As even the most casual basketball fan knows at this point, Magic Johnson recently featured on ESPN’s First Take and appeared to do his best to single-handedly take a wrecking ball to the Lakers organization.
Despite Johnson’s reputation for positivity, bleeding purple and gold, and wearing his infectious smile, his First Take interview showed a completely different side much less palatable to Laker fans. On top of confirming several suspicions of Laker dysfunction, Johnson’s words raised several points that didn’t exactly hold water under even the most casual levels of scrutiny. While several points could be raised here, what follows are the top five things that didn’t make sense from Johnson’s First Take interview:
5. Johnson’s Attempts to Justify Past Personnel Decisions
While Johnson admitted to making a mistake in failing to resign Brook Lopez last off-season, he did attempt to justify his failure to resign Julius Randle and his trading of D’Angelo Russell. As for Randle, Johnson claimed he could not sign re-sign him because he wanted a two year deal (Lakers only wanted to give out one year deals), that Randle could not play on the floor with LeBron James, and that he was not enough of a floor spacer.
The two year deal point was unfortunately his best in regards to Julius Randle. If the Lakers had drawn a line in the sand about one year deals, then Randle’s insistence upon a longer deal would seem to have precluded any chances of resigning him. If one looks deeper, however, it would seem obvious that a two year deal at the team friendly price that he signed for in New Orleans would have been advantageous for the Lakers notwithstanding any one year rule.
If the Lakers needed the extra cap space to sign a free agent this summer, his contract would not have been difficult to move via trade as it is a reasonable one and his deal would be expiring. Also, if the Lakers were unable to sign a max free agent this summer, they would still have had a very talented and versatile player in Randle for another year – not a bad consolation prize.
The points about Randle not being a floor spacer or being able to play on the floor with LeBron also don’t pass any rudimentary thought experiment. First, when the Lakers let Randle go, one of their first signings was Rajon Rondo, a non-floor spacer. The Lakers were also criticized because their other notable free agent signings outside of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope were non-shooters (e.g. Lance Stephenson, Michael Beasley, and JaVale McGee).
Prior to the 2018-2019 season, Johnson and Pelinka went on record stating that they preferred a team of play-makers rather than shooters because, they argued, no team could out-Golden-State the Warriors. So, if shooting was not the Lakers’ priority last off-season, then Randle’s lack of floor spacing ability should not have been a factor against resigning him.
Moreover, if play-making was such a priority, Randle had shown flashes of being a very capable play-maker. He would have fit the bill quite nicely. It should be added that Basketball Reference recorded Randle’s three point percentage for the 2018-2019 season being 34.4% which would have been above the Lakers’ team three-point percentage of 33.3%. Randle’s play-making and improved shooting numbers certainly would have fit nicely next to LeBron in a small-ball lineup that the Lakers tried so desperately, without much success.
In regards to D’Angelo Russell, the only justification Johnson gave for trading him was the incident with “Shaggy P”. Wherein Russell had filmed a personal confession of sorts from Nick Young (actually referred to as “Swaggy P”) and the video ended up being posted on social media. This led to much consternation in the Lakers locker room during Russell’s rookie season. Apparently nowhere in Johnson’s frame of mind was the possibility that Russell could learn from this incident and go on to recognize the talent that led the Lakers to drafting him with the number two overall pick. Brooklyn were more than happy to accommodate the Lakers in off-loading him as a Russell-led Nets would go on to reach the playoffs and in the process, officially eliminate the Lakers from postseason contention this past season.
All of the above does not even address the less-than-professional attempt of both Johnson and Stephen A. Smith to justify the head-scratching trade of Ivica Zubac to the Clippers for a roughly one month rental of the disappointing Mike Muscala. During this discussion, both Johnson and Smith seemed to chortle while listing Zubac’s playoff statistics, completely ignoring the fact that even Zubac’s underwhelming numbers were better than any Lakers player since the team failed to even qualify for the playoffs.
4. Rob Pelinka’s “Betrayal” of Magic Johnson
On Johnson’s First Take interview, he said that he had let Pelinka know he was only going to be Lakers’ President of Basketball Operations (PBO) for three years and that at the end of this time, Pelinka was being groomed to take over the same position. Yet, at the same time, he blamed Pelinka for “betraying” him because he “want(ed) his position”. If Johnson was to remain as PBO indefinitely, then certainly Pelinka could have a motive to try by any means necessary to oust Johnson. However, if it was a foregone conclusion that Pelinka was going to take over player-personnel decisions from Johnson after just one more season (they had already worked together for two seasons), this motivation for betrayal would make little sense.
Additionally, Johnson claimed to have been upset by the fact that he was hearing around Lakers’ offices that he was “not working hard enough. Magic’s not in the office”. Yet, he claimed during the same First Take interview to have told Laker owner Jeanie Buss as a stipulation to his hiring that due to him needing to attend to his businesses, he would be “in and out.” Given an apparent agreement between Johnson and Buss that he was to be a part-time PBO, it seems odd that this would be such a hot-button issue for Johnson that others voiced concerns about said practice.
