Some six weeks after abruptly resigning as Los Angeles Lakers president of basketball operations without telling his boss and less than a month after saying he was still advising the franchise, Magic Johnson set fire to the organization again.
Johnson joined ESPN’s “First Take” on Monday, answering a series of pointed questions from Stephen A. Smith, Max Kellerman and Molly Qerim Rose with the candor we have come to expect from the Lakers legend. Unfortunately, that candor also took a torch once again to the franchise that supposedly holds his loyalty.
While suggesting the Lakers would be “right back in the hunt” if they continued to follow the plan he laid out for them — chasing Anthony Davis in a trade, signing another top-tier free agent this summer and adding a shooter with the midlevel exception — Johnson outlined several reasons why the team is in utter disarray.
Johnson repeatedly accused Lakers GM Rob Pelinka of stabbing him in the back.
“I wasn’t having fun coming to work anymore, especially when I’ve got to work beside you, knowing that you want my position,” he said of his former employee.
“You know how many agents called me and said watch out for him?” he added.
And then the kicker: “If you’re going to talk betrayal, it’s only with Rob.”
You know what Johnson could have done if Pelinka was the biggest obstacle between him and professional happiness? Fire him. Instead, Johnson threw Pelinka under the bus on national television, letting the NBA world, including the team’s many free-agent targets, know that there is serious dysfunction within the Lakers.
Let’s check in with short-lived Laker and former Pelinka client Channing Frye:
Just gonna have to overpay someone! The moment the lakers get good again you’ll have no problem getting free agents. You can have Cersi lanister as a Gm if the money is right they’ll play! https://t.co/nCn3TO6mbs— Channing Frye (@channingfrye) May 20, 2019
While continuing to describe Lakers owner Jeanie Buss as his “sister,” Johnson also described her as “emotional” and informed us that he would like to buy the team from her, if Kobe Bryant and LeBron James don’t beat him to the punch.
Johnson continued to undermine Buss by confirming every anonymously sourced news item about the team’s missteps this season. She had previously derided “fake news” reports that the Lakers shopped Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Lonzo Ball for superstar Anthony Davis prior to the trade deadline, but Johnson confirmed them to be true, before confirming that the young players did not handle it well.
“I told them not to take it personally,” Johnson explained to the panel in a truly surreal interview. “What happened was, that first week, they did take it personal.”
He then dumped on former New Orleans Pelicans GM Dell Demps for leaking the news in the first place. Few escaped Johnson’s criticism through cackling laughter.
It was an equally disastrous look for both Johnson and the Lakers, but it made for compelling television for the rest of us. He chastised the organization for including ex-Lakers coaches and Buss confidantes Phil Jackson and Kurt Rambis in the decision-making process, suggesting “there are too many voices,” while at the same time lending his own voice to the process in the most public way possible.
Moments after blasting Pelinka, Johnson guaranteed a Lakers title for LeBron, so long as their free-agency pitches come only from “Jeanie, LeBron, Rob and probably [new coach] Frank [Vogel].” Magic then outlined who he planned to pursue in free agency: Kawhi Leonard and Kyrie Irving. This was under his presumption that true top target Kevin Durant will either stay in Golden State or leave for New York.
Just as astonishing was Johnson’s characterization of his own mistakes as team president. He owned his failure to re-sign Brook Lopez, who is now an invaluable member of Milwaukee’s pursuit of a championship. Johnson excused his failing of Julius Randle, suggesting there was no way for them to make it work, because a) “He wanted two years, we offered one,” and b) “We needed some spacing.” His solution for that spacing, of course, was to a) sign a series of non-shooters and b) to trade promising young center Ivica Zubac for Mike Muscala’s expiring contract.
Questioned on “First Take” about the decision to deal Zubac for Muscala when the Lakers were already headed for the lottery, Johnson proceeded to trash Zubac.
“Did he even play in the Golden State series?” Magic said of the 22-year-old. (For the record, Zubac did, starting three games in his first-ever playoff series.)
About the only person Magic did not trash was LeBron. He said of reports that some inside the Lakers organization have considered trading their superstar, “That’s not gonna happen,” while again confirming, “I’ve heard some people say that.”
If Magic’s goal is, as he once said, to do what’s best for the Lakers, I’m not sure appearing on “First Take” accomplished that goal. If it was to do what’s best for him, I’m not so sure he did that, either. Although, he sure seems to think he did:
All smiles as the Lakers continue to burn around him. It’s a good thing he conducted this interview on Monday morning, just before Pelinka is supposed to introduce Vogel as the team’s new coach at a press conference. I can’t imagine what kind of questions they might face from the assembled media masses in L.A.
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