NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh

NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh

It seems like something straight out of a “Saturday Night Live” spoof, only this was real. I’m not talking about Magic Johnson’s abrupt resignation press conference. I’m talking about what happened on April 20, 2017.

Two months after he became the president of basketball operations for the Los Angeles Lakers during the trade deadline, Magic was a guest on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” in Los Angeles and laid bare the ills that would portend his demise. 

While the NBA playoffs were going on, here was Magic in his element on the late-night television stage. The scene dripped in starry showbiz. As they spoke, the famous Hollywood Sign hung on the backdrop between the two.

Kimmel’s icebreaker question was about short shorts being the secret to winning basketball games. Then, Kimmel, an avid sports fan, got serious.

“As president of basketball operations, is that ahead of general manager? How does that work?” Kimmel asked.

“Well, Jimmy, it is a little bit above,” Magic explained, gesturing the hierarchy with his hands. “Rob Pelinka is our general manager and he’s doing a fantastic job.”

“And if he doesn’t, you fire him!”

“You fire him, and everybody else. Luke Walton, everybody gotta go,” Johnson said laughing.

The studio crowd laughed uproariously. Magic rocked back and forth and clapped. Little did he know that less than two years later, not firing Walton was reportedly a factor in his downfall, and no laughing matter.

The interview continued. Kimmel: “When you have to fire somebody, does it eat you up inside, is it something that you think about for days leading up to it?”

 

“No. Your butt’s fired. Get out,” Magic said shaking his head, motioning like an umpire in a strikeout call. He laughed again. Then he lowered his voice and shifted from Hollywood Magic to executive Magic.

“No, I think that you have to make decisions, it’s tough,” Magic said. “I’m a guy who is a ... just like I play basketball as a point guard, I do the same thing leading my company. I like to work around great people and empowering those people. But look, I’m a worker. So I want to work with people who are workers, too, who are smarter than myself. But you have a job to do. And if you don’t do that job, you gotta go. It really is that simple.”

Magic was seemingly speaking about firing others, not himself. And then, Magic delivered the Lakers pitch cloaked in exceptionalism:

“You have to remember this: The Lakers mean a lot. They’re the most popular team in the NBA. We have more fans around the world than any other team. We’re tied with the Celtics for the most championships. And that platform for any player, is an amazing and big platform. We’re going to be successful again.”

Kimmel asked Magic who he was looking to sign and named Paul George, Chris Paul and Teen Wolf. Magic laughed and then shifted back into exec Magic, saying he couldn’t talk about them because of tampering rules. Kimmel deftly countered:

“What constitutes tampering? Like, if you’re on vacation and you run into Paul George, are you not allowed to speak to him?”

Magic the charmer couldn’t help but play it up for the crowd.

“No, we’re going to say hi because we know each other. I just can’t say, ‘Hey, I want you to come to the Lakers, even though I’m going to be like, wink, wink like.”

The crowd roared as Magic exaggerated his winks like only Magic can. Kimmel and the crowd were eating it up. Magic was rocking back and forth in laughter. He winked some more.

“You know what that means, right?”

The studio exploded in laughter and Magic couldn’t help himself from reaching out his giant hand and dapping-up Kimmel in a fit of unbridled joy. The laughs died down.

This interview says it all. Magic thought the Lakers would be above reproach. Stars and stars would line up. Neither was true.

The NBA issued a warning for that bit. Then later, it fined the team $500,000 for tampering with George, who later spurned the Lakers in free agency. Paul didn’t come either. Both are contending for the title in other cities far from Hollywood. The Lakers missed the playoffs.

Now, everyone’s laughing at the Lakers. They’re the punchline. Lakers exceptionalism has gotten them here. And until they realize the Lakers don’t mean that much anymore, they won’t get out of this mediocre existence.

 

* * * 

Time and time again, the Lakers have fallen back on their “Hey, we’re the Lakers, stars come to us” M.O. and hoped -- and prayed -- that this time, this time, it’ll work. Free agency will bring salvation and restore the once-proud Lakers franchise back to the glory days. 

But since the infamous “Is this going to be fun or what?” Sports Illustrated cover in 2012, the Lakers are one of five franchises who have yet to win a playoff game over that span. Two of those other teams, Detroit and Orlando, are poised to end that streak in coming days.

Luring LeBron James to Los Angeles was supposed to be the mic drop for Magic and owner Jeanie Buss. Instead, they surrounded him with misfits on one-year deals to kick the can down the road to the summer of 2019. With Rajon Rondo, JaVale McGee and Lance Stephenson in tow, Magic Johnson went on a Summer League broadcast to lay out his plan to not surround James with shooters, a formula that got James three championships and eight straight Finals trips.

The Lakers started the season 20-14, underwhelming but certainly not catastrophic. Unfortunately, things devolved from there. James hurt his groin on Christmas and missed 17 games. Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and Josh Hart all suffered significant season ending injuries, leaving their roster void of any depth even upon James’ return. 

Perhaps even more damaging than the injuries was the toxic locker room environment after a public trade demand by Pelicans All-Star Anthony Davis. Davis’ agent Rich Paul, who also reps LeBron, went on the record ahead of the trade deadline to say Davis wanted out of New Orleans. With the Lakers’ iffy star-chasing behavior front of mind, the Pelicans organization demanded the league look into possible tampering violations and the Davis-Lakers saga hogged headlines for weeks. There was collateral damage. Pelicans general manager Dell Demps was fired and the Lakers’ chemistry never quite gelled as the young players’ names hung in trade talks. 

Getting LeBron was supposed to legitimize the Lakers. Instead, with multiple improper conduct violations and ill-fitting roster construction, the Lakers plummeted to further depths and descended to become the laughingstock of the league. 

