In February 2017, Magic Johnson accepted the challenge of returning to help his beloved Los Angeles Lakers get back to the top of the NBA standings. At the time, they were in the midst of what would become a six-year postseason drought. The 2016-2017 season would be the first time in 20 years that All-Star/future Hall of Fame guard Kobe Bryant would not suit up for the team, due to his retirement. As such, the Lakers were devoid of a superstar talent for the first time in a long time.
When Magic came into the fold, he inherited a roster which left a lot to be desired. Along with newly installed general manager Rob Pelinka, Magic would go about the business of reconstructing the Lakers roster. The more notable transactions made by the Magic/Pelinka duo in the summer of 2017 were as follows:
- Drafting UCLA point guard Lonzo Ball with the second overall selection
- Trading Timofey Mozgov and D’Angelo Russell to the Brooklyn Nets for Brook Lopez and the draft rights to forward Kyle Kuzma
- Trading the draft rights to Tony Bradley to the Utah Jazz for the draft rights to Josh Hart and Thomas Bryant
- Signing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Andrew Bogut to one-year contracts; and
- Deciding not to re-sign Nick Young after the expiration of his one year contract.
While getting out of the Mozgov contract was needed to move forward, shedding said contract came at the cost of including promising young guard D’Angelo Russell in the trade with Brooklyn. Magic felt confident including Russell in the trade due to the drafting of Lonzo Ball, whom, in the words of Magic Johnson, would “be a better leader.”
As of now, Ball’s draft grade would have to be considered incomplete as he has missed multiple games due to injury. Meanwhile, Russell has exploded, earning an All-Star berth while helping the Nets to reach the postseason. Caldwell-Pope has turned out to be a solid acquisition, however, he signed yet another one-year contract which expired at the end of the 2018-19 season. Andrew Bogut was waived and returned to his native Australia. However, he resumed his NBA career this season, recently joining the reigning champion Golden State Warriors. Josh Hart has been an effective player, while Kyle Kuzma has started his career off in grand fashion and looks to be a stud. Unfortunately, the season would end in the same fashion as did the previous four – with a losing record (35-47), and missing out on the playoffs. Again.
The summer of 2018 would bring renewed hope, as superstar free agent LeBron James signed a four-year $153 million dollar contract to join the Los Angeles Lakers. Getting James seemed to be just what the doctor ordered to help hasten the Lakers return to prominence. In addition to the James signing, the following moves of note were made:
- Drafted Michigan forward Moritz (Mo) Wagner in the first round
- Drafted forward Isaac Bonga and Kansas guard Sviatoslav (Svi) Mykhailiuk in the second round
- Signed point guard Rajon Rondo, forwards Lance Stephenson and Michael Beasley, in addition to centers JaVale McGee and Tyson Chandler, each to one-year contracts
- Waived forward Luol Deng;
- Allowed Brook Lopez to leave in free agency, signing with the Milwaukee Bucks
- Allowed Julius Randle to leave in free agency, signing with the New Orleans Pelican; and
- Midseason trades which saw them acquire guard Reggie Bullock and forward/center Mike Muscala.
The one year contract signings were strategic in that salary cap space would be available during the summer of 2019, to hopefully entice a top tier free agent to sign and join forces with LeBron James. Waiving Deng was necessary as, just as getting out of the contract obligations to Timofey Mozgov the prior year, the Lakers wanted to be freed from Deng’s contract as well.
The decisions to allow both Brook Lopez and Julius Randle to leave have seemingly backfired. Lopez has helped the Bucks enjoy success as they enter the 2019 postseason with the league’s best record. Randle, with career averages of 13.4 points per game, 8.9 rebounds per game and 2.7 assists per game during his four year Lakers career, has gone to New Orleans and put up numbers of 21.4 points per game, 8.7 rebounds per game and 3.1 assists per game.
The midseason additions of Reggie Bullock and Mike Muscala bore little if any fruit. In 19 games played for Los Angeles, Bullock is averaging 9.3 points per game while shooting 41%. In 17 games played for Los Angeles, Muscala is averaging 5.9 points per game, while pulling down 2.9 rebounds per outing.
Meanwhile, Ivica Zubac, one of the players involved in the trade with the Los Angeles Clippers for Mike Muscala (the other being the since-waived Michael Beasley), is averaging 9 points and 8 rebounds per game. Definitely not spectacular, but decent numbers.
To say that most of the maneuvers made by the Magic/Pelinka regime have not been very good would be to state the obvious. All-Star New Orleans Pelicans center Anthony Davis publicly demanded a trade, making no secret his preferred destination is to become a Los Angeles Laker. Magic attempted to negotiate a trade but was rebuffed by New Orleans. Ultimately, Pelicans general manager Dell Demps was fired and no resolution to the Davis request was reached. As of now, he remains with the Pelicans organization.
Outside of the LeBron signing, very little, if anything, of note, can be pointed to as a signature accomplishment. Even with James, the Lakers will miss the playoffs. While this year will be viewed as a failure by Lakers fans, it must be noted that James did miss a number of games due to a groin tear suffered on Christmas Day. The team as a whole was not immune to the injury bug as Rondo missed a number of games due to injury, and both Ball and Ingram missed games, eventually leading to them being shut down for the season, as LeBron would also be convinced to waive the white flag with six games remaining.
Going into the season finale, Lakers players missed a whopping 212 combined games due to injury this season. Even though James put up phenomenal individual numbers, averaging 27.4 points, 8.5 rebounds and 8.3 assists per game, the ultimate goal of reaching the playoffs will escape the Lakers grasp again this year.
Going forward, the task of fixing what ails the Lakers will no longer fall in Magic Johnson’s lap. On April 9, 2019, Magic resigned his position of President of Basketball Operations prior to the Lakers final game of the season. He said he wasn’t having fun and was “tired of all the backstabbing, the whispering.” Magic is one of the most jovial and upbeat people on the face of the planet, inside and outside of the sports world. Things must have really taken a toll on him. He said he was “happier on the other side” and didn’t want to make the call on what to do about firing or retaining head coach Luke Walton. As an aside, Lakers trainer Marco Nunez was fired at the end of the season as well.
The upcoming summer for the Lakers was already a daunting one. Now with Magic’s resignation, they have yet another log on the fire to extinguish. Magic said that it would take at least two summers to get the players in place to engineer a turnaround. He wasn’t willing to stay to make a go of it.
Nevertheless, the Lakers franchise has its work cut out for them. A decision needs to be made soon regarding Luke Walton’s job status. This is critical in free agent pursuits, as potential new players will want to know for whom they would be playing. This summer will be quite hectic and busy, but one thing is certain. Magic won’t be around to have a hand in helping to right the ship. Lakers fans everywhere want to know how to right it because as it stands, things have definitely gone wrong.
Since this writing, the Lakers and Head Coach Luke Walton have mutually agreed to part ways. Let the search for the next head coach begin.