On the night Dirk Nowitzki and Dwyane Wade played their final games in Dallas and Miami, Magic Johnson lit the NBA world on fire when he called an impromptu press conference and resigned his position as President of Basketball Operations of the Los Angeles Lakers. He didn’t even tell owner Jeanie Buss before informing of the media of his decision, which seems like a strong metaphor for his time in Los Angeles if there ever was one.
There will be plenty written about where the Lakers are going from here, with my immediate opinion being that Buss should be on the phone with David Griffin as quickly as possible, but like I did with Tom Thibodeau when he was let go from his post in Minnesota, I think it’s a worthwhile exercise to go back through Magic’s moves in charge of the Lakers and take stock of his resume as an executive.
I’ll break it down into tiers, the same way I break up offseason signings and trades into tiers: Elite, Good, Average, Bad, and Awful. It’s a little different than how I graded Thibodeau’s moves, because there needed to be a sixth tier at the bottom of the Thibodeau ladder for Andrew Wiggins’ franchise-killing max contract. His name will come up again later in this one, though just as a sidebar for how we think about a certain player the Lakers traded away in Magic’s tenure.
For posterity’s sake: Magic was hired on February 2, 2017 as an “advisor to the owner”, then promoted to President of Basketball Operations less than three weeks later, February 21, 2017. His reign lasted a few weeks short of 26 months, during which time the Lakers never made the postseason.
I really can’t start anywhere other than the best move the Lakers made in this time: signing LeBron James to a 3+1 max contract last summer. How much credit should Magic get for bringing in James, given that there were a lot of other factors at play? That’s a hard question to answer, but the result is the same no matter what: the Lakers were able to close the deal with Magic at the helm, and hiring Magic Johnson to be the face of your organization is done so that he can close superstar deals, and this was the biggest one out there, considering the Lakers had no star talent on the team prior and James signed up anyway. The difference between James’ typical 1+1 and a 3+1 ended up being of vital importance as well; can you imagine if James had an option to leave this summer, after everything that’s happened in Los Angeles over the last nine months since he signed?
The second elite-tier transaction Magic and his team closed was the February 2018 trade that brought in Isaiah Thomas, Channing Frye, and Cleveland’s 2018 first-round pick for Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. The addition of Thomas had clearly bombed in Cleveland during James’ final year with the Cavaliers, with the guard unable to fill Kyrie Irving’s shoes, both because of a nasty injury from which he’s still coming back and because of his relatively unwillingness to defer to James or bring other skills to the table without the ball in his hands. Thomas was still on the very cheap contract he originally signed and he was set to be a free agent in a few months, so there was very little downside to bringing him to Los Angeles. Frye was in the same boat as an upcoming free agent; he eventually went back to Cleveland in the offseason and will retire after this season concludes.
On the other side of the deal, dumping Clarkson’s contract was a top-tier move from the Lakers’ perspective. At that point, he still had two years left for more than $25 million AFTER the 2017-18 season, but the Cavaliers decided they desperately needed to shake things up, so the Lakers were able to take full advantage. It’s perfectly clear as to whether Clarkson passes the Nene Test; there’s no world in which he’s a positive value on his current contract. He’s such a negative value on his deal that it’s essentially a sunk cost, but what about passing the Andrew Wiggins Test? Wiggins, as noted earlier, is on a max contract in Minnesota but has been so poor throughout his NBA tenure that it’s worth asking whether he’s a positive player AT ALL, regardless of contract. An inefficient gunner who brings nothing else to the table, playing Wiggins 30 minutes a night versus splitting that time up between two replacement-level wings at 15 minutes each should be a real debate, though it’s unlikely the Timberwolves will ever seriously think about that. Clarkson is in the same group with Wiggins — he’s nothing more than a scorer who isn’t above-average in that department and brings nothing else to the table for the Cavaliers. He has no creation skills to fall back on when his scoring isn’t working and is on any shortlist for worst defensive players in the league. For the Lakers to get out from under his contract, which Magic’s predecessor, Mitch Kupchak, signed, is a coup. Moving Nance, who was one year from restricted free agency, for a late first, was perhaps a slight downgrade, but the extra team control they got on that first-round pick could have been worthwhile. At that time, we didn’t know they were going to reach for Moe Wagner one spot ahead of Landry Shamet, so it’s tough to grade that deal based on the player they actually got with the pick.
As a whole, the actual draft picks the Lakers made in 2017 were very good. They walked out of that draft with Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart, and Thomas Bryant, all of whom look to be solid NBA players at worst. Ball has seen his first two years in the league marred by injuries, but hopefully his move away from BBB and toward a more established shoe brand will be good for his feet and ankles moving forward. I still believe Ball can be a good player, though the shine is certainly fading there. For where they got Kuzma (No. 27), Hart (No. 30), and Bryant (No. 42), those picks are full-blown home runs, even though they didn’t keep Bryant around long enough to realize that he was actually good enough to play for them. Kuzma might not be more than a bench scoring big, but that’s a good value for a late first, as is Hart, who looks to be the best 3-and-D prospect the Lakers have. Lumped in this Good section is the trade to acquire Hart and Bryant in the first place, as the Lakers traded down two spots from No. 28 to No. 30 with the Utah Jazz to pick up the selection that became Bryant. Not bad.
