When Magic Johnson appeared on ESPN’s “SportsCenter” NBA Finals special to deny the allegations leveled at him in the network’s story extensively detailing all of his former organization’s issues over the past year, he was also asked if he would have done anything differently during his time with the Lakers.
His answer was not entirely surprising:
“I would have hired my own people from the beginning. The one thing I didn’t get to do was hire everybody that I wanted. Rob and I got put together. I inherited Luke Walton. So I didn’t get to hire my own people. Then you can judge me. You can judge me by trades I made. You can judge me by ‘I didn’t have enough shooters.’
“Did I do some things wrong? Of course. And I admitted those things. I’m not a guy whose going to run from the truth. I’m gonna tell you the truth, and you can talk bad about me if I did something wrong. I don’t mind that. Whether it’s on ESPN, or other shows, say that Magic made mistakes. Because I learn from my mistakes.”
To Johnson’s credit, in spite of deflecting blame for literally everything else he’s been accused of, he has actually admitted that he made mistakes with the Lakers’ roster-building strategy around LeBron James last summer, even if he also tried to defend several of his decisions — including letting Julius Randle walk for nothing and trading Ivica Zubac for Mike Muscala — in the process. He also said that he would’ve changed that strategy this summer, so that’s one mistake he learned from, sort of.
With that noted, Johnson saying that the only thing he’d change from his time with the team would be replacing Walton and Pelinka sooner is sort of asinine, because while (clearly) neither was blameless for the team’s issues over the last calendar year, they were far from the only problem. But instead of addressing the factors within his control that led the Lakers to fail, Johnson channeled his inner War Machine from “Avengers: Endgame,” suggesting the plan of going back in time to kill Baby Thanos (Walton and Pelinka) rather than just trying to fix things with his own actions (by assembling the Infinity Stones, which in this case are just players that know how to shoot).
Johnson can say he learned from those mistakes now, but to imply that not having Walton or Pelinka would have fixed it isn’t really intellectually honest. That’s without mentioning that he was their boss, and at least in theory should have been able to overrule them or force the issue if he felt so passionately. And if he didn’t have that power, he should have walked away sooner, because that’s what a competent organization hires a president of basketball operations to do.
But Johnson wasn’t going to go out of his way to admit to other mistakes while with the team, as he ended his remarks on ESPN by continuing his full-throated denial of the network’s account of what went wrong with the Lakers this year:
“I’m also going to tell you what I didn’t do. I’ve never gotten called from Starbucks, from Sony when I had the deal with Magic Johnson theaters, I can keep going. All the partnerships I had. The Dodgers, and Guggenheim. Nobody has ever called me and said ‘Magic has mistreated an employee.’ Ever.
“And that will never happen. I love coming in, even here. I still know all the people working here... That’s who I am. So it’s okay if you wanna try to lie on Magic. Go ahead. But I know the truth, Jeanie knows the truth, because if I had disrespected somebody, she would have called me in her office, and that never happened. HR would’ve called me. It never happened. Two years. Never.”
To say that being called in by human resources is the only way to tell if improprieties have occurred when uneven power dynamics stop people from reporting things in many cases isn’t really a convincing denial, but that’s what Johnson is sticking with for now. At least his weekly ESPN appearances seem to be over after this week, so he can go back to pointing the finger for everything that went wrong while he was in charge of the Lakers at everyone else working for him privately, instead of on national television.