How LeBron, Magic And The Lakers Failed (#GotBitcoin?)
Magic Johnson resigned before their final game of the season. But the disaster that was LeBron James’s first season in Los Angeles goes back to the first 24 hours after he signed with the Lakers. How LeBron, Magic And The Lakers Failed (#GotBitcoin?)
There was a fight in the first home game of the season. There were private meetings that quickly leaked into the public. There were insults. There were many injuries. There were even two losses to the New York Knicks.
But there was nothing in LeBron James’s first year with the Los Angeles Lakers as surreal as what happened on the final night of the season: Magic Johnson quit without telling his boss.
Before a meaningless game that promised all the excitement of an insurance convention, Johnson abruptly called a news conference on Tuesday to announce that he was stepping down as the Lakers’ president of basketball operations, a stunning move that blindsided just about everybody in the league—including Lakers owner Jeanie Buss.
“She doesn’t know I’m standing here because I know I would be crying like a baby in front of her,” Johnson said. “But it’s the right thing to do.”
What came next was a farewell tour so long that someone could have baked a sheet cake. He laughed. He cried. He bragged about his fantastic life. He let it be known that he was planning to fire Lakers coach Luke Walton. He made it clear that he wanted to get back to the wonderful business of being Magic Johnson. He also gave the distinct impression that he was resigning to spend more time with his Twitter.
It was the final unusual twist in the highly unusual season that turned out to be a disaster for the Lakers. They finished with a 37-45 record, missed the playoffs for the sixth consecutive season and managed to distinguish themselves as the most dysfunctional mess in the NBA.
But the strangest truth of this season was that it was over long before the last game. It has become clear in retrospect that the Lakers were doomed from the very beginning.
They both signed LeBron James and blew their season within 24 hours.
To understand how this Lakers season that started with so much promise ended with Magic Johnson quitting before telling Jeanie Buss, it helps to understand how he came into power to begin with.
As she consolidated her control of the team, Buss preferred to run the Lakers as a family business. She had known Johnson for almost four decades, ever since one of the greatest players in the history of the game won five championships for the team her father owned, and they were so tight they referred to each other as siblings. With the franchise in tatters, Jeanie turned to Magic. The most powerful woman in sports fired her actual brother and hired the man she called her brother.
Johnson came back to run the Lakers again in 2017 as a successful businessman with a charismatic personality that could charm a snowman. But when Buss entrusted him with the team, there was one thing the team’s new president of basketball operations was lacking: any sort of experience in basketball operations.
It showed. The league office levied a fine of $500,000 when the Lakers broke the NBA’s tampering rules not long after he got the job. When he needed a general manager, Johnson tapped Kobe Bryant’s former agent Rob Pelinka, who was later mocked in basketball circles for comparing the signing of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to the Biblical story of bread raining down from heaven.
The bigger problem was that many of their riskiest bets didn’t pay off. They traded D’Angelo Russell, who became an All-Star. They drafted Lonzo Ball, who became a reality-show star. They promised to land a superstar in free agency only to see Paul George spurn Los Angeles to stay in Oklahoma City.
But none of that mismanagement seemed to matter because, when free agency opened on July 1, Magic Johnson was sitting inside a mansion hammering out a four-year deal with LeBron James.
This was the coup that the Lakers had been waiting to orchestrate since Bryant’s retirement. Once again the biggest star in the game was playing for the starriest team in the league, and together James and Johnson would restore the glory of a haughty franchise.
But the Lakers shot themselves square in the foot almost immediately. It would turn out to be their best shooting performance of the season.
James signed with the Lakers on July 1. By the end of July 2, the Lakers had almost their entire team. It was a deeply flawed roster.
In roughly 24 hours, they signed JaVale McGee, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Lance Stephenson and Rajon Rondo, which was like trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle with some missing pieces, a blindfold and several bottles of tequila.
They were veterans with playoff experience. But they weren’t shooters. And there was a reason that savvy front offices always came around to the idea of surrounding James with shooters. It worked. He made them better, and they made him better. James went to eight straight Finals.
All the Lakers had to do was construct a team around him that followed the wisdom of the NBA’s crowd. They went contrarian instead. After the series of puzzling moves that overshadowed their signing of LeBron James, Johnson went on national television to defend himself.
“Everybody’s talking about ‘the Lakers don’t have shooting,’” he said in July. “Oh, we got shooting.”
They did not. The Lakers finished the season with a 3-point shooting percentage that ranked 29th of the league’s 30 teams.
Their lack of shooting is not the only reason the Lakers flopped. Before they were bad, they were pretty good. They had a respectable 20-14 record and the statistical markers of a top-10 team. They appeared to be on their way to the playoffs with the knowledge that teams would rather eat their own sneakers than see LeBron James in a seven-game series.
But then came a string of injuries so unfortunate that it’s amazing Jack Nicholson didn’t sprain his ankle on his way to his courtside seat. James, Ball, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma were hurt. The Lakers floundered in the longest absence of James’s career. Johnson’s attempts to trade for Anthony Davis poisoned the locker room. James declared that he was in playoff mode on Feb. 21, two months before the playoffs, and their season was effectively over two weeks later. He played his last game of the year in March.
Now they’re staring down another make-or-break summer, but it won’t be Johnson who’s calling the shots. Not long after meeting with LeBron James and Jeanie Buss to plot the future of the team, he quit as the castoffs who called themselves the Lakers took the court for one more loss in their lost season.
It was a reminder that it wasn’t only talent that was missing. It was also strategy.
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