What Magic Johnson's return might mean for the future of the Lakers

Magic Johnson is coming back to the Lakers. (Getty Images)
Magic Johnson is coming back to the Lakers. (Getty Images)

Six and a half years after selling off his ownership stake in the franchise, and eight months after relinquishing his ceremonial role as team vice president, Magic Johnson is rejoining the Los Angeles Lakers … and that might not be the only change coming soon to the Lakers’ masthead.

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The Lakers announced Thursday afternoon that Johnson will return to the franchise with which he won five NBA championships, three NBA Most Valuable Player trophies and three NBA Finals MVP awards in a Hall of Fame career to assist team president Jeanie Buss “in all areas of basketball and business as an advisor.” From the team’s statement:

“We are thrilled and honored to add Magic’s expertise and abilities, and I look forward to working alongside him.” said Lakers Governor Jeanie Buss. […]

“Everyone knows my love for the Lakers. Over the years, I have considered other management opportunities, however my devotion to the game and Los Angeles make the Lakers my first and only choice. I will do everything in my power to help return the Lakers to their rightful place among the elite teams of the NBA,” said Johnson.

Johnson’s duties will include, but not be limited to, advising ownership on all business and basketball matters, collaborating with coaches, evaluating and mentoring players, assessing future franchise needs, and helping ownership to determine the best path for growth and success. Johnson will spend time at Lakers offices in El Segundo and will report directly to Jeanie Buss.

Johnson will continue to work as an analyst on ESPN’s “NBA Countdown” broadcast, according to Richard Deitsch of Sports Illustrated. So, y’know, don’t worry about that, everyone!

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Johnson’s return to the fold comes two weeks after he met with Jeanie Buss prior to taking in a game between the Lakers and Denver Nuggets. ESPN.com’s Ramona Shelburne reported that “the exact nature of the meeting was not immediately clear,” but noted that “Buss has been soliciting opinions on the direction the franchise should take moving forward” as the Lakers continue to scuffle through life at the bottom of the NBA.

Johnson said such meetings had become frequent over the past few years — “She always wants to ask, ‘What do you see, what do you think, what do you like?’” — and shared some of his opinions on the state of the rebuilding Lakers with Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News:

The smile was unmistakably Magic Johnson and evoked his excitement at watching a young Lakers team grow. Moments later, Johnson shook his head incredulously over the inexperienced roster’s learning curve.

“Fans have to be encouraged, but Lakers fans are tired of losing,” Johnson told Southern California News Group. “We’re trying as Lakers fans to still be patient. But it’s hard. We have to wait some more?” […]

“You see spurts, but now they have to put 48 (minutes) together,” Johnson said. “The problem is we get two good quarters, 2½ and sometimes three. But then we put ourselves behind with one bad quarter. It takes so much energy to get back and it’s just not enough. You have to be (upset).”

It also comes less than a week after the Lakers’ 122-73 decimation at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks, the worst defeat in franchise history — a mark the Lakers have set, re-set and now set again under the leadership of executive vice president of basketball operations Jim Buss, Jeanie’s brother.

The Lakers have struggled mightily in recent years under vice president of basketball operations Jim Buss (left) and general manager Mitch Kupchak. (Getty Images)
The Lakers have struggled mightily in recent years under vice president of basketball operations Jim Buss (left) and general manager Mitch Kupchak. (Getty Images)

Here’s where we remind you that Magic Johnson has made it very clear that he hasn’t been the biggest fan of Jim Buss’ work as a personnel boss during a four-year stretch that has seen the Lakers plummet from the ranks of the NBA’s elite to one of its least successful teams, compiling a record of 82-215 since the start of the 2013-14 season with zero playoff berths, the longest streak of lottery appearances in franchise history.

From January of 2014:

“This is what happens when you make the wrong decisions, two coaching wrong decisions, giving Steve Nash that deal, it’s backfired,” Johnson said during a meeting at The [Los Angeles] Times between [Los Angeles] Dodgers officials and Times writers and editors. Johnson is a part owner of the Dodgers.

“The biggest problem they’re going to have right now … you’ve got to get a guy like Jerry West to be the face of the team. …

“You’ve got to have someone helping Jim. He’s got to quit trying to prove a point to everybody that he can do it on his own, get his ego out of it, and just say, ‘Let me get someone beside me to help achieve the goals I want.'”

