When Magic Johnson joined the Lakers as president of basketball operations in 2017, he was upfront about where he felt like he would need to learn in the position after never being a lead decision-maker before. The team brought in Rob Pelinka to help with day-to-day salary cap minutae alongside him as general manager, and the two of them even went to CBA school with NBA commissioner Adam Silver to help them understand the league’s new collective bargaining agreement better.
Well, it would seem that those lessons didn’t totally take for the Magic Man, because in his rush to be the first to show up at Rob “His Biggest Hater” Pelinka’s funeral to make sure he was really dead, he blasted Pelinka for not doing a few factually impossible — or, at best, improbable — things last summer as he jumped to the front of the line to bury his former office foe following a disastrous Lakers season.
First, Johnson went on ESPN’s “Get Up,” where he harangued Pelinka and the team he quit on with zero warning before the last game of the season in 2019 for choosing Russell Westbrook over DeMar DeRozan, in and of itself a semi-justified criticism:
“DeRozan wanted to play for the Lakers, and when I got the call from his agent, I called the Lakers and said ‘hey, he wants to come home,’ and DeRozan could have been a Laker instead of a Bull. We could have made that deal. But when Russell (Westbrook) and LeBron and them start talking, that’s when they nixed that deal and went with Westbrook and he became a Laker instead of DeRozan.”
.@MagicJohnson says the Lakers could’ve had DeRozan, Hield and Caruso instead of Westbrook— Get Up (@GetUpESPN) April 4, 2022
"If you sign DeRozan, you only trade Kuzma for Buddy Hield, we would be playing in the Western Conference championship this year with those two guys." pic.twitter.com/hZ7DdPhWu1
Again, that is a totally valid choice to criticize the front office for, especially in hindsight, considering that DeRozan has been a God of clutch situations this year while leading the Bulls to the playoffs, and Westbrook has been mostly disastrous outside of a few scattered games while the Lakers stand on the precipice of missing the play-in game.
I would argue that, at the time, that was less of a clear, easy decision, but I digress, because where Magic’s critiques diverge from “basketball disagreement” to “active misinformation designed to rile up fan ire for a former co-worker he hates” comes in the next part of his criticism of Pelinka, which came on ESPN Radio:
Let’s break it down:
“I no-look (passed)! I said ‘Hey, talk to Aaron (Goodwin, DeMar’s agent), you guys work that out, I’m out of it now.’ And it didn’t happen. But they were negotiating. And then here comes this Westbrook thing out of nowhere.”
Again, totally fair for Magic to criticize the Lakers picking the Westbrook trade. It’s really easy given how poorly the whole experiment has gone, especially in hindsight. Even if it’s not what Magic was saying at the time of the move.
Laker Nation, the blockbuster trade that’s bringing Russell Westbrook to the @Lakers is VERY exciting and will definitely make the Lakers a championship contender next season!— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) July 30, 2021
But anyway, where Magic’s critiques truly fly off the rails is when he (incorrectly) asserts that the Lakers could have done both the Buddy Hield trade and the DeMar DeRozan move, and could have kept Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Alex Caruso as a result.
That’s just... like wildly, wildly wrong, and makes it seem unlikely that he actually learned the entire CBA in just one day with Adam Silver (emphasis mine):
“You put yourself in a position not just this season, but you put yourself for next season and the season after, because that’s one thing about those two guys (Hield and DeRozan) are young guys, and we needed to bring some young guys who will keep LeBron fresh, who will keep AD fresh, and then if somebody is hurt you know, you’re seeing it right now with DeRozan, he can go off for 40 points. He’s doing it with the Bulls.”
Russell Westbrook is 33. DeMar DeRozan is 32. Buddy Hield is 29. And, again, it would have been impossible for the Lakers to get both, and keep the guys Magic is saying they could have kept (again, emphasis mine):
“So that’s what really hurt the Lakers, not making those two moves. And guess what... we get to keep Caruso! We get to keep KCP. Those were our best two on-ball defenders. Them guys lock up people. And I was on with Stephen A., I said ‘man, they can’t let Caruso go.’ And what happened. They let him go. He was unselfish. Doesn’t care about shots. He was top 10 in steals, deflections... That Caruso? He makes a difference. And taking charges. That turns a team around. That puts you in a position to be playing winning basketball.
“But we don’t have those guys. Nah. We brought in all these offensive dudes. So you know how that goes, man. If they’re not shooting well, they can’t give you anything else!”
Again, tucked away in here are some legit critiques. Maybe the Lakers shouldn’t have went so all-in on offense after defense won them a title.
But those very real points are undermined by factual inaccuracies. The Lakers, quite literally, could not have traded for both DeRozan and Hield while also keeping Caruso and Caldwell-Pope. For one thing, Kyle Kuzma’s inclusion would have been necessary in both trade proposals both to make salaries work and to give the Kings and Spurs a player to entice them to deal. Because the Lakers did not have a clone of Kyle Kuzma sitting around making the same salary, they could not have done both.
But let’s allow for the possibility that the Spurs and Kings were just basically going to give those players away out of the simple desire to do the Lakers a favor. After all, we all know how much the Kings and Gregg Popovich love it when the Lakers are good.
Even then, sign-and-trading for DeRozan would have hard-capped the Lakers, meaning they could not go over the so-called “apron” to re-sign Caruso, even using Bird rights. They would not have cap exceptions. They would not have had the salary to trade for Hield, too. Again, it’s fair to say the Lakers should have chosen DeRozan over Westbrook from a talent perspective, but doing so would have come with very real roster limitations for a team as top-heavy as this one was, and they certainly couldn’t have kept Caruso and Caldwell-Pope (the latter of whom was their main tradeable contract other than Kuzma) in those scenarios.
Or, even if the Spurs wanted Kuzma badly enough in the trade that they were willing to take him and Montrezl Harrell, and DeRozan took a small pay cut — something he was reportedly willing to do — the Lakers could have kept Caldwell-Pope, but still would have been hard capped without the necessary salary to trade for Hield.
So that means no keeping Caruso. No keeping Talen Horton-Tucker. No mid-level exceptions. And less than $30 million to fill out a roster around four players (LeBron, AD, KCP and DeRozan). Given how much the Lakers cheaped out and that mid-level signing Kendrick Nunn didn’t play this year, maybe that would have been a more palatable alternative. But while that’s easy to say in hindsight, it was certainly not a sure thing at the time. No one, except maybe the Bulls, predicted this level of season from DeRozan.
So there are fair things to condemn Rob Pelinka and this front office and ownership group for. Going all-in on Westbrook while essentially hard-capping themselves with their own cheapness. Keeping Horton-Tucker over Caruso in a self-imposed, financial choice that was not necessary under the CBA and indefensible from the moment it was done. Building a team that relied on a 36-year-old Trevor Ariza to play its chosen identity. Deciding that 6’4-ish combo guards — Westbrook, Horton-Tucker, Malik Monk, Kendrick Nunn, etc. — were the new Moneyball inefficiency in the NBA and that they needed to construct half their rotation around short players people forget were a BUCKET. Keeping Frank Vogel after it was clear the team gave up on him at midseason. Not making any moves at the trade deadline.
But what we don’t need to do is resort to fantasy to blast them. There are plenty of actual mistakes that can be pointed to without making up untrue and impossible things to critique them for. That’s easy to do when only pretending to be a Lakers executive on television, though, and as we saw all saw when Magic stepped down from the hard job so he could tweet more and do more interviews, maybe the easy critiques are all he cares about, anyway.