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Magic Johnson’s first turn as whatever the heck you think he is with the Los Angeles Lakers is going exactly as you’d expect. Big proclamations, big stars, appearances on television shows that people Magic’s age (and people that tweet like Magic) tend to watch, and not a whole heck of a lot by way of specifics.
Beyond, apparently, a “three to five”-year window, that seems like a heck of a lot of time for a fan base that will celebrate the seventh anniversary of their last NBA title in June.
The first move, if Magic Johnson is calling the shots in his new role as “advisor” to the team? Call Kobe Bryant. Because, like Magic and unlike current president of basketball operations Jim Buss, Kobe Bryant was very good at basketball. From a talk on ESPN’s First Take, a show you missed on Tuesday morning because you have a job:
“First call I make if I’m in charge? Kobe Bryant,” Johnson said on ESPN’s First Take. “Because Kobe understands winning. He understands, also, these players. I would call: ‘What role you want? … If you’ve got a day, just give me that day.’
“I’ll take that. Whatever time he has, I want him to come and be a part of it.”
This is what you’re supposed to say, and these are the Showtime promises that you’re supposed to make. Especially when speaking directly to the sort of less-enlightened crowd that First Take typically reels in on a weekday morning.
If the Lakers had hired an analytics wizard whose name you’d never heard of outside of a few tweets and Sloan Conference listings, that analytics wizard would still be charged with fawning over Kobe Bryant in his first round of press meetings. If Jerry West weren’t currently under contract with the Golden State Warriors, his name would be out there as well. The same works for Shaquille O’Neal, otherwise bothered by his small ownership stake in the Sacramento Kings.
The problem here is that, with Magic Johnson and Los Angeles Lakers, you actually believe that Magic and the Lakers would follow through with these sorts of moonshots.
Remember how you weren’t surprised at all when Isiah Thomas traded to add Steve Francis to a Knicks team already featuring Stephon Marbury and Jalen Rose, as coached by Larry Brown? How you couldn’t be knocked over by a flying mallet after the Chicago Bulls added Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo? Same ideal.
What’s a little more frightening, and (in a bit of good news for Lakers fans) altogether less accurate is Magic’s insistence that the team might need in upwards of a half-decade to sort everything all out. From Johnson’s appearance on CBS This Morning on Monday, as relayed by Mark Medina at the Los Angeles Daily News:
“It’s going to take three to five years to get them back rolling again,” Johnson said in an interview on CBS This Morning that aired on Monday morning.
“If we’re patient and we develop our own players, in today’s NBA it’s different than when I played. you have to develop your own players because free agent movement is not like it used to be. You have to make sure you hit a home run with the players you do draft and keep the players you have on your roster.”
Magic absolutely isn’t wrong about the draft approach, and that young talent on cheap contracts, acquired for no cost outside of a lost season spent out of the playoffs, are worth its weight in gold. No longer are championship teams created with wads of free agent cash and midnight meetings on July 1. At worst, some holdover star has to act as an incumbent draw, and the Lakers do not have that star yet.
Five of the seven best players in the last two Cleveland/Golden State NBA Finals matchups were drafted by their own teams, with the only two additions (trade acquisition Kevin Love for Cleveland, free agent Kevin Durant for Golden State) only coming on board because the franchises have drafted so well.
Of course, Cleveland did its damage with two current No. 1 overall picks (LeBron James, Kyrie Irving) and two other No. 1 overall picks (Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett) that turned into transaction gold with Love. The Lakers haven’t had a No. 1 overall pick since 1982, when it housed Cleveland in a deal that landed Los Angeles (for Don Ford and Chad Kinch) the eventual top overall draft selection, which turned into James Worthy.
Since its 2010 title, the Lakers have missed the playoffs three times and are well on its way (6 1/2 games out of the final spot in the West with 36 to play) to missing the postseason for the fourth consecutive year. Those misses have resulted D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, and current rookie (and now youngest active player in the NBA) Brandon Ingram.
Fine talents, we recognize, but none of the three even looks like a surefire All-Star in waiting just yet. Worse, the Lakers are set to give up its pick in this year’s draft to Philadelphia (due to 2012’s Steve Nash deal) if their pick falls out of the top three. Los Angeles, entering Tuesday night, is a game and a half “ahead” of Orlando and working with the third-worst record in the NBA.
That’s good news in another bad year, but also recall that we’re not only working within the same time frame that Jim Buss gave himself to turn the Lakers all the way around, but with the same front office that once needlessly (the deal was in 2012, not 1999 … and who still does this?) sent semi-protected draft picks to Phoenix (who sent them to Philadelphia) just to deal for Nash.
Steve Nash’s disappointing, pre-retirement play as a Laker isn’t the point. General manager Mitch Kupchak acquired him while working with a set of rules that even predated Phil Jackson’s time with the Lakers. Kupchak did not need to send draft picks to another team in order to sign the free agent; because despite his brief and understandable waffling at age 38, Steve Nash was not going to pass on the familial priorities that pointed him toward sticking with a West Coast team in the first place, ahead of other free agent suitors (most notably, in 2012, the Toronto Raptors).
This works right in line with the report from Ramona Shelburne that suggests that Mitch Kupchak is a bit behind the times when it comes to the idea behind team-building. And that the confluence of free agent money and Los Angeles Lakers bluster is enough to secure a boffo star in the moments just past the initiation of the official free agent period just past midnight on July 1. As if he’s going after Antonio Davis or Derek Anderson on the free agent market, and not Kevin Durant and, potentially, Russell Westbrook.
Kobe Bryant and Magic Johnson, two men who are rather set in the ways of their respective eras, wouldn’t seem like the types to break that moldy habit. The Unnamed Upstart Math Kid probably would be, all full of gusto and NBA-legal chats with player representatives both official and unofficial, but this isn’t how the family-run, star-obsessed Lakers run things.
Which is fine, when the center is Shaquille O’Neal, and not Dwight Howard. Or when the rookie teenager is Kobe, and not Brandon Ingram. That “confluence of free agent money and Los Angeles Lakers bluster” worked in 1996, but it has been less successful over the last few years.
It wasn’t even working when Kupchak was charged with building depth around the Shaq and Kobe Laker teams during the championship years. Veterans should have been lining up around the block for the free ring, but Mitch struck out repeatedly with both aging big names (Isaiah Rider, Mitch Richmond; with A.C. Green, Ron Harper and Horace Grant playing way over their heads) and the sort of successful and lasting role players that former Phil Jackson boss Jerry Krause had no trouble finding for minimum salaries in Chicago.
However, Magic Johnson loves Mitch Kupchak, his former teammate. And the Lakers love Magic enough to not only look to him to rescue the slow-building re-building project, but to tolerate him bounding about your television dial, saying very Magic Johnson-styled things.
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