He now finds himself in a position that demands a very important question, one that seems blasphemous in one sense, appropriate in another:
Can Magic Johnson make his team better?
During happier times with the Los Angeles Lakers, at the intersection of glory and glamour, when he was the master of ceremonies for Showtime, Magic did this. He raised teammates, coaches, a franchise and ultimately, the trophy in June. But of course, this is different. Instead of finding James Worthy and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with a no-look pass, he must find the next Worthy and Kareem with far sharper vision and foresight.
This is where Magic is after Tuesday’s front-office shake-up, an overthrow orchestrated by part-owner Jeannie Buss, who’s now the Michael Corleone of the Buss family. She took the remote control away from her brother Jim and threw longtime general manager Mitch Kupchak overboard in the process and gave Magic the run of the basketball operations. Just as it was for most of the 1980s, when titles were as numerous in LA as plastic surgeons, this is Magic’s team.
That in itself, isn’t such a bad thing, or the issue. Jim Buss oversaw a team that hadn’t made the playoffs in four years and currently is devoid of a superstar, and therefore nobody in Laker World is reaching for a hanky. Except, there’s this: For a Hall of Famer who brings steep basketball credentials, Magic’s credentials are suddenly suspect.
He has never run a team or served in any personnel role. Never been a scout, GM, president, nothing. Never drafted anyone, made a trade, fired a coach — does Paul Westhead count? — or haggled over a free-agent signing. And this is suddenly the face of the Lakers, someone who’s supposed to restore the shine and raise the glam level of the league’s most famous franchise?
At least Magic is approaching this the way he should. Essentially, the player known for the assist realizes he can only be successful if he gets assists from others. There’s growing evidence that in the next day or so, he’ll announce the hiring of an A-list agent, maybe Arn Tellum or Rob Pelinka, to be the general manager. And he’ll have a salary capologist on board to deal with the nuance of numbers. Before he builds a team on the floor, Magic must have a superior team around him. (Update: According to reports, Johnson has hired Pelinka to be general manager of the Lakers).
He still has final say, and this is where Magic must be flexible. Great players also have great egos. Will he trust his people enough and weigh their opinions before delivering his own? This will determine the immediate future of the Lakers, whether the new braintrust is genius, or elementary, just like any team.
“It’s a dream come true … I’m passionate about this organization and will do everything I can to build a winning culture on and off the court,” he said in a statement.
The track record for great players turning into GMs is mostly depressing. The Lakers can only hope this becomes Jerry West II. West of course is the measuring stick for all GMs, instead of Red Auerbach, who never had to deal with free agency, soaring salaries and also benefited from the territorial draft rule. But at least The Logo scouted for three years before becoming a GM and building seven NBA championship teams.
Bill Russell came up empty as GM (and also coach) of the SuperSonics. Elgin Baylor made annual trips to the draft lottery with the Clippers. Willis Reed couldn’t rescue the Nets. Kevin McHale didn’t build a title contender around a young Kevin Garnett in Minnesota. Wes Unseld came up empty for years with the Bullets. Michael Jordan oversaw a string of poor drafts and trades with the Hornets, the team he owns, before hiring a GM. Larry Bird, currently running the Pacers, has been solid but no championships.
There’s also the valid question of whether great players are willing to do the grunt work. Is Magic anxious to spend a night in January scouting at some college gym, sitting with 10,000 students who constantly pester him for autographs during timeouts? Does he have the stomach to deal and negotiate with dozens of agents, all pushing some agenda? The behind-the-scenes lifestyle of the typical team executive isn’t sexy. It can be taxing and hair-pulling and frustrating, but the good ones accept the grind as part of the job, rather than pass it off to scouts.
Magic’s life after retirement has been, by an large, successful. He operates a number of businesses. He’s part of the Los Angeles Dodgers ownership group, does occasional TV and appears at charity events. He has also made no secret of his continued love, and often frustration, with the Lakers. He regularly criticized the team and Jim Buss through social media and mildly campaigned for Buss’ job.
And now that he has it, what’s he up against?
He has a young roster that’s developing, although the chance of a star emerging from the pack seems remote. D’Angelo Russell is a poor shooter and not a traditional, pass-first point guard. Brandon Ingram is shooting 36 percent in his rookie season and needs four meals a day, but he’s only 19. Julius Randle is productive, and so is Jordan Clarkson, but again, neither has shown a superstar gene.
Their first-round pick goes to Philly unless it’s in the top-three, and their 2019 could go to Orlando. The Lakers lack serious cap problems, although Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng would make first-team all-overpaid.
Perhaps the most attractive reason for Jeannie Buss to give the team to Magic is power. He’s Magic Johnson. His name still resonates with players and maybe he can be a difference-maker with a free agent, although not as much as money. As a front man, it’s hard for the Lakers to find a better one than Magic, who has clout and sheer force of personality.
So this is a time of celebration in Lakerland, although with crossed fingers. The old regime was not beloved. The new man in charge might be the most beloved member of the Laker family. Magic Johnson conjures great and happy memories, of exciting teams, fun times and most of all, winning.
Yet, while Magic Johnson the player was capable of elevating a team, Magic Johnson the rookie executive could use a front-office team to help elevate him.