After five straight sub-.500 and playoff-free seasons, the Los Angeles Lakers have reached the summer that could change everything. President of basketball operations Magic Johnson made it clear Tuesday that he’s very much on the clock to do so.
It’s time for the Lakers to get into the superstar business again
This has been the plan ever since the plan changed. As soon as Jeanie Buss elevated franchise legend-turned-consultant Johnson and hired former agent Rob Pelinka as the Lakers’ new general manager, taking the reins of L.A.’s basketball operations from Mitch Kupchak and her brother Jim and settling what Buss family business remained in the process, the Lakers were pointing at the summer of 2018 as their opportunity to reinvigorate an iconic glamour franchise that’s fallen on hard times.
That February 2017 front-office “restructuring” came nearly three years after Jim Buss publicly said that if, “in three or four years,” the Lakers weren’t “back on the top — and the definition of top means contending for the Western Conference, contending for a championship,” then he would “step down, because that means I have failed.” Jeanie said on multiple occasions that she intended to hold Jim to his word. She did just that in handing the franchise over to Magic, who said almost immediately that L.A.’s goal was to keep its balance sheet clean enough in the short term to be a major player in free agency in the summer of 2018, when the Lakers had the chance to open up enough salary cap space to land two maximum-salaried veteran free agents who would serve as the foundation of that hoped-for golden future.
Well, here we are … and there was Magic on Tuesday, during the Lakers’ press conference to introduce just-drafted rookies Moe Wagner and Svi Mykhailiuk, establishing just such a timeline for himself:
Magic Johnson reiterated he will not force anything in free agency and makes it very clear he isn’t feeling any pressure as he heads into this vital free agency. pic.twitter.com/h0NkBldSUw
— Ohm Youngmisuk (@NotoriousOHM) June 26, 2018
Just to be clear on the line Magic Johnson drew today:
"It's going to be a two summer thing for the Lakers. This summer and next summer. That’s it. If I can’t deliver I’m going to step down myself. She won’t have to fire me, I’ll step away from it, because I can’t do this job."
— Bill Oram (@billoram) June 26, 2018
“[…] This is [about] two summers,” Johnson said when asked if it will be a failure if the Lakers don’t land a max star like LeBron James or Paul George in free agency next month. “We don’t know what people are going to decide. And we can’t control that so if guys decide not to come here, it’s not a failure, we turn to next summer.
“Next summer, if nobody comes and I’m still sitting here like this, then it’s a failure. But if you judge us on one summer, that’s ridiculous. Then a lot of dudes shouldn’t be in their roles. Because if we’re banking on one summer for the Lakers, we’re in trouble.”
“You have to give us time,” Johnson continued. “… Like I told you before I took the job and when I took the job, it’s going to be a two-summer thing for the Lakers. This summer and next summer. That’s it. If I can’t deliver, I’m going to step down myself. She [team controlling owner Jeanie Buss] won’t have to fire me, I’ll step away from it, because [then] I can’t do this job.”
Magic Johnson just gave himself an extremely big ultimatum
Well, then! Let it never be said that Magic isn’t willing to put responsibility on his own shoulders, or that he doesn’t look for the opportunity to succeed under pressure … even if there doesn’t appear to be anyone else putting it on him:
As for the ultimatum Magic Johnson put on himself today, nobody I talked to with the Lakers knew he was going to do that. Just chalked it up to his “competitiveness.”
— Ramona Shelburne (@ramonashelburne) June 26, 2018
Magic might have just gotten caught up in the moment, but the window he identified is the one we’ve all been expecting the Lakers to try to take advantage of for more than a year. It’s open wide, with the Lakers sitting on nearly $60 million in available salary cap space during a summer in which most of the NBA is cash-strapped after the spending spree of 2016, and in which several of the sport’s best players can hit the unrestricted market. Now we find out whether Magic, Pelinka and the rest of the Lakers’ braintrust can seize the opportunity.
By now, you know the names we’re talking about.
