Editor’s Note: This week is “What If?” week at SB Nation, so we’ll be taking a look at various hypothetical scenarios involving the Lakers. We begin with the time there were rumors and speculation that a post-retirement Magic Johnson might try to force the Lakers to trade him to the New York Knicks for his NBA comeback.
Magic Johnson, even in spite of his conflicting tenure as the man in charge of the front office, will always be remembered as Lakers royalty. Leading the team to five titles and helping turn the NBA into a global sport through the sheer force of his personality, memorable rivalry with Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics, and possessing an unforgettably joyful and dynamic playing style ensured that.
But would Johnson be remembered in the same way by Lakers fans if he had come out of retirement to force a trade to the New York Knicks rather than re-joining the Lakers in 1996?
I get it. That sounds blasphemous. As much as we like to do jersey swaps here, the thought of Magic in any jersey that isn’t a Lakers one just seems... wrong. It would be like seeing a picture of one of your parents with one of their exes; something you’d try to scrub from your brain so it didn’t break through the sheer force of the cognitive dissonance.
Still, according to an interview with Johnson himself during the time of his one-season comeback that we’ve all collectively agreed to never acknowledge, it really could have happened (as dug up by Mike Vorkunov of The Athletic):
“I wanted it to be (with the Knicks), but we couldn’t work it out,” Magic Johnson told the New York Daily News in early February 1996. “It was a little bit more than just talk. We had talked about it, what would it take, the whole thing and the Lakers said no. And that was the bottom line.”
Now, before we get too far into this, it’s worth noting that Johnson’s agent at the time, Lon Rosen, offered about as firm of a denial of this as possible when Vorkunov called him in that same story:
“He did not try to arrange a trade,” Rosen said when he stopped laughing. “That did not happen. Something else happened but more of a friendship thing between Pat and Earvin and a driver hearing them talk. How’s that? It was never going to happen.”
Well, that certainly begs a follow-up question.
“There was no talk of setting up a trade between the Knicks and the Lakers,” he continued. “Trust me, I was the one that was involved deep in the middle of anything that would have happened and I know what happened. There was nothing. It was a made-up story back then.”
Despite those strong words, Johnson even gave another interview while he was with the Dream Team and there were rumors of him making an NBA comeback in which he said “it would be nice to go to the Knicks” and expressed doubts about the Lakers’ direction at the time. So there appear to be at least some legs to this as a possibility.
But we’re also not here just to discuss the veracity of this. Plausibility aside (and it does seem as though it was at least somewhat plausibly being talked about, at the bare minimum), how would this have altered the course of Lakers and NBA history?
How it might have happened
For the purposes of this discussion, let’s say Johnson was not able to come back until the season he ultimately returned with the Lakers, the 1995-96 campaign. Even if this would mean he missed a reunion with his old coach, Pat Riley, it seemingly was something that was somewhat possible at the time, given that in Vorkunov’s story, he cites an article in which Johnson was talking to Patrick Ewing about teaming up the next season (Johnson retired instead). The Knicks went 47-35 that year, losing in the Eastern Conference semifinals to the Chicago Bulls (who ultimately won the title in the first full season of Michael Jordan’s own un-retirement tour), while the Lakers went 53-29 and lost to the Houston Rockets in the first round.
How much would Johnson switching sides have changed things? It’s impossible to say for sure, because it seems whatever discussions did happen never advanced to the point where what the Knicks would have had to give up for Johnson in a trade leaked out to the media. They likely would have had to give up assets, but with the Lakers being in a pseudo rebuild at the time (they were obviously good that year, but we all know now that they were mostly just trying to remain competitive and not take on salary until Shaquille O’Neal’s free agency the following summer), who knows if they would have mostly just taken draft picks or other future assets from the Knicks as they tried to keep their books clean of long-term money.
