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Magic Johnson Is The Lakers’ Only Star

This part of the NBA calendar typically sees players changing addresses more often than team executives. So it’s an abrupt change of pace to see the Los Angeles Lakers name Magic Johnson their new president of basketball operations, thus pushing out general manager Mitch Kupchak and executive vice president of basketball operations Jim Buss just two days before the trade deadline. The move has instant ramifications for how the Lakers will run their business, and may have even more drastic implications for the future of the franchise’s young players.

It’s unclear exactly what sort of team president Johnson will make. But he’s laid out a few thoughts explaining his shortcomings, and how he may ultimately handle the job.

Johnson, who once played for, coached and held ownership stake in the Lakers, acknowledged this month that he doesn’t have a firm grasp of the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement or the salary cap. He added he’s been spending time getting up to speed. (Brushing up on tampering rules — which he violated last year— might be a good idea, too.)

Johnson has also been clear in saying he’d like to recruit friend and fellow Lakers legend Kobe Bryant to join him in the front office. (There are reports circulating that Bryant’s player agent, Rob Pelinka, is the frontrunner to replace Mitch Kupchak as the team’s general manager.) He and the Lakers will need to walk a fine line if they make an untraditional hire like Pelinka, or someone else who’s never served in such a capacity. The struggling Knicks, currently led by ex-Lakers coach Phil Jackson, have learned the hard way that things can get bumpy when a pair of people at the top of the organization take jobs they’ve never had to do before.

Whoever helps him run the team, they’ll be working with a team that finally stepped outside center ring of the NBA’s media circus. It wasn’t that long ago that former head coach Byron Scott was telling reporters he didn’t believe 3-pointers win championships, and Buss was elbowing his way into doomed free agent meetings. Over the last two seasons, though, and especially this season under Walton, the Lakers have fashioned themselves into a modern NBA team.

In 2014-15, the Lakers attempted just 18.9 threes per game, which ranked 25th in the league. Last season, the number of attempts per game climbed considerably to 24.6, but largely because of the disintegrating husk of Kobe Bryant, which flung 7.1 threes per night (making just 28.5 percent). This season, they’re attempting 26.4 threes per game (13th in the league) and making 35.4 percent (19th). And after having the league’s second-worst offense on a points per possession basis last season, this season L.A. is… well, still not great, but improving. They’ve successfully worked themselves up into being an average team.

But while the team has been moving toward basic competence, there’s some worry that “average” may be this group’s ceiling. And that may explain the move to bring in Johnson. These are the Lakers after all, and the Lakers run on stars.

L.A. is stocked with young prospects, but haven’t yet unearthed a drop-dead star. Former No. 2 overall pick D’Angelo Russell is a hugely fun player, but he hasn’t progressed as quickly as many hoped he would after a tumultuous rookie season. Brandon Ingram, the No. 2 pick in the 2016 draft, has been even worse. Ingram is averaging 8 points, 4.1 rebounds and 1.9 assists in 27.7 minutes per game on 36.3 percent from the floor, 30.4 percent from three and 65.5 percent from the line. (That’s a 45.1 true shooting percentage, if you were wondering.) Ingram is still valued by the franchise enough that L.A. reportedly would not consider trading him for DeMarcus Cousins, but his play so far this season has been a very bad sign. For instance, an updated CARMELO projection using his stats from this season now predicts he will produce about $34 million over the next five seasons. Coming into the season, those same five years were expected to be equivalent to about $121.3 million in value.

Of L.A.’s young prospects, Julius Randle, the third-year power forward taken seventh overall in 2014, has fared the best. Randle’s per-game numbers haven’t budged too much, but Walton has run the offense through Randle for long stretches. Walton was a known Draymond-whisperer during his time as an assistant in Golden State, and it’s not hard to see Green’s imprint when Randle is running the break, hitting runners for easy baskets. Randle’s percent of possessions that end with an assist has nearly doubled, going from 11 last season to 20.2 this season, and the added touches have made him more patient with his own offense as well — his true shooting has crept up to a respectable 53.8, after posting a dismal 48.2 in his first full season. That’s good progress, but likely not at the level Johnson is thinking when he says his goal is to “return our Los Angeles Lakers to NBA champions.”

In a lot of ways, the Los Angeles Lakers’ prolonged absence from the national spotlight has been a positive indicator. Troubled franchises tend to make headlines only when something is going cosmically wrong, like the Sacramento Kings trading their best player for a crate of oranges, or the President of the New York Knicks engaging in a Twitter war with a star player who won’t allow himself to be traded. The Lakers’ return to the circus comes at a time when tactical decisions for the franchise’s immediate future are looming, but the basic culture and basketball sensibilities being built around the team are just as important.

Johnson used to be part of that culture, and used to define those sensibilities. But shaping a team as a rookie executive is a very different proposition than doing so as a Hall of Fame player. Johnson has a lot of things working in his favor in Los Angeles, but what he won’t have is a player as good as Magic Johnson suiting up every night. It’s up to him to set that right.


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Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

Kyle Wagner is a senior editor at FiveThirtyEight.

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