Just before the start of free agency last June, Los Angeles Lakers President Magic Johnson made a relatively blunt declaration when he said he’d willingly step down from his post if he failed to sign star players. So it was a legitimate jaw-dropper when Johnson, just nine months after landing the world’s best player, opted to resign Tuesday during a tearful, impromptu press conference in the bowels of Staples Center prior to the team’s season finale.
Yes, this was a trying year for Johnson and the storied franchise, which fully expected to return to the playoffs after getting LeBron James. But the playoffs didn’t happen, and while Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka deserve a lot of the blame for why things went wrong, no one thought it would result in this — at least not this soon, and certainly not in the bizarre manner in which it played out.
In the coming weeks, there will be ample opportunity to analyze what comes next for the Lakers, who still have LeBron, a young supporting cast and enough cap space to make the kind of signing that could make them an actual contender again out West.
Normally, we’d be prone to view a team president’s sudden resignation as a sign of enormous trouble for a franchise. The fact that we aren’t talking about how much this will damage Los Angeles speaks volumes about Johnson and how ill-prepared he was for the front-office job in the first place.
Team owner Jeanie Buss, who got wind of the resignation after reporters did, now has an enormous task. She has to tap the right person, but based on her hiring of Magic — a choice she made based on trust and their almost 40 years of friendship after contentiously ousting her brother in 2017 — we don’t know yet who she’ll get or what level of experience that person will carry.
Nonetheless, that role is vital, both to restoring the franchise to its rightful place — this 37-win season marked a Lakers’ record sixth-straight year with no postseason — and obviously for maximizing the 34-year-old James’s window for championship contention.
What we do know now is that Johnson, an all-time great on the hardwood and one of the more personable businessmen in America, simply wasn’t prepared for the cutthroat front-office life, an issue we touched on briefly back when he was hired. Johnson himself says that leaving the role of president will make him happier, as it will allow him to return to his old life, away from the sourced reporting that, to him, likely felt like anonymous backstabbing. And back to a life where he can freely mentor and tweet to congratulate players leaguewide — something he couldn’t do as an executive, because of the tampering rules.
From the outset, Johnson struggled with how to play inside those rules. Even more concerning about his front-office tenure: He often struggled to properly assess the value of players and what they brought to the table. Months after taking the gig, he traded a young, talented point guard in D’Angelo Russell to get Brook Lopez and his expiring contract, as well as the pick that would become Kyle Kuzma.1 While Kuzma has been fine for a young player, Russell has since become an All-Star who has led Brooklyn back to the postseason. And Lopez — whom L.A. let walk in free agency last summer — has been one of the NBA’s best floor-spacing bigs, giving Milwaukee exactly what this shooting-starved Lakers club needs.2
Similarly, 24-year-old Julius Randle had a career year (21 points, 8 rebounds a game) in New Orleans after the Lakers let their former No. 7 overall pick go in free agency despite his relatively modest price tag.3 Instead, L.A. followed up on its LeBron move by then agreeing to deals with Rajon Rondo, JaVale McGee and Lance Stephenson, leaving it woefully deficient from a perimeter-shooting standpoint. The head-scratching decisions weren’t limited to the perimeter, though: The Lakers also offered talented big man Ivica Zubac to their Los Angeles counterparts at the deadline, reportedly befuddling the Clippers by trying to unload a solid young player unnecessarily.
None of this even gets into the fact that Johnson and the Lakers took their sweet time — waiting until it was likely too late — to try to deal for a second star, which was borderline malpractice considering James’s age. Depending on how you look at it, the failed play to acquire Anthony Davis at the trade deadline was either just the Pelicans being stubborn or them being realistic — and smart — after realizing that the youngsters L.A. was offering in return weren’t good enough (particularly when James was injured) to justify dealing away a franchise player.
But that doesn’t excuse the Lakers not being more aggressive two summers ago, when they could’ve made a play for Paul George, who’d made it clear that L.A. was his destination of choice before Oklahoma City gambled on a deal for him. Nor does it explain why the Lakers didn’t do more to engage the Spurs for Kawhi Leonard (and pair him with LeBron) before he was ultimately sent to Toronto. In either case, having a second star likely would’ve provided L.A. with the insulation it needed to withstand a James injury and make the playoffs regardless.
And there were the problematic mixed messages that Johnson sent: the preseason comments about how new LeBron teams always take a while to find their stride and the need for patience, but then the reports about him going off on coach Luke Walton just weeks later, apparently for not meeting the expectations he’d just tamped down. Then there was his suggestion that the young players who’d heard their names rumored in potential Davis deals simply needed to be hugged and nurtured after the whole ordeal, which he followed, one day later, by saying that those same players needed to be treated like men, rather than babied through the media.
Had Johnson remained on the job, his next true test as team president was a decision about Walton’s future. Johnson told reporters Tuesday that he’d been given the authority to fire Walton, who has history with the Lakers as a former player and still has a good friendship with Buss. But Johnson said he didn’t want to pull that trigger and instead opted to step down himself.
Now, it’s Buss’s turn to make a decision again. And while the stakes are incredibly high, with the team at an important crossroads, the Lakers can take solace in the fact that they’re almost certain to now get a more analytical, experienced front-office type than they had in Magic, who was never really meant for the unforgiving nature of an NBA job like this to begin with.