At the time of his abrupt resignation, there was a vibe that Magic Johnson might not totally understand the gravity of his actions. Now, months later and with the Los Angeles Lakers potentially on the verge of adding Kawhi Leonard — or another superstar — to a roster that already boasts LeBron James and Anthony Davis, Johnson appears to want back in, but that ship has sailed, because the league office does not want to let it happen.
Buckle up, because this is a wild one.
First, it was reported by Stephen A. Smith of ESPN and Brad Turner of the L.A. Times that Johnson was specifically requested by Leonard’s camp to be a part of the team’s free agency pitch.
Then, while we were all trying to wrap our heads around why the Lakers would want the guy who went on national television to air his grievances against the organization representing them in any way in such a meeting, well, all hell broke loose.
Ramona Shelburne of ESPN chimed in with a bit of a complication:
Because the league has specifically told Lakers and Magic that he can’t be a formal part if the free agency process, the Lakers have made no attempt to engage Johnson formally, according to league sources.— Ramona Shelburne (@ramonashelburne) June 28, 2019
However there has been regular communication between Magic Johnson and the Lakers about how he can be helpful to them informally, as he no longer works for the team, and is free to have any relationships with current players.— Ramona Shelburne (@ramonashelburne) June 28, 2019
As soon as this news broke, there was a clamoring of injustice because the NBA seemed to be holding the Lakers to a higher standard than other teams that have been represented in these kinds of meetings by non-team employees. Bill Oram of The Athletic spelled out the difference:
The essence of the situation is that Magic can’t leave his post with the Lakers in order to talk freely about other players then represent the team in meetings with those same players. Can’t have it both ways.— Bill Oram (@billoram) June 28, 2019
Tania Ganguli of the L.A. Times then further reiterated Oram’s point, and also gave a little hope to those who are desperate for Johnson to play a role in convincing Leonard to come to the Lakers:
NBA’s rules don’t prevent a team from bringing in someone not employed by them for FA meetings. Magic Johnson is a special case because of his history and because he works & communicates with other team’s players. He is, however, free to meet with Kawhi Leonard on his own.— Tania Ganguli (@taniaganguli) June 29, 2019
I find it super interesting that as soon as Johnson stepped away from the Lakers, talks about their specific intentions went fairly dormant in the media — especially by their standards — and as soon as Johnson even showed interest in being involved again, each embarrassing detail about what would normally be a fairly straightforward process was made public.
It’s just weird, and that’s all I’ll say.
Look, just put yourself in Johnson’s shoes. He was an icon who positioned himself as the lone savior of the franchise he brought titles to. He failed miserably and resigned in a way that was embarrassing for both himself and the Lakers. Months after that departure, the guy he called a backstabber succeeded in making the trade Johnson so publicly failed to make.
Now, that trade might lead directly to a third superstar joining the team (one of Johnson’s original promises, by the way) and position the Lakers as favorites next season, the first year after his aforementioned embarrassing departure from the organization, making it look as if him leaving was all that was needed to change to allow the Lakers to reach their full potential — literally the opposite of the narrative he created while assuming power in the first place.
So if you’re Magic Johnson and you see the criticism (it’s damn near impossible to ignore, mind you) and you have friends in the media willing to echo whatever sentiment you offer them, wouldn’t you try to frame yourself as important in the attempt to land a star like Kawhi Leonard?
I’m not saying this is definitely the case, but I also think to disregard it as a possibility is pretty naïve to say the least.
Who knows how this turns out. Maybe Johnson does meet with Leonard’s camp and sells them on how the Lakers can improve Leonard’s earning potential, not only while he is still in the NBA but long after he retires. Johnson can speak to that possibility better than just about anyone else on the planet.
Johnson also has to realize that this is the bed he made. He publicly failed as president of basketball operations and then stepped away so unprofessionally that a chunk of his own fan base has grown tired of his very presence in the news cycle. He can desire his own lifestyle as badly as he wants, and few can blame him.
But he can’t have this both ways. He can’t frame himself as the messiah, leave the team he promised to save, then take credit when they figure things out on their own, no matter how badly he wants to steer the narrative. It would seem the league would agree, or at least doesn’t want to set the precedent that an executive can step down, not be bound by league rules and keep working outside of them, so it seems that’s why we’re at where we’re at today. If Johnson is going to help the Lakers, he’ll have to do it on his own.