Getting LeBron was great, but now Magic must avoid going back to 'Tragic'

It seemed like a fait accompli and the league knew what was up once Magic Johnson and his billion-dollar smile reunited with the Los Angeles Lakers.

The NBA’s biggest brand joined with the only player who competes with Michael Jordan for synonymous association with a franchise, and everyone knew Magic had his sights on LeBron James.

But even though he’s delivered on the game’s best player, the only thing Johnson has been known for since revolves around sloppy statements that should be said coyly or unsaid altogether and league investigations involving the murky world of tampering.

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(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo illustration)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo illustration)

As the Lakers botched or were flat-out played in negotiations to trade for New Orleans Pelicans star Anthony Davis, Johnson was forced to assuage hurt feelings in his team’s locker room as virtually every player of worth not named “James” had his name in the rumor mill up to the trade deadline.

The Lakers president had to come to Philadelphia to smooth things over with his players, although he had to walk the delicate line of refusing to make promises he knows he can’t keep. Johnson said he felt the Pelicans weren’t negotiating in good faith, yet the Lakers were apparently bidding against themselves and the players had to hear their business all through the NBA streets.

Quit making this about thinking these guys are babies because that’s what you’re treating them like,” Johnson said. “They’re professionals. All of them. And this is how this league works. They know it, I know it — that’s how it goes.”

As a player, one of a handful of the league’s best, Johnson was an exception to every rule — then and now. Before his unfortunate HIV diagnosis in 1991, nothing stuck to him. Not his role in getting Lakers coach Paul Westhead fired in 1981 —because it led to Pat Riley and “Showtime.” To a lesser extent, earning the nickname “Tragic” didn’t truly stand after he choked away the 1984 NBA Finals against the Boston Celtics — because he made up for it in spades.

Magic Johnson is starting to be more well known for his mistakes as president of the Lakers. (AP)
Magic Johnson is starting to be more well known for his mistakes as president of the Lakers. (AP)

Heck, he even admitted to conspiring to keep good friend-turned-rival Isiah Thomas off the famed 1992 Dream Team, and nobody seemed to bat an eye.

One could say the smile he’s so well-known for gave him the ability to slide out of any sticky situation, and generally Johnson is loved and respected across the board.

But in his position as the Lakers’ face and voice, his ill-timed statements and wink-winks aren’t earning those passes from the public or the league office. The Lakers have been slapped on the wrist for tampering and will endure another investigation from the NBA, this time for suggesting Philadelphia 76ers star Ben Simmons wants to spend time with Johnson this summer to learn the nuances of playing point guard, a proposal 76ers general manager Elton Brand nixed some time ago.

None of the finable comments appears to come from a malicious place, as Johnson has always expressed admiration for the generations to follow and likely wouldn’t think twice about helping move the game forward. But with the gulf between big-market teams and others being as wide as ever, Johnson’s words will be examined as if tampering didn’t exist until now.

The New York Knicks are eyeing Kevin Durant and the feeling appears mutual, while the Los Angeles Clippers, the Lakers’ co-tenants at Staples Center, are said to be following Kawhi Leonard’s every move — but it’s done with a certain savvy and adherence to the lightly enforced rules surrounding such matters.

The charm and warmth Johnson exudes were likely qualities that helped draw James to Los Angeles, but as much as it is an accomplishment, it only heightens the pressure to make other improvements in short order. Bringing in James at this advanced stage of his career means those alterations must be made at warp speed, but the Lakers are still dealing with mistakes from the recent past.

Selecting Lonzo Ball No. 2 overall in the 2017 draft because of external marketing factors only highlights how much of a mom-and-pop shop the Lakers are. There’s no capitalist billionaire behind the curtains. The Buss family name is the Lakers.

The Lakers are the family business, and taking Ball over, say, De’Aaron Fox or Jayson Tatum or Donovan Mitchell could prove to haunt them if Davis winds up playing on a parquet floor next October.

Having LeBron James means the Lakers are on an accelerated timeline. (AP)
Having LeBron James means the Lakers are on an accelerated timeline. (AP)

Lou Williams, Julius Randle and, to a lesser degree, D’Angelo Russell were sent away to clear salary-cap space and room in the locker room for James. And as much as teams might’ve hated it, a package with a top player from the 2017 draft, Randle and other productive players currently wearing Lakers purple might’ve been too much for the Pelicans to pass up.

A rival GM scoffed at the notion the Lakers could be left out in the end.

“Are you kidding me? [Magic] got LeBron to L.A.,” he told Yahoo Sports while adding he believes Davis will end up with the Lakers. “He’s a closer.”

In Johnson’s world, he’s played his hand best, even if he didn’t have the best hand, and the same goes for the Lakers franchise as a whole. Even if the result didn’t always bear out a championship, when the Lakers wanted a player, they got him.

They wooed Shaquille O’Neal away from contending Orlando Magic in 1996 with a big bag of money and the promise they’d surround him with talent good enough to win with despite having a middling bunch at the time.

Not many knew Kobe Bryant would become Jordan lite, but the Lakers targeted him, traded for him in the draft and titles were soon to follow. Acquiring Pau Gasol from Memphis led to titles, and years later getting Dwight Howard and Steve Nash showed the franchise had plenty of luster — even if it didn’t have the foresight to see the downfall ahead.

But those days were in a different league, and teams won’t just hand over their best players for the sake of keeping the Lakers brand alive. It still means a lot to play on that Staples Center stage and there’s value to it — see Davis and his camp doing everything they could to get him to Los Angeles.

It’s still probable Davis ends up teaming with James and almost all of this will be forgotten, like most blemishes on the Magic Man’s record. But the road getting there could cost a valuable franchise invaluable time that it doesn’t have to waste.

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