The Lakers’ Magic Johnson Problem


Magic Johnson is a larger than life figure in Los Angeles and in the global landscape of basketball. His deteriorating relationship with Lakers’ ownership, however, is contentious enough that it may affect the ability of the front office to do its job.

Is Magic hurting the Lakers with his public criticisms? Are his barbs directed at Jim Buss, scaring off potential free agents?

When Johnson tweeted that Carmelo Anthony should stay with the Knicks, was that a subtle message to stay away from the Lakers because they are a mess right now?

Is Johnson’s approval so important to the Lakers that the brain trust must bring him further into the fold?

After weeks of bashing the Lakers, today Magic announced that he would no longer criticize the organization. But in the eyes of some, the damage is already done.

Johnson has said “The reason I haven’t tweeted in two days is because I’m mourning that Phil Jackson isn’t the coach of the Lakers.” Johnson has gone on a rampage in recent weeks, going on to say he didn’t believe in Jim Buss, that Mike D’Antoni isn’t the right coach for the team. Most troubling, he clearly left Kobe Bryant off a list of great players who could carry their team to win. This comes just 3 seasons after Johnson called Bryant “the greatest Laker’.

So which is it Magic?

Those surrounding the Lakers find in Jim Buss a convenient whipping boy. He’s reclusive, he was handed his father’s enterprise, and worst of all, he dares to make personnel decisions with no experience as a player.

Former players have long been used by NBA franchises to instill confidence in the direction of the franchise. It is standard basketball mythology to think that the qualities that made a former player effective on the court, would somehow translate in a managerial capacity. Similarly former players are given gravitas when talking about the sport they inhabit. Players are also given deference when analyzing the game. Non players are relegated to anchor a broadcast or are often snickered at when opining on what they see. This behavior is prevalent across all sports but in the NBA, its religion. Former NBA players who join the media have their careers airbrushed of its negative aspects to present the mirage of expertise. All of this creates an aura of legend and righteousness around men that were in their careers, flawed.

Magic has earned the right to pontificate on the state of the Lakers, but he hasn’t earned the right to kick the franchise when its down because it suits his agenda.

Lakers fans ignored many less than pleasant aspects to his own career.

His disruptive return, after missing 45 games in the 1980-1981 season, losing in the first round to a 40-42 Houston Rockets team. The fact he never won a title without Kareem, the four Finals defeats, Scottie Pippen’s demolition of him in the 1991 Finals. His woeful coaching attempt in 1994-95, followed the next season by a midseason comeback in which he wanted the team centered around him. Johnson at 36 years old complained about his role in Del Harris’ offense and speculated that he would seek free agency to play point guard again. In that same season Johnson publicly scolded Nick Van Exel for bumping a referee and getting suspended, and then 5 games later did the same thing.

For Magic to criticize the Lakers’ re-signing of Kobe Bryant to a 2 year, $48 million contract, at age 35, is astounding. Johnson himself, at age 35, received an outrageous $14.6 million salary in the 1994-1995 season. It was higher than the entire payrolls of 11 of the league’s 27 teams at the time. He wasn’t even playing, but coached 16 forgettable games.

Similarly we don’t criticize Jerry West and Jerry Buss for the Sedale Threatt/Cedric Ceballos era, the 5 year wilderness between Magic and the arrival of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe.

So why is everyone going so hard at Jim Buss?

Resentment is what is going on with people’s attitude of Jim Buss. He was given the keys to a Ferrari and the NBA lifers don’t feel he’s earned it.He’s being held to a standard other executives are not held to. He’s not given any credit for helping to build the 2009-2010 repeat champions. He is not credited for hatching the long term plan to have cap space in 2014. He is only blamed for the inevitable decline all championship teams go through. Buss will be scrutinized heavily until he wins a championship, but with “friends” like Johnson there is seemingly no room for error.

Magic Johnson has amassed a fortune in business and eternal goodwill all over the world. No one, however, likes a bully. If Magic knows best how to run a world class NBA franchise, he should buy one and show the world how its done. He certainly can afford it. What he should never do is attack the franchise that has stood by him through thick and thin, no matter what problems it is currently going through.