I wept heavily on November 7, 1991, that being the date Earvin “Magic” Johnson disclosed his diagnosis of having the HIV virus, while simultaneously announcing his immediate retirement from professional basketball. The void his abrupt departure left was far more than a gaping hole at the point guard position for the Los Angeles Lakers.
Magic’s presence is so powerful that the NBA world as a whole felt the sting of his retirement. Of course, no athlete plays/performs forever, but this was a horribly cruel blow. Magic’s participation in the All-Star Game later that season was a wonderful time to see that not only he still had it, but that he was still here. Even though he would come back to play during the 1995-96 season, he didn’t seem to be quite the same Magic we had grown to know and love. While he performed at a high level, he made the decision to call it quits for good, and step into his post-basketball life.
Magic began to put many an iron in the fire, as he opened movie theaters, TGI Friday Restaurants, Starbucks, all the while building an empire that has led to him becoming fabulously wealthy. Even with all of his business exploits, his love for basketball never waned.
While his playing days were officially over, playing a role in the game of basketball in some manner could never be extinguished. He went into broadcasting for TNT and ESPN, sharing his knowledge of the game with viewers far and wide, all the while, flashing that trademark, megawatt smile.
Fast forward to February 2017. The Lakers had already begun their post-Kobe Bryant life. After 20 years of magnificent play, five championships, one MVP award, and multiple All-Star game appearances, Kobe’s retirement left the Lakers devoid of a superstar upon whom they could look to. The latter years of Kobe’s career would find the Lakers missing the postseason, and the 2016-17 season was no different. Lakers owner Jeannie Buss seized control of the franchise from her brother Jim, and ushered in new leadership . . . hiring Magic Johnson as President of Basketball Operations. Along with Magic’s return to the franchise, Mitch Kupchak was replaced as general manager by former agent Rob Pelinka. Magic and Pelinka would have their work cut out for them.
They inherited a Laker team that was in need of an infusion of talent. The previous offseason saw head coach Luke Walton hired from the Golden State Warriors, his first head coaching job. After preparing themselves for the task at hand, the Johnson/Pelinka combination selected point guard Lonzo Ball with the second overall pick in the 2017 draft. Small forward Kyle Kuzma was drafted later in the first round and was traded to the Lakers on draft night. Both the Ball and Kuzma additions came at the expense of players that were onboard, as Ball was selected to replace the second overall pick of the 2015 draft, D’Angelo Russell. Veteran big man Timofey Mozgov would be sent to Brooklyn along with the aforementioned Russell for the 27thpick (Kuzma) and veteran big man Brook Lopez. With a second trade, the Lakers wound up with Josh Hart of Villanova University.
Along with this influx of youth, came inevitable growing pains, as the Lakers would finish the 2017-18 season with a 35-47 record. During the summer of 2018, Magic and Pelinka would make their greatest accomplishment thus far as front office executives, with the signing of free agent superstar LeBron James to a four-year deal. Things appeared to be looking up.
With the LeBron signing, a flurry of moves were made to shore up the roster with veteran influences. The signings of Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, Michael Beasley, and JaVale McGee, to go along with early season addition Tyson Chandler and midseason pickups Mike Muscala and Reggie Bullock made many wonder if Magic had erred by:
- Giving up too early on 2014 draft pick Julius Randle (averaging 20.7 ppg and 8.7 rpg for the New Orleans Pelicans this season);
- Giving up too early on D’Angelo Russell (averaging 20.4 ppg and 6.8 apg for the Brooklyn Nets, while making his first All-Star Game appearance this season);
- Allowing the departure of Brook Lopez after only one season with the club; and
- Signing the aforementioned Rondo, Stephenson, McGee, and the since traded Beasley.
While the jury is still out, this season appears to be a colossal failure. Injuries have ravaged the team as LeBron suffered a groin injury on Christmas Day and would go on to miss 17 consecutive games. The new year would also be unkind as both Ball and Brandon Ingram, himself a second overall pick in 2016, would be shut down in early March, due to injuries suffered by each player. They presently sit with a record of 30 wins and 36 losses, i.e. far beneath expectations.
Magic is on record as having said that he will quit if he can’t encourage superstar players to come to the franchise. “Next summer, if nobody comes, and I’m still sitting here like this, then it’s a failure. Like I told you when I took the job, it’s going to be a two-summer thing for us (the Lakers). This summer and next, and that’s it. If I can’t deliver, I’m going to step down myself, she (Jeannie Buss) won’t have to fire me. I’ll step away because then I can’t do this job.”
He succeeded on one front by inking James, however, free agent forward Paul George elected to re-sign with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Recent reports have been made touting the reconciliation of James and Boston Celtic All-Star point guard/potential free agent Kyrie Irving. Irving was a prominent member of the James led Cleveland Cavalier team that won the 2016 NBA Championship.
Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, and Klay Thompson are all free agents this summer as well. New Orleans Pelicans’ All-Star center Anthony Davis, put the NBA on notice earlier this season when he replaced his agent with Rich Paul (a/k/a LeBron James’ agent), who promptly informed the Pelicans of Davis’ desire to leave and his intentions to not re-sign. While he is under contract through next season, Lakers fans are hopeful that a deal can be worked out between the two teams, as Davis has made it clear that playing in Los Angeles is his preference.
Perhaps the deal for Davis can be consummated, allowing him to join forces with LeBron. Maybe Magic can convince one (or two?) of the other prominent free agents to bring their talents to Los Angeles. If not, we would look to expect him to be a man of his word and step down, as he indicated he would if his free agent pursuits prove unsuccessful. Laker fans everywhere are hopeful that Magic is able to persuade a prominent free-agent to be a part of this new edition of the Lakers and restore the franchise to its glorious past. That’s if, he still has that magic touch.