Magic Johnson is back where he belongs as an official part of the Los Angeles Lakers, but it only took a few days for the outspoken Hall of Famer to step on a few hundred toes. Johnson has been all over the place since officially returning to the organization, discussing his vision for the future and how he wants to grab as much power as possible to effect change. While his desire to turn the franchise’s fortunes around is admirable, Magic needs to pump the brakes and take a long hard look at what the Lakers actually need from him. He can’t save the franchise on his own and he needs to realize that.
Everyone knew this season would be tough for the Lakers. They have an absurdly young roster, a first-year head coach and a lot of question marks. The entire point of the campaign was to begin to build something from rock bottom after Kobe Bryant’s retirement. They have stuck to that plan, refusing to trade away young players like D'Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Brandon Ingram, Larry Nance Jr. and Jordan Clarkson. That core, plus the emerging Ivica Zubac could be fearsome once it grows up. Johnson seems to have embraced the idea of a rebuild, but he needs to buy-in fully to what the Lakers are doing.
Magic needs to understand that he won’t be calling the shots right now, that’s the job of Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak. While Buss seems like he’s on his way out, Johnson should not be a candidate to take over personnel decisions. There is zero chance he’d be better in that capacity than Kupchak. So boldly proclaiming how he’d change things and how he’d bring Bryant in to help, etc. isn’t going to make things better right now.
Johnson’s role should be as the public face for the franchise and a mentor to the young players. Guys like Russell, Randle and Ingram could learn an incredible amount from Magic, and his being there would almost certainly give them access to other greats. Get Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Shaquille O'Neal in touch with Zubac, tell Jordan Clarkson to call Michael Cooper, etc. But running around on TV shows claiming he wants to “call the shots” and change things will only destabilize the franchise.
In what is essentially Russell and Randle’s first year as starters, Ingram and Zubac’s rookie season and Clarkson’s first year having real freedom on offense, the Lakers have already surpassed last year’s win total of 17. A 19-37 record is still atrocious and the team plays next to no defense, but there has been some slow progress. Remember, Ingram and Zubac are 19, Russell is 20, Randle is 22 and Clarkson and Nance are just 24. That’s an absurdly young roster. If Los Angeles somehow retains its lottery pick this year (it’s top-three protected) it could add yet another piece. As it stands now, the Lakers have the third-worst record in the league, which gives them a marginal chance to retain the pick.
Johnson has made waves in his first few days back with the Lakers. That’s not the way to accomplish his goal of getting the team back to the top. He needs to slow down, take stock, meet with head coach Luke Walton and Kupchak and work with them to sort out a clear vision. The first thing on the agenda should be teaching the young guys to play some defense, as the Lakers are surrendering a horrific 110.5 points per game. Then gather up his band of Laker greats and get them in touch with the current players.
This is Walton’s team. The Lakers didn’t bring him in for a short-term fix, they brought him in to build. Johnson needs to get on board with the young coach’s vision and help however he can. Magic isn’t in charge and he shouldn’t want to be. If he winds up in that position it means something went horrifically wrong.