From December of 2015:

“I’m going to say it again: I love Jim Buss. He should just be the owner, like his dad was just the owner,” Johnson said. “Let’s go back with facts, so I can back this up with facts: 27 wins a couple years ago, 21 wins last year. Three summers now, we haven’t signed anybody. I am backing this up with facts. We haven’t signed any superstar. We’ve had cap space. We had cap space last summer. We’re going to have more this summer.” […]

“You’ve got to get somebody to help [Buss] out,” said Johnson, an unpaid Lakers vice president. “Just play your role. There’s nothing wrong with being a great owner.

“Just like me — I didn’t try to get involved in [the Dodgers’ hiring] process, because I don’t know anything about the manager [Dave Roberts]. That’s not what I know, so I stay out of the way. I want to sit down there and cheer for my Dodgers. I’m happy with that. That is what I want him to do. Just let somebody else help him to achieve his goal, which is to get the Lakers back to being great again.”

Jim Buss, as you might expect, has not particularly appreciated Magic’s input over the years. From an October 2015 feature by USA TODAY’s Sam Amick:

Jim doesn’t mention the pointed words that have come from Bryant, but it’s clear that he hasn’t forgotten about the other Laker great who has repeatedly called him out: Magic Johnson. From Johnson’s angry tweets about the D’Antoni decision to the television tour eight months ago when he raised serious questions about Buss’ ability as an executive, Johnson has made his feelings known. Buss, who has chosen to avoid discussing the situation with Johnson personally, is clearly bothered by this recurring matter.

“Magic Johnson going nuts on me?” he says with a laugh. “It’s like, ‘Really, dude? My dad [the late Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss] made you a billionaire almost. Really? Where are you coming from?” […]

When asked about Buss’ comment, Johnson issued a statement to USA TODAY Sports in response.

“It’s all about winning, Jim,” Johnson said.

And here’s where we remind you that Jim Buss said in April of 2014 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 I will step down because that means I have failed.” And that Jeanie Buss has said — in no uncertain terms, on multiple occasions — that she intends to hold her brother to that standard.

“My brother assured me that by the summer of 2017 that we would be back in contention,” she said during a December 2015 interview on the Sports Business Radio podcast (as transcribed by Harrison Faigen of Silver Screen and Roll). “‘If I can’t do that then I’m not the right person for the job.’ So he even acknowledged that a change would need to be made.”

Well, the summer of 2017 is just four months away. After a surprisingly strong and compelling start to the season under first-year head coach Luke Walton, the Lakers have gone 7-24 since the start of December, producing the NBA’s fourth-worst offense and second-worst defense during that stretch. High-priced imports Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng have been good soldiers and solid veterans, but they haven’t kept the young Lakers from posting the third-worst record in the NBA; barring a borderline miraculous turn of events after the All-Star break, L.A. will miss the postseason for the fourth straight year.

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In the grand scheme, this is not such a bad thing. Remember, the Lakers traded their 2017 first-round draft pick to the Phoenix Suns in the deal that brought them Steve Nash in the long, long ago of 2012. The Suns later flipped that pick to the Philadelphia 76ers in the three-way 2015 deal that landed Brandon Knight in Phoenix and Michael Carter-Williams in Milwaukee. That pick is protected for the first three selections in the draft, which means that if the Lakers land the first, second or third overall choice in the 2017 draft lottery, they get to make their pick … but if they end up fourth or lower, the pick will go to the Sixers. The Lakers have dodged this lottery bullet in each of the past two seasons, allowing them to select D’Angelo Russell and Brandon Ingram with the No. 2 overall picks in the 2015 and 2016 drafts; if they can’t this summer, they’ll hand Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Dario Saric and company another top-of-the-draft talent with which to grow.

But while losing enough to increase the Lakers’ odds of keeping that pick is the most desirable outcome for the franchise right now, all this losing is getting old, fast, for Lakers fans … including, perhaps, the one who sits at the head of the franchise, as Bill Plaschke recently wrote in the Los Angeles Times:

[Jeanie] Buss basically sits in the stands, in the first row of the first section behind courtside, on the corner of an aisle where she is easily visible and generally accessible. She doesn’t sit with celebrities, she sits with friends. She doesn’t see the game as the ruler of the great Lakers empire, she watches it as a fan.

Her first love is those fans. Her priorities are those fans. Her Twitter feed is even filled with silly notes and photos from those fans.

Right now, Buss knows those fans are going through hell, and here’s guessing she’s gearing up to do something about it.

She did something on Thursday, bringing back a widely beloved figure intimately connected to the franchise’s glory days … who just so happens to have taken a dim view of the achievements of the current personnel administration, which is apparently mere months away from coming up for formal, and perhaps final, review. Nothing’s set in stone, and Magic might not even want to take the reins, but if I were Jim Buss, I don’t think I’d like the latest addition to the writing on the wall.

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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!