The Lakers plan to shop at the top of the NBA’s free-agent and trade markets
The possibility of LeBron James heading to L.A. began to pick up steam after the 2017 NBA Finals. While the odds were considered long back in December, the young Lakers’ steady improvement over the course of the season made them a more attractive potential destination … especially after swinging a February deal with the Cleveland Cavaliers that both improved James’ odds of making this year’s Finals and cleared out even more salary-cap space to get L.A. closer to facilitating the two-max dream scenario.
Paul George and his representatives have spent much of the last two years doing everything but buying billboards on the 110 to indicate that he’s interested in going to L.A. this summer. The Lakers have signaled that the interest is mutual. (Like, super-duper mutual.)
Just a few days ago, James and George were joined on the Lakers’ shopping list by a third All-World wing: Kawhi Leonard. The former NBA Finals MVP and two-time Defensive Player of the Year capped a season-long saga in which his struggles with a lingering right quadriceps injury evolved into a battle between his “group” of representatives and the Spurs organization over the handling of the injury by suggesting that he no longer wants to play for the San Antonio Spurs … and that, if he had his druthers, he’d like to play in Los Angeles. Hey, that’s where the Lakers play!
This summer or next, Magic has to land a big fish (or two, or three)
After the Leonard news broke, pundits and Lakers fans began trying to construct a scenario in which L.A. landed all three superstar forwards. Such a coup would hand Walton an instant playoff team and, depending on how Johnson and Pelinka rounded out the rest of the roster, possibly a juggernaut capable of standing toe-to-toe with the two superpowers that waged a grueling seven-game war in the Western Conference finals: the Houston Rockets, who won more games than anyone else in the NBA last season, and the Golden State Warriors, who have won three of the last four NBA championships.
There are reasons to pump the brakes on all that, of course. The Spurs don’t seem to want to trade Leonard to the Lakers, or perhaps anywhere in the West, or perhaps anywhere at all. Marc Stein of the New York Times has reported that the odds of George deciding to stay with the Oklahoma City Thunder are better than you’d think. While there might not be that many feasible LeBron landing spots, nobody seems to have any real intel on which one he’ll pick yet.
The Magic-and-Pelinka Lakers could strike out in the star-chasing department, as the Kupchak-and-Buss Lakers have for the last half-decade of summers, and while there’ll likely be more star power in the 2019 free-agent pool — Leonard, Klay Thompson, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler, Al Horford, Kevin Love and Marc Gasol, among others — a lot can change in a year. (Just ask Kawhi and the Spurs.)
This could blow up, spectacularly, and the Lakers could continue their uncomfortably-long-for-them stay in the ranks of NBA teams whose seasons stop mattering well before mid-April. Johnson’s Tuesday comments all but ensured that, if that happens, it’ll be his head on the chopping block.
Magic Johnson is Lakers fans’ reason to believe
But they also exuded confidence that he’ll avoid the blade — that, for the first time in a long time, the exceptional things that we all expect to happen for the Lakers will actually start happening again. They projected faith that, while it might take more than one summer for them to build a new superstar foundation, it won’t take much longer than that for Magic and Pelinka to put the Lakers back in their place among the teams that Really Matter.
“I have complete confidence in that they know what they’re doing with building a roster,” Buss recently told Bill Oram of The Athletic.
And, clearly, so does Magic. More from ESPN’s Youngmisuk:
“Do you know how many Finals I have been in [as a player]? So you think I am worried about this? I have played against Larry Bird in the Finals. I mean, come on man. I have been in nine Finals. I have been in college NCAA championships.”
When told that this is a different job than being the point guard who orchestrated the Lakers’ “Showtime” dynasty, Johnson reminded people of who he is.
“I’m Magic Johnson. I am still the same dude,” he said. “I am not going to change. No pressure on me. I am going to do my job. That’s what I do. I do my job. I’m excited. It’s fun. I am looking forward to it. All right. Let’s go. Let’s keep it going.”
Spoken like a man who either wants to make it seem like he’s got something special in the bag … or who knows for a fact that he does.
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