Magic Johnson: Lakers’ Legend/ LeBron Saboteur

In retrospect, we should’ve seen this coming. How often does giving blank checks to big names work out?

Phil Jackson nearly burnt the Knicks franchise to ashes in his failed three-year tenure as president.

Isiah Thomas nearly did the same a decade earlier.

But this one felt different. It’s Magic after all, the living testament of Lakers lore. Who better to lead Los Angeles out of the post-Kobe rut than the face of the franchise?

Never mind that, like Thomas and Jackson before him, Johnson had no real NBA executive experience to speak of. Forget the unceremonious exit from NBA Countdown and as a brief interim head coach run for the Lakers. Forget the fact that Magic came with multiple business ventures to distract his attention.

There were a million reasons to second guess the selection of Magic Johnson as Lakers’ president, but most reservations fell on deaf ears — I mean, it’s damn Magic.

The hiring of Kobe Bryant’s former agent Rob Pelinka as GM was the first red flag. Pelinka, like Magic, likely was chosen due to his personal relationships and charisma, despite having no experience in scouting or running an organization.

With the agent and the big name running the team, it’s clear Jeanie Buss was never interested in a ground-up rebuild, they were going star-shopping. With LeBron James’ free agency looming, it wasn’t hard to put two and two together, the Lakers were courting the king.

But building an NBA contender takes much more than grabbing a superstar than figuring it out from there. Of course, to be fair to Magic, that’s exactly the formula Cleveland used for years. But a 34-year-old player heading to the West complicated that model.

Magic likely didn’t care about long-term sustainability; he had another legend firmly in his sights.

With his first big splash, Johnson shipped out D’Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov’s albatross contract (a major blotch in the Mitch Kupchak/ Jim Buss era) for Brook Lopez and Kyle Kuzma. At the time, the move was defensible. Russell looked much more like a bust than a potential star those days. Lopez was a solid win-now piece on a one-year deal. Dropping Mozgov’s contract granted the Lakers significant financial flexibility. They even got a steal in Kuzma.

The deal hasn’t aged that well. Two seasons later, Russell is an All-Star leading Brooklyn into the playoffs, while Lonzo Ball, the player Magic presumably dumped Russell to clear space for, has never lived up to the massive hype. LA let Lopez walk after one season, bringing in archaic centers JaVale McGee and Tyson Chandler to replace him. Lopez has looked dynamic as ever in Milwaukee this season.

Kuzma is a nice surprise, but in his second year is the same age as Russell with nowhere near the ceiling.

The deal served as a win-now move that the Lakers didn’t end up fully committing to.

But again, Lopez’s departure, as well as renouncing the rights of former lottery pick Julius Randle, was shaken off as collateral damage for clearing up cap space for LeBron plus a superstar sidekick, Paul George.

Magic never even got his foot in the door, as George proved everyone wrong by resigning with OKC.

Lopez and Randle ended up signing cupcake deals with Milwaukee and New Orleans, respectively. Lopez in particular, with his new-found shooting prowess, would have been an asset next to LeBron.

Shooting wasn’t the priority in the offseason for the Lakers. After signing LeBron and losing out on George, Magic filled up the roster with non-shooters like Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, Michael Beasley and McGee. Diverting from the shooter-heavy template that powered LeBron to eight straight finals was dangerously arrogant and the first real wakeup call that the Lakers’ front office was flying by the seed of their pants.

Yet, the Anthony Davis saga was straw that broke the camel’s back.

The Lakers hand in AD’s public trade request, by way of LeBron’s agent Rich Paul, demonized the Lakers and effectively ruined any chance at a fair negotiation. Worse yet, by bungling the negotiations so incredibly that they ended up bidding against themselves and putting every single one of their young assets on the table, the young pups turned on the Lakers and LeBron.

The Lakers don’t have George, may have played themselves out of the AD sweepstakes and may be working their way out of this summer’s marquee free agents.

Which leads us to Magic’s astounding announcement.

The resounding message from the surprise presser was that Magic wouldn’t have left if he believed he was leaving the Lakers were in bad shape. But to recap: the Lakers don’t have a legit #2 behind LeBron; they’ve burned the bridge to land a generational talent; they’ve tainted the relationship with their young core, none of whom showed significant growth next to LeBron; they’re on the verge of blowing up an incredible flawed roster; they are in the coaching market after firing Luke Walton; most importantly, they’ve someone managed to do something not even the historically inept Cavaliers could manage — making LeBron look vulnerable.

In the end, Magic wanted to be Magic. He was bigger than this job. He was above putting the hours into the meticulous scouting and networking.

He was bigger than lowering himself to firing Walton. He was above scouting and team meetings. Above tampering and tweeting restrictions.

In the end, he decided he was bigger than the legwork put in by the Danny Ainges and Daryl Moreys of the world. He’s Magic after all, he’s earned that.

But the move to quit on national TV without telling Buss, Pelinka and LeBron, making a day where both Dirk Nowitzki and Dwayne Wade played their final home games all about himself, looks incredible small.

Magic ultimately wasn’t the man for the job because he couldn’t bear to stray away from his image. He couldn’t risk not being universally adored and larger than life.

The cost of hitting the eject button at this point with this player threatens to collapse the lofty foundation of the castle he built.

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