In a vacuum, with hindsight being 20/20, it’s kind of hard to call Magic Johnson leaving the Lakers a bad thing — even if he did it without telling his close friend and Lakers team governor Jeanie Buss first.
The Lakers had to deal with the perception of dysfunction in the wake of Johnson’s departure, sure, and some truly bizarre rumors to boot, but in that time they’ve also made a ton of progress as a franchise. They completed their long-rumored trade for Anthony Davis, hired the perfect coach for their team in Frank Vogel — even if he wasn’t their (or Johnson’s) first choice — and have clinched their first playoff berth in seven years (if the season ever resumes).
Still, life doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and Buss was extremely close to Johnson. During an appearance on the “Daddy Issues with Joe Buck and Oliver Hudson” podcast, she made it sound like his departure helped contribute to making work feel quite a bit lonelier:
“To lose my dad, to lose Kobe and to have Magic leave his job as president — even though Magic and I still see each other and communicate — working with Magic every day was really such a pleasure for me. I really enjoyed it, and I was sad that it wasn’t something that was making him happy, having to work every day in a job that is a tough job.
“(My dad, Kobe, Magic and David Stern) were all people that had such influence on me and that I could always count on to be there when I needed help, and I’ve lost a lot and it’s hard. But Magic got us to where we are today. He got LeBron James to say that the Lakers are back, to believe in the organization, that we were going in the right direction, and I cannot thank Magic more for coming and helping me at the most difficult time in the professional, business side of the operation.”
There had previously been rumors that Johnson and Buss were staying in touch regularly, but this is — in my recollection — the first time she’s explicitly confirmed that.
The other part of her statement that stands out is crediting Johnson for James’ signing, as well as turning the culture of the Lakers around. It’s an interesting window into how Buss perceives things, or at the very least how she wants us to perceive them. While Rob Pelinka and the current front office (as well as James and Anthony Davis) deserve plenty of credit for building this team — and likely get it — it’s also notable that Buss is making sure to credit Johnson as well.
A bit later, she expounded on other ways she felt Johnson contributed to the Lakers’ current success:
“Using the word culture didn’t have clarity to me until Magic came. It’s like everybody knew ‘okay, the hammer is coming down, we’re serious, we’re about winning, we’re going to get back to winning,’ and how not only from the basketball side, but from every side of the organization, everybody sat up a little bit... It’s like ‘we’re here to do something, now this is what we’re committed to.’
“And he set us off on that path, and now I’ve really seen how the culture has come around in terms of bringing in somebody like LeBron and the players that want to come and play with somebody like LeBron, and the coaches that we have, and the coaching staff and what they’re all about, and what they’re trying to accomplish.
“So yes, I think we were trying to change the culture, it took time to implement, but now people know who we are, they know the kind of basketball team that we want to be, the type of players that we’re going to bring in, and now it kind of all feeds on itself. We’ve got the pieces, and now the pieces can grow bigger.”
Now, this is where we should not that not all the culture changes — or threats of “the hammer coming down” — were regarded as positives by all members of the organization. In an ESPN story after he quit, Johnson was extensively accused of “bullying” subordinates, among other unpleasant qualities (he denied the allegations). Positive culture change is good, but a little less worth applauding if it’s through the types of toxic means outlined in that story.
But to be fair as fair as possible to Buss, it’s probably worth noting that Johnson’s charisma and status as a Lakers legend were also likely part of leading some to work harder than they would have otherwise, although it’s hard to believe either effect would persist this long after his resignation.
Johnson’s biggest and most tangible contribution here is still likely the acquisition of James, then. It seems incredibly possible that James would have come to the Lakers anyway, but we don’t know for sure, and it was Johnson that James insisted on meeting with, alone, the night before he made his decision to take his talents to South Bay. That’s worth noting in any evaluation of the situation.
And if we are going to give Johnson the lion’s share of the credit for James seeing the Lakers as a viable destination — James’ entertainment dreams make that proposition somewhat dubious, but let’s allow it — then nearly everything that’s happened since then is somewhat of a credit to him, too. Pelinka has done a good enough job building this team, but even he freely admits that he consulted a ton with James and Davis during free agency, and Davis would likely not be here were it not for a desire to play with James. If Johnson is the reason the latter is here, then his impact on the team really still is being felt.
All that noted, however, it’s still hard to argue that the Lakers aren’t better off in a vacuum with Johnson gone. The team he constructed last year failed to make the playoffs, the leaks that have disappeared since he stepped down basically submarined any chemistry that team did have (as did his constant undermining of Luke Walton both publicly and anonymously). He gave away Ivica Zubac for Mike Muscala. The list of transgressions, even if just limiting them to basketball moves, is long. Maybe he was necessary to get the Lakers over the finish line with James and start these other dominoes falling, but he served his purpose, and even if Buss misses working with him, the organization certainly seems to have gone up another level since his departure.