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The Los Angeles Lakers, as was the case last season, will have tons of cap space this summer. Unless the odds go against them in this spring’s NBA draft lottery, they will also pick up a young cornerstone high up on the draft board as they did last year. They will also have Kobe Bryant, coming off of his third consecutive season-ending injury, as was the case last year.
This is all by design, as the Lakers essentially punted both 2014-15 and 2015-16, knowing that no star free agent was going to want to ride out Bryant’s last days as an active player and sign with the club. The idea is to start over once Bryant (possibly) retires following his contract’s expiration in July 2016.
Former Laker Magic Johnson doesn’t really understand the whole idea. He thinks Kobe should walk away from his contract if Los Angeles fails to hit big on the free-agent market this summer. From a talk on SiriusXM, as transcribed by ESPN Los Angeles’ Baxter Holmes:
"And I really believe this: [Kobe] should ... say to Jim and them, 'Look, if you don't sign one of these free agents [this offseason], man, I'm just not going to play next year,'" Johnson said.
Yes, because it’s that simple. The Lakers totally should have gone after Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James last summer. Someone was asleep at the wheel on that one!
It is important to note that Kobe Bryant is scheduled to make $25 million next season. If he retires, the Los Angeles Lakers are under no obligation to pay him a single penny of that.
Johnson also thinks that part-owner and basketball operations president Jim Buss is wielding too much influence in the team’s front office, and that he’s getting in the way of general manager Mitch Kupchak’s presumed attempts at greatness:
"If Jim would say, 'OK, Mitch. You run the show,' I think it would be a lot better for the Lakers, too. Mitch Kupchak knows what he's doing. He's great. He's smart. He's hard-working. He's at every practice. I think the fans would feel good [if he ran the team] as well," Johnson said.
Jim Buss probably should not be running a basketball team. Lakers part-owner and business el jefe Jeannie Buss has promised that if her brother doesn’t turn the team around by 2017 (or so) that he’ll follow through on his promise to walk away from the team. That’s probably not going to happen, but the caveat-rich hot air is in place.
To pretend like Mitch Kupchak has been shackled in his attempts to build yet another winner in Los Angeles by Jim Buss, though, is ludicrous.
What were these imaginary moves that Buss got in the way of? What was Mitch Kupchak supposed to do? Nobody wanted to take the Lakers’ money last summer, so he and Buss went all-in on a lost, rebuilding season. Free agents declined to line up alongside Kobe not so much because they see Kobe as some shot-happy chucker (which he most certainly was in the days before he passed Michael Jordan’s career scoring mark) but because they know Kobe is past his prime, and that taking (oftentimes less) money from Los Angeles meant committing to a rebuilding project that wasn’t going to pay off any time soon.
Pairing even a healthy and mindful Kobe Bryant with a star wouldn’t give the Lakers anywhere near a playoff guarantee in a Western Conference that demands that you flirt with 50 wins just to make it to the postseason. You can mock Buss and Kupchak all you want, but their hands would be tied even if Bryant took a Tim Duncan or Dirk Nowitzki-like discount in order to free up even more cap space. The Lakers had cap space last year – LeBron and Carmelo-sized cap space – and those players didn’t want to buy in.
Of course, Kobe didn’t give the Lakers that discount. He happily and rightfully agreed to work as the NBA’s highest paid player this year and next, working for a ridiculous amount of cash even while contributing terrible defense and a shot selection that more often than not puts his beloved Lakers behind the eight ball. There is no guarantee that Bryant working for a discount would have inspired more free agents to come to Los Angeles, but the bigger cap space couldn’t have hurt the team’s chances at surrounding Bryant with a winner.
Magic is tone deaf as always with these sorts of things.
The whole point of throwing all that money at Kobe Bryant was to put on a well-heeled farewell tour. The Lakers knew they weren’t going to attract their next franchise player with Bryant on the roster, they knew Kobe wasn’t up for retiring following his 2013 Achilles tear, and they knew they were probably going to have to take an embarrassing few years with Bryant on the chin while waiting out his active playing days and accruing assets and cap space.
The whole point was to just feature Kobe, and that’s it. And Magic thinks that Kobe should retire once the Lakers fail to secure a boffo free agent this summer? So that the Lakers and their fans get the worst of both worlds? Magic, as is his NBA custom since 1993, is missing the whole point.
Speaking on ESPN’s First Take, the Worst Television Program Ever Created, Johnson then distastefully went on an a detailed telling about how he’s totally not out for Jim Buss’ job (but I’d totally be better at it than Jim Buss, guys):
"He's mad at me because I criticize him," Johnson said of Jim Buss. "Then he's like, 'Magic is trying to get a job with the Lakers. Magic is trying to bring me down.' No, I'm not. I'm telling the truth about the situation and trying to make us better and trying to get us into a winning situation in terms of back to being relevant. So you get mad at me when I tell the truth."
Johnson reiterated that he is close with Buss' sister Jeanie.
"Dr. [Jerry] Buss raised Jeanie and I up together," Johnson said. "When Jeanie went to USC business school, he was bringing us along together. Jim was not part of the Lakers. He never really saw our championship years. Jim was doing his own thing.
"He came back later on, and Dr. Buss knew he wanted the kids to decide later on to run the basketball side because Jeanie was definitely going to run the business side. I like Jim as a person. But at the same time, a great CEO or person who is in a powerful position will surround himself or put together a team to help them achieve their goals and dreams. Jim has not done that."
Only Magic Johnson could put us in a position that demanded that we defend someone like Jim Buss. Congrats, Magic.
The Lakers took a shot that we all applauded in 2012, sending what were assumed to be low-rung draft picks to Phoenix for the rights to pay Steve Nash an approximation of what he’d make on the open market. They dealt a center in Andrew Bynum that would go on to play 26 more games from 2012-2014 for Dwight Howard. That experiment failed when Mike Brown did Mike Brown stuff, Nash’s body fell apart, and when the late Dr. Jerry Buss insisted on hiring Mike D’Antoni (who did a credible job, considering his options). Howard never recovered from back injuries and later left, and Bryant tore his Achilles.
Mindful of the fact that Nash wasn’t ever going to be himself again, and aware of the expectation that no prominent free agent on the 2014 or 2015 market would want to join with a recovering Kobe (who, again, has had two further season-ending injuries in the years since) the Lakers gave Bryant a ton of money just to keep the punters happy. The real rebuilding starts in 2016, and not 2014 or 2015, and Johnson is hitting the Lakers at their low point when he chides them unknowingly from afar.
This is also the guy who cheered D’Antoni’s departure in an incredibly undignified manner after promising that he was done criticizing the coach publicly.
Kobe Bryant emerged from his most recent season-ending injury to make jokes and look forward to 2015-16. Bryant could have been understandably depressed about basketball being taken away from him yet again, but instead he’s taking his absence in stride.
The guy doesn’t want to limp off the court one last time, and the legend certainly doesn’t want to turn down $25 million just because he’ll have to play with a woeful supporting cast again. Kobe, after all these years, minutes, and injuries, is part of that “woeful supporting cast,” and this is why no superstar free agents are lining up to play alongside him. Free agents weren’t exactly stepping over themselves to play in Washington with Michael Jordan, either.
How everyone but Magic Johnson understands this is mind-boggling. Either he’s that daft, or he’s appearing willfully ignorant so as to pump up his own candidacy as a potential future Laker executive.
Whatever the impetus, Magic Johnson comes off looking terribly. Again.
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