn’t officially employed now, he still holds the ear of prominent people within this franchise. So long as that remains the case, and the Lakers leadership — specifically Jeanie — doesn’t create some distance, he will control the narrative surrounding this team. And we’ve learned this week that Johnson’s words have a substantial reach, and aren’t always in the team’s best interest.
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