Here comes Magic Johnson, the Hall of Fame guard with the 1,000-watt smile. Lakers vice president Jeanie Buss celebrated her civil war win over her brother, Jim, by elevating Johnson, an adviser for all of three weeks, to president of basketball operations. Gone was general manager Mitch Kupchak, ousted from his executive vice-president role was Jim Buss, and in comes Johnson, a legendary player, a successful businessman … and when it comes to being a basketball executive, a total novice.
That’s the thing: When the dust settles and all the friendly interviews are complete, the Lakers will be spearheaded by a top exec with no idea how to do the job for which he was hired. Harsh? Yes. Accurate? Absolutely. For all of Magic Johnson’s accomplishments, successfully running an NBA team — or even being a part of running one — is not one of them.
And that’s OK — if Johnson understands his limitations. First: Johnson is not a general manager. He needs a staff that knows the league and has relationships with key people in it. Rob Pelinka, the Lakers’ new GM, is a good start. Pelinka is a player agent, and there is a history of ex-agents, most notably Golden State GM Bob Myers, having success. Assistant GM Ryan West, son of Jerry West, is another important piece. Over the next few months Johnson must flesh out the Lakers’ front office with experienced, skilled people.
And he needs to empower them. Pelinka is not dumping his client list to be a glorified assistant. Nor should he. He has nearly two decades of NBA experience. He represented Kobe Bryant — and here is where we pause to note the irony that the man who negotiated the salary cap-killing contract that help put the Lakers in this current hole was hired to help dig them out of it — and has pieced together hundreds of player contracts.
He knows what he is doing. For now, Magic does not.
There’s more. Johnson needs to scout. A lot. It’s not enough for a top executive to periodically pop on the Pac-12 Network or sit through the NCAA tournament. He needs to hit the road. He needs to observe Louisville’s practices. He needs to be at Gonzaga’s games. He needs to forge relationships with Bill Self, Scott Drew and Sean Miller. Other execs do it. Oklahoma City’s Sam Presti is there. Toronto’s Masai Ujiri is everywhere. Even Miami’s Pat Riley — as inconspicuous at college games as a Volkswagen in a Ferrari lot — is regularly on campus.
Come to think of it, why didn’t the Lakers hire one of them? Star power in today’s NBA gets you nowhere. Johnson can’t divine who will be a great player just because he was one. And marquee free agents won’t sign with L.A. because Magic told them to. The marketing power that comes with being a Laker has diminished. Who is the biggest star in the NBA? LeBron James — in Cleveland. Who was right behind James in off-court earnings last season? Kevin Durant — in Oklahoma City. L.A. offers great weather. Fame? You can get that anywhere.
So why not make a run at a proven commodity? Unclear. The Knicks didn’t. James Dolan had $12 million per year to spend on a team president. He hired the NBA’s best coach. The Lakers had millions to spend, too. They hired one of the league’s greatest players. Would Presti, Ujiri or San Antonio’s R.C. Buford be interested in either gig? Who knows? But it’s stunning that neither team bothered to try.
Magic Johnson can be good at this job. But it’s foolish to think because he’s Magic Johnson that he will. Success in other walks of NBA life means little. Phil Jackson is floundering in New York. Vlade Divac is under fire in Sacramento. Running an NBA team is a year-round job with few breaks. The competition is fierce and talent is everywhere in an increasingly global game. To succeed with the Lakers, Magic Johnson needs to know: It’s time to get to work.
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