As long as the guy can play, there’s no such thing as a bad minimum contract, so signing JaVale McGee to a one-year minimum deal last summer goes down as their only non-LeBron 2018 free agency move that was actually a positive. McGee has been very good for the Lakers this season, posting near-career highs across the board and genuinely being a positive force for the team, something very few veterans on this team can say with any level of truth.
The first move the Lakers made under Johnson’s tenure was to complete a trade with the Houston Rockets, who moved Corey Brewer, Tyler Ennis, and their own first-rounder in 2017 to Los Angeles for Lou Williams and Marcelo Huertas. Williams is the best player of this group by a mile, but cashing in on a veteran scorer off the bench is usually a strong move for a team as far out of contention as the Lakers were. Brewer and Williams were mostly a wash financially, while Los Angeles was able to pick up the first-rounder that they’d eventually move to Utah for the picks that became Hart and Bryant.
Two years later, the Lakers made another deadline trade, moving Svi Mykhailiuk and a 2021 second-round pick to Detroit for Reggie Bullock, who was supposed to help them as a shooter and defender as they made their push for the 2019 NBA Playoffs. Of course, they fell woefully short of that goal, but Bullock has been a solid addition for them and will be a strong candidate to stick around this summer, depending on their other moves.
Perhaps the most controversial move Magic made in his short tenure in charge was ostracizing and eventually trading point guard D’Angelo Russell, who was used as a very strong sweetener in a trade with Brooklyn to dump Timofey Mozgov’s contract (another terrible deal signed by the previous administration). The Lakers did get back Brook Lopez and Kuzma in that deal, as well as the extra cap space that getting rid of Mozgov provided them. Given that we haven’t yet seen how they used that cap space listed among these moves gives you an indication of how well they actually used that space, but on the face of it, this should have been a better deal than it was for the Lakers. Everything that came afterwards is what pushes it back down the tiers: Russell developed into a starting-caliber point guard, while Ball has yet to show he’s capable of playing that role (or really playing consistently at all), while Lopez left the Lakers after one year and is having the season of a lifetime in Milwaukee.
The first of the non-minimum Summer 2018 Disaster Signings shows up at the bottom of this tier, as the Lakers gave out a one-year deal to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope worth $12 million shortly after picking up James. Those two share an agent, which had to play a part in getting Caldwell-Pope as much money as he did, but at least he has some upside as a 3-and-D player, even though neither have quite shown up as well as they should have by now in his career.
The signings that eventually sunk Magic’s tenure in Los Angeles were all as baffling at the time as they are in retrospect. Handing $9 million to Rajon Rondo for the 2018-19 season is in the running for the worst contract handed out last summer, as Rondo has once again shown that he’s barely a replacement-level point guard. Frankly, they would have been better off giving Rondo’s spot to Alex Caruso or literally any other point guard they could have gotten off the scrap heap for a quarter of what they paid Rondo. He brings some off-court leadership to the club, but his on-court production doesn’t seem to warrant the payday he received.
Just to make sure Rondo wasn’t lonely at the bottom, the Lakers followed that up with a $4.5 million pact with Lance Stephenson, who hadn’t been good in five years at that point and sported an abysmal 51 percent true shooting before this season in Los Angeles. To his credit, Stephenson hasn’t been the absolute dumpster fire most thought he would be this season, but to say that they overpaid for his services is an understatement.
The same thought prevails for Michael Beasley, who is involved in two of the worst moves of Magic’s reign: the original signing in July and the trade in February that sent him out alongside Ivica Zubac and brought back Mike Muscala, who immediately made the team worse on both ends of the court. The other moves Magic made were at least somewhat defensible, even if they were massive misreads of the market; the Lakers were trying to build a team of playmakers and while they settled on Rondo and Stephenson as those guys, instead of literally anybody else, you can at least see what they were going for. The Beasley/Zubac/Muscala trade makes no sense on any level; if they needed the roster spot they got for trading 2-for-1, do what the Clippers did and cut Beasley loose, but giving up on a promising young center whom they chose over Bryant the previous summer was about as bad as it gets.
Something that doesn’t qualify as a move the organization made under Magic’s guidance but nonetheless is responsible for the situation in which they find themselves is the organization culture that has infested the club from top to bottom. He doesn’t bear sole responsibility for this in the same way he does the basketball moves the team made, but it’s still on him to create a positive culture around the club, something at which he failed dramatically. Above all else, this will be his legacy as president of the Lakers, not the trades or draft picks or signings. From alienating Russell at the outset to the complete shitstorm that was this season to walking out without so much as a word to Jeanie, Magic Johnson not only failed as a basketball executive, he failed as a leader, something that you’d never in a thousand years would have thought would come true when he took the job initially. Magic is larger than life, a near-mythical figure in NBA circles, simultaneously capable of being the center of the room and making a personal connection with everyone he meets, but when it came to leading the Lakers into the future, he really could not have done much worse.