Let’s stipulate the following from the top:
- Magic Johnson is, at worst, the second greatest Laker of all time, and if you polled the city he’d almost certainly take the top spot.
- Magic Johnson undoubtedly cares about the Lakers, deeply loves and respects Dr. Buss and feels protective of his legacy.
- Magic Johnson says all kinds of shit, all the time, about the Lakers.
- Anything Magic Johnson says about the Lakers is news, owing to his being Magic Johnson.
- Magic Johnson is not a fan of Jim Buss.
All of that was front and center after Magic teed off on Jim Buss earlier this week to the Los Angeles Times. The highlights:
- “This is what happens when you make the wrong decisions, two coaching wrong decisions, giving Steve Nash that deal, it’s backfired.”
- “The biggest problem they’re going to have right now … you’ve got to get a guy like Jerry West to be the face of the team.”
- “You’ve got to have someone helping Jim. He’s got to quit trying to prove a point to everybody that he can do it on his own, get his ego out of it, and just say, ‘Let me get someone beside me to help achieve the goals I want.’ … “You need to get someone like Jerry to be the face, so agents are comfortable, players are comfortable, knowing the Lakers are going for a championship.
- Johnson said that current Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak is doing a good job. “Mitch is great,” he said, “but he doesn’t have the power.” Johnson also added, “Everybody’s telling me free agents don’t want to sign [with the Lakers]…. They’re looking at the Lakers now as a team that’s dysfunctional; who’s their leader, who’s the guy? … “Dr. Buss was smart,” Johnson said. “He said, ‘I’m going to get the best dude, Jerry West, and he helped me achieve my goals. Then I went and got the best coach [in Phil Jackson]. He wanted to work with the best.”
Overall, Magic is, as is generally the case, spot on in some ways and all over the place in others. On the one hand, to even reference the acquisitions of Steve Nash and Dwight Howard as a bad idea requires an incredible comfort with revisionism. Magic, like everyone else in the free world, thought the Lakers absolutely knocked it out of the park with those deals, as Kevin Ding of Bleacher Report notes, said as much. The trades obviously didn’t work and mistakes were made subsequently, but that doesn’t mean those transactions were a bad idea.
He has a tendency to lob out big names (Pat Riley! Jerry West! Phil Jackson!) without any sense of context. Sure, Magic said the Lakers need “someone like Jerry” to be the face of the franchise, because the actual Jerry is under contract with another team. But Riley isn’t walking through that door, either, and in fact there’s nobody out there I can think of the Lakers could find to run the front office who is “like” either. (Instead, the Lakers seem to have basically abdicated to Kobe the role of “guy who is supposed to bring calm and reassurance to fans and the basketball world alike.” Not a good idea since that’s not his job, it’s a very temporary “fix,” and I don’t think Bryant is a magnet for big time free agents.)
Sometimes Magic is right — in the same interview he noted the Lakers should have waited on Kobe’s extension — but for the wrong reasons. Magic’s? Because the Lakers should seen who might be signed this summer. Incorrect. A) They can still sign people, and b) the free agent class is actually pretty weak. A better reason to hold off? How about seeing if Kobe showed signs of high level play coming off Achilles surgery? Especially when there is no practical threat of losing him and the plan was (apparently) to give him gobs and gobs of money at the first positive signs. $48.5 million would have soothed whatever hurt feelings Kobe had at having to wait an extra month or two.
On the other, Magic is absolutely correct about Jim needing to step back from the player personnel role he could (though not necessarily should) carry out while his dad was alive and ultimately had final authority over big moves. Now, Jim signs the checks and decides who ought to get them, too. In professional sports, that’s a terrible idea. But the Lakers don’t need to go find a “face.” Mitch Kupchak will do just fine, assuming people believe he has the type of autonomy West used to wield, where Dr. Buss was a presence but not involved in the day-to-day maintenance of the roster. It’s an opinion I’ve held for a while, and would hold even if I felt Jim Buss was great at his job (which I don’t) and was well-respected across the league (which he isn’t).
As an organization, the Lakers have badly botched their last two coaching hires. Mike Brown was a poor choice. Mike D’Antoni might have had potential had the Lakers not comically botched his hiring with the Phil Phiasco. (First rule: If you’re going to make people think you’re hiring Phil Jackson, hire Phil Jackson. You can’t rip off that tablecloth and expect the flowers and china to remain on the table.) Eventually D’Antoni will have to be canned, too, and Lakers fans can hardly be blamed for worrying about which guy will come next. (Particularly if they feel limited once again to guys named Mike.)
Nor can the respect factor be overlooked. While Dwight Howard was a bad messenger, some of his message was nonetheless important. That was reportedly very unimpressed with Jim Buss, for example. Deserved or not, if too many people across the NBA universe don’t believe in Jim, the Lakers are obviously damaged by it, particularly as the rebuild kicks into full swing.
There are reasons to be sympathetic towards Jim. He has an impossible legacy to match, for one, something that will never change. If Jim Buss teams win three titles over the next (oh…) 20 years, that would constitute a nice run for most NBA teams. Here, he’ll be called a failure. He’s adjusting to a life professionally and personally without his father. That’s tough, and takes time. His personality doesn’t resonate and is still, after great effort, only periodically passible with the media (Side note: Take off the effing hat, Jim.) He’s trying to overcome a well-established narrative of a generally well-meaning incompetent. That’s a tough boulder to move.
Particularly when he has the much more popular Jeannie on the business side, and has to deal with Magic, fiercely loyal to Jeannie but not him, lobbing grenades at his office from up on Mt. Olympus (or, depending on his schedule, Chavez Ravine). I can’t imagine the circumstances in which Jim Buss wins a public spat with Magic Johnson. He just has to take it.
Which gets to the most important point: His incredible stature means Magic doesn’t really have to be correct or informed when he opines on the state of the Lakers. (And when the state of the Lakers is bad, his opines often.) But even when he’s on the money, his criticisms are generally counterproductive. Things like this are not harmless. Magic’s comments further erode public confidence in Jim Buss, and even if it’s deserved, that hurts the Lakers. When he goes scorched earth, it hurts even more.
It’s one thing for me to slag Jim Buss. I’m not family.
Magic Johnson is, and therefore has a responsibility to be more measured with his public comments. Generally speaking, I’d just as soon he stop talking about the Lakers at all.