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Magic Johnson’s Biggest Moments While Running the Lakers

Category: Basketball,Sports

In his two years as president of basketball operations for the Los Angeles Lakers, Magic Johnson presided over a team as chaotic and playoff-free as the one he’d inherited.

The Lakers succeeded in stockpiling talent — including the franchise-altering signing of LeBron James — but failed in putting together complementary pieces, or attracting the second major star Johnson openly said he was chasing.

[Magic Johnson stunned the basketball world by suddenly stepping down on Tuesday.]

Here’s a look back at Johnson’s high and low points while running the team.

In February 2017, four seasons into the team’s longest-ever playoff drought, the Lakers reshuffled their front office by firing the general manager, Mitch Kupchak, and installing Johnson as its president. Less than a month later, Rob Pelinka, a longtime agent, was hired as the general manager, reporting to Johnson.

Officially and unofficially, Johnson had remained tied to the team since he retired in 1996. He owned a share of the team from 1994 to 2010, and after that he was an honorary vice president — a title the team took away from him after he violated the league’s tampering rules by tweeting about free agents.

Three weeks before he was hired in his new role, he had returned to the Lakers as an adviser to Jeanie Buss, the team’s president and co-owner. She would soon clean house while promoting Johnson.

“Everyone associated with the Lakers will now be pulling in the same direction, the direction established by Earvin and myself,” she said, using Johnson’s given name. “We are determined to get back to competing to win N.B.A. championships again.”

The first major test of the new regime had decidedly mixed results.

Days before the draft, Johnson shed the costly contract of Timofey Mozgof by giving up on D’Angelo Russell, who the team had selected second overall just two years earlier. In return for the duo, the Brooklyn Nets gave up Brook Lopez and the 27th pick in the draft, which turned into the promising Kyle Kuzma. But Russell has blossomed this year with the Nets, earning an All-Star appearance while leading Brooklyn back to the playoffs.

Russell’s departure opened the point guard spot for Lonzo Ball, who has flashed two-way potential but largely fallen short of his lofty expectations as the second pick in the draft. In addition to Kuzma, the Lakers struck gold with Josh Hart, who was selected 30th and has become a core piece.

Johnson made no secret of his intent to draw the game’s biggest stars to Los Angeles, with an eye toward what was expected to be a major 2018 off-season. The team largely punted on the 2017 off-season to preserve its salary cap space in 2018, signing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to a one-year deal.

At the 2018 trade deadline, the Lakers shed the contracts of Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr., opening more cap space. Johnson said the trade indicated the Lakers would have the cap space and the ability to land two star players, either by trade or free agency.

“I wouldn’t have made the move if I wasn’t confident,” he said at the time.

Signing LeBron James to a long-term contract in 2018 was exactly the kind of result the Lakers had planned for and needed, setting expectations that they would return to the playoffs and compete for a championship. But the free agents the Lakers signed to surround him — Caldwell-Pope, Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, JaVale McGee and Michael Beasley — immediately puzzled some observers.

An optimist would have called them playoff-tested veterans. Others saw it differently: A cast of nonshooters and big personalities who would have a questionable fit next to James and the Lakers’ young talent.

The hodgepodge crew was assembled partly because the team struck out on its bigger targets. After years of speculation that Paul George would return to his hometown, he instead opted to re-sign with Oklahoma City. The San Antonio Spurs sent Kawhi Leonard east to the Toronto Raptors. DeMarcus Cousins signed a bargain, one-year deal with the Golden State Warriors.

Once the season arrived, the Lakers blew it in dramatic fashion, extending their record playoff drought. But they preserved cap space for the 2019 off-season, giving them another chance to add a star.

There could be little doubt the Lakers would be interested in Anthony Davis as soon as he became available. James and Davis share an agent, and the Lakers were long believed to be Davis’s most committed suitor.

But when the All-Star center made a public trade request in late January, he created a debacle for Johnson and the Lakers. The players in the Lakers’ young core — Ball, Kuzma, Hart and Brandon Ingram, the second overall pick from the 2016 draft — were constantly named in leaked trade offers.

The Pelicans made an effort to head off any potential tampering when they announced Davis’s trade request. “We have also requested the League to strictly enforce the tampering rules associated with this transaction,” the team said in a statement.

In addition to Davis’s connections to the Lakers, Los Angeles had a well-known history of tampering, dating back to Johnson’s tweets before he took over.

Johnson was not very subtle about recruiting George during a 2017 appearance on “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” during which he was asked what he would do if he saw the player socially.

“We’re going to say hi because we know each other, you just can’t say, ‘Hey, I want you to come to the Lakers,’ even though I’ll be wink-winking like, ‘You know what that means, right?’ ”

The episode earned Johnson a warning from the N.B.A., and the team was later fined $500,000 for what the league deemed impermissible contact between Pelinka and George’s agent.

In June 2018, Johnson was fined $50,000 for his comments about Giannis Antetokounmpo after praising the Bucks star.

In February, the Sixers’ Ben Simmons — who plays as an oversized point guard, like Johnson did — requested a meeting with Johnson to get playing tips, prompting Johnson to publicly praise the former Rookie of the Year. But the league ultimately determined Johnson had not broken tampering rules.

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