But even if that were the case, and the Knicks hadn’t had to give up any current contributors for Johnson, it’s hard to imagine he would have been enough to change their fortunes a ton that year, given that they did lose 4-1 to the Bulls that season. Johnson probably would have made that series more competitive and given the Knicks another threat, to be sure, but by that point he also wasn’t the revolutionary point guard we all remember. He had transitioned to being a power forward, albeit a sweet-passing one. That would mean Johnson was taking minutes from Charles Oakley, and while that likely would have been an overall upgrade for the Knicks and given them more depth as a result, it also would have hurt their tenacious defense and rebounding, which were a big part of their strengths.
Still, Johnson — even the limited, post-retirement version — surely would have improved the Knicks’ 21st-ranked offense (especially while getting to play off Ewing in a smaller role), and maybe their fourth-ranked defense wouldn’t have seen too much slippage. Maybe the Knicks could have jumped from the fifth seed up a couple slots and avoided seeing the Bulls until the Eastern Conference Finals, were they able to make it that far. But while that would have changed Knicks history, it’s hard to imagine they wouldn’t have still eventually fallen to the Bulls, meaning that it would remain mostly an NBA historical footnote.
The more important question, from the perspective of a Lakers site like this one, is whether or not all this would have changed Johnson’s post-career trajectory as it pertains to the purple and gold. Johnson had owned a stake in the Lakers since 1994, a stake he would have had to sell had he been moved to the Knicks. Would he have been welcomed back into the ownership group after forcing a trade? Would he have picked up the ceremonial president title he held even after selling his stake in the team in 2011 (until it was stripped in 2016 due to tweets that would have constituted tampering)? And perhaps most importantly, would he have eventually been brought back by Jeanie Buss to run the franchise in 2017?
What might have changed if Magic had never been put in charge?
Given that Johnson stepped down to tweet more just over two years after he was hired, him never becoming president of basketball operations might not seem to be that meaningful in the grand scheme of things, but a lot happened in those two years. First of all, would Buss have even ousted her brother, Jim Buss, and Mitch Kupchak in the middle of the season in the first place had Johnson not been an option? Would she have solely hired Rob Pelinka to run things, as is the case right now, or would he have been brought in under a different boss if Johnson’s relationship with the Lakers had fractured during the Knicks ordeal? Who would be running the Lakers today, if that were the case? Would the team still be a contender this year? How different would this roster look?
And the big question many have debated over the last year or so: If Johnson wasn’t brought in, would LeBron James have still come? This author personally thinks so, but James has said in the past that his talks with Johnson before making that decision were important. We’ll never know for sure, but if he hadn’t joined, there would be huge ripple effects in how the Lakers look now.
But look, maybe things play out almost exactly the same if Johnson had went to the Knicks, even if there was short-term acrimony at him forcing his way out. But maybe things wouldn’t have even been contentious. After all, Johnson was retired at that point, so it’s not quite the same as a normal trade demand, and maybe the Lakers — who have always prided themselves to take care of their legends — would have just dealt him without much issue and given him what he wanted. He had won five titles for them, after all, and he has long been a close friend to Jeanie Buss and was like a son to her legendary father and prior governor of the team, Jerry Buss. One season with the Knicks might not have meaningfully changed any of that, or affected history in any significant way.
Still, it’s kind of crazy to think that Johnson heading anywhere else might have even been a possibility at some point. Even as turbulent as the last several years were with him in charge as an executive, it’s almost impossible to picture him associated with any other NBA team.
And given how well the Lakers have finally rebuilt around James with Johnson around, regardless of how much credit one wants to give him for James’ acquisition, it’s probably safe to guess that most Lakers fans wouldn’t want to change the past. Not only so they don’t have to see Johnson in another jersey, but just because the current timeline (at least from a Lakers perspective, if not a world one) has finally started to head in the right direction again. For better or worse, Johnson was a part of that, and anything that even has a slight chance to change the way this team is constructed right now for the worse is probably not something anyone reading this blog wants to acknowledge at this point.
Still, given that basketball is on hold right now, it is interesting to wonder “What if?”
What do you think would have happened had this come to pass? Let us know in the comments below, or feel free to talk about your favorite Lakers “What If” scenario. For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.