* * * 

Winning in the NBA is hard. The path takes years. There are no shortcuts. Let this be a lesson to both the Lakers and the New York Knicks, a team that has also fallen prey to free agency exceptionalism: Champions are built through the draft, not free agency. It doesn’t happen overnight.

History is clear on this. Just about every champion dating back to the dawn of the league has featured a drafted superstar who became the backbone of the franchise. There is no skipping this essential first step. 

The Golden State Warriors aren’t building a dynasty without Stephen Curry, nor Draymond Green and Klay Thompson. The Miami Heat don’t assemble the Big Three without its leader Dwyane Wade. The Mavericks don’t sniff the Finals without Dirk Nowitzki. The San Antonio Spurs won championships in three separate decades with one trio of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. The Boston Celtics didn’t win a title before they drafted Bill Russell and then again with Larry Bird and then a third round with Paul Pierce. The Chicago Bulls weren’t the Chicago Bulls before David Stern called out Michael Jordan’s name on June 19, 1984.

 

Heck, the Lakers just need to look up to their own rafters. Does the three-peat with Shaq happen without Kobe Bryant? No. Magic Johnson should know the power of the draft as much as anybody. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar came to the Lakers in 1975-76 and didn’t even reach the Finals for four years until they drafted a kid named Earvin from Michigan State.

* * * 

The Lakers’ pursuit of finding their next superstar has been a disaster, beginning with the 2012-13 season where they tried to fast-track a championship. They traded four draft picks for a 38-year-old Steve Nash, traded Andrew Bynum for Dwight Howard (defensible), fired coaches Mike Brown and Bernie Bickerstaff midseason and brought in Mike D’Antoni on the fly. To no surprise, the Lakers’ season fell far short of expectations. Kobe tore his Achilles late in the season and the Lakers were swept by the Spurs in the first round of the playoffs. 

Undeterred, the organization continued living in the past in the name of Lakers exceptionalism. 

After D’Antoni stepped down, the Lakers hired Lakers legend Byron Scott to coach the team and handed Kobe a two-year extension for $48.5 million while he was rehabbing from the torn Achilles at age 35, making him the highest-paid player in the league. 

The message was clear: Sure, this isn’t the smartest basketball move, but we’re the Lakers and we’ll figure it out. 

They didn’t. From 2012-13 to the end of that contract, the Lakers lost more games than every team not named the Philadelphia 76ers. However, the Sixers had a plan famously coined The Process, while the Lakers tried free agency … again.

Once Bryant’s contract fell off the books in 2016, the Lakers were supposed to land their next big fish in free agency and start a new chapter with a superstar. Instead, every star passed. They fired Scott and dipped into the purple-and-gold well again, inking Luke Walton. They fired Mitch Kupchak and hired maybe the biggest Lakers legend of all, Magic Johnson. Again, it seemed that they were going to “Lakers” their way out of this.

* * * 


Everything in Magic’s tenure was about freeing up cap space and waiting for a star to jump at the opportunity to join one of the league’s most-storied franchises. He sacrificed the team’s best shot at a homegrown hero -- D’Angelo Russell, a 21-year-old budding star who had averaged 18.5 points and 5.0 assists after the All-Star break in 2016-17. Instead of bringing back Brook Lopez and 2014 seventh overall pick Julius Randle, Magic showed them the door, choosing to prioritize precious cap space this summer. Unfortunately, each move backfired. Both Lopez and Randle enjoyed career years with their new teams and Russell became an All-Star at 22, tied for the youngest in this year’s All-Star Game with the Sixers’ Ben Simmons.

 

Magic was supposed to be the savior, the legend who could charm his way through anything -- even a league hellbent on not letting the Lakers win. But it has become clear that he underestimated the amount of work the role would take and the seriousness of the job.

It’s no secret that Johnson and Pelinka -- who was Kobe Bryant’s long-time agent -- weren’t perfect fits in that front office. Lakers staffers openly told reporters at every turn how absent Johnson was during his tenure. When LaVar Ball questioned Walton’s grip on the team, Johnson was off in Hawaii, nowhere to be heard from as his coach was hung out to dry. ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne reported that Walton and Johnson hadn’t spoken in weeks. 

* * * 

It’s time for Jeanie Buss to recognize that the Lakers are not exceptional. They are one of 30 teams who are trying to win a championship and they need to operate like one. They can’t untie this gargantuan knot by pointing to their 16 championship banners. They evidently can’t look at James and think he’ll solve every problem. 

“They’ve run that organization the same way since 1984,” said one longtime executive. “Turning that around is the most extreme challenge in the sport.”

Maybe they sign a co-star for James. Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler, Kemba Walker, DeMarcus Cousins and Klay Thompson can all be free agents this summer (Durant, Leonard, Irving and Butler are expected to decline player options). It sounds like hope, but it’s really a delusion. 

Tuesday was a night that will be remembered for a long time in the NBA. Dirk Nowitzki and Dwyane Wade’s teary last-hurrahs were the stuff of legend, Jamal Crawford became the oldest player to score 50 points in a game, the Pistons came back from down 22 to rescue their season and Paul George’s clutch shot over the Rockets may have knocked Houston from the No. 2 seed. 

All that reduced to mere footnotes because of the Lakers circus. After Magic’s fit-for-Hollywood exit and the organizational mess he left behind, the Lakers are in no better position than they were before. Missing the playoffs with LeBron James is an indictment of the Lakers organization, a group that has fallen short of the playoffs for six straight seasons. Once it happens so many times, the exception becomes the rule.
 

 

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