If Johnson was angry with Pelinka for not confronting him directly about him not being in the office, this would also be a head-scratcher. He was upset that others didn’t address him personally about their issues with him, yet it was apparently acceptable for him to not personally confront anyone in the Lakers organization about his issues with them. Instead, it was perfectly acceptable in his eyes to go on national TV to decimate the entire franchise without ever saying anything to anyone in the organization.
3. Johnson Claims That His Hiring Stipulated He Would Be “in and out”
In an apparent attempt to address what most had known for a while, namely that Johnson was rarely at Laker offices, Johnson pointed out on First Take:
“When we sat down and negotiated, I told (Jeanie) I can’t give up my businesses. I make more money doing that than becoming the President of the Lakers. So, you know, I’m going to be in and out. I said is that ok with you? She said ‘yes.’”MAGIC JOHNSON (20/05/19, FIRST TAKE)
This was an interesting revelation, because when he was initially hired by Lakers as PBO, he made an appearance on Spectrum Sports with Jeanie Buss. At that time, he stated that the Lakers presented a rare opportunity in which he would agree to “leave his businesses aside, to concentrate fully-150% on Laker business”.
These two statements cannot be reconciled other than to say that Johnson’s words may tend to simply be tailored to the the immediate context and audience in which he is speaking, whatever that may be.
2. Johnson Claims to Love the Lakers
Not just on First Take, but in several other contexts, Johnson claims to love the Lakers. However, if this is so, why go on First Take and completely submarine new Laker coach, Frank Vogel, and his press conference that Johnson knew was set to take place in a few hours.
Additionally, Pelinka stated at Vogel’s press conference that he had spoken with Johnson just days before his appearance on First Take and that Johnson gave Pelinka no indication that he was going to eviscerate the franchise on national TV, throwing multiple Lakers’ front office employees under the buss.
Ramona Shelburne also reported that in Jeanie Buss’s multiple conversations with Johnson after his stepping down as Laker PBO, Johnson never told her his grievances:
“Buss had questioned Johnson several times in the wake of his public resignation, asking him if there were any issues with Pelinka or anyone else in the organization. They spoke on the phone for hours. They went to a private dinner at Wally’s in Beverly Hills on May 2. Multiple Lakers sources told ESPN that each time, Johnson said nothing beyond what he’d said on April 9 – that he didn’t feel like he could be Magic in this role and wanted his freedom back.”Ramona Shelburne, ESPN Senior Writer
So not only did he hold back from this organization he claims to love, he made an affirmative decision to go on national TV to air grievances for the first time. This leads to the question of “why?”.
It was also disconcerting to see the tone, tenor, format and pace of the First Take interview itself. While there is no direct evidence of such, and such is conjecture by me, the interview at times appeared to have been rehearsed and premeditated. Johnson and Stephen A. Smith even referenced a prior meeting leading up to the show. At no point in time did Smith appear surprised at any of Johnson’s answers. Hence, it appeared as if Johnson specifically withheld information from the Lakers in order to submarine them by surprise on national TV.
Johnson also has claimed that his love for the Lakers would motivate him to help the franchise recruit potential free agents in some sort of unofficial capacity with the team. After Johnson’s inflammatory comments on national TV, he could never be expected to meet with free agents alongside Pelinka who he has branded as a “back-stabber”. Any recruiting pitch would also be undermined by the fact he painted the Lakers organization as one not able to make decisions because when they are not backstabbing and power-grabbing, they are paralyzed by too many cooks in the kitchen.
While one may be able to conjure up motivations for Johnson’s comments, one thing is clear: if “love” is a verb, Johnson surely has no love for the Lakers.
1. Johnson Claims to Think of Jeanie Buss as His Sister
Perhaps the most perplexing and unexplainable aspect of Johnson’s First Take interview is his multiple assertions that he thinks of Jeanie Buss as his “sister”. Yet, in the past month-and-a-half, Johnson quit as PBO notifying Jeanie via the media with no notice, refusing to tell her the grievances he specifically held despite inquiry.
He also decimated his “sister’s” franchise on national TV and hurt her ability to make her family business succeed in the future as the Lakers attempt to remove the large buss that Johnson threw them under going forward. These would not be the actions of most against one’s worst enemy, let alone a member of one’s “family”.
If these were the actions of Johnson as he attempted to lead the Lakers as PBO then his resignation may truly have been addition by subtraction. Of course, this can only be the case if Johnson decides to actually leave. If Johnson’s First Take appearance is any indicator, it appears that he can’t help himself whether his divisive statements make any actual sense or not.
By Frank Gaulden (@FrankGaulden)