Magic Johnson's sudden, rambling resignation from the Lakers a fitting ending to LeBron James' rough first season in L.A.
Magic said he quit because he wasn't having fun, but he has himself to blame
What he said was shocking enough -- Magic Johnson, less than two years after taking the reins of his beloved Los Angeles Lakers franchise, which had fallen on unprecedented hard times, was stepping down as president of basketball operations. The way he said it, however -- a rambling, 45-minute impromptu press conference before the team's final game of the season -- was flabbergasting.
But, should we really have been surprised?
With the way the Lakers' first season with LeBron James hobbled toward the finish line like a wounded gazelle, you almost had to laugh as Johnson took center stage from Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki -- both playing in the final home games of their career on Tuesday night -- to abruptly resign from his post, unbeknownst to owner Jeanie Buss and general manager Rob Pelinka, then spout off bewildering one-liners like, "I'm a free bird and I've been handcuffed," and, "if we were not [moving in the right direction as a franchise], I'd probably be staying."
In the end, it was all the theater of the Lakers' disappointing season bundled into a moment only a Laker -- THE Laker -- could produce.
Essentially Johnson's reasons for quitting boiled down to the fact that he just wasn't having fun. Fitting, since nobody associated with the Lakers (except perhaps Alex Caruso) has been having much fun since the team was officially eliminated from playoff contention in late March following embarrassing losses to the Suns and Anthony Davis-less Pelicans.
"I think I had more fun when I was able to be the big brother and the ambassador to everybody," Johnson said in his farewell address. "I thought about Dwyane Wade retiring and I can't even tweet it out -- I can't be there. ... I was thinking about all those times, all the guys who want me to mentor them or be a part of their lives, and I can't even do that. I had more fun on the other side than on this side. Because tomorrow I would have to affect somebody's livelihood and their life, and I thought about that and said, 'That's not fun for me. That's not who I am.' "
So Magic thought that taking control of one of the most scrutinized sports franchises in the world with a roster clearly behind schedule compared to the diminishing timetable of its great-but-aging superstar was going to be fun? It wasn't fun for the countless players involved in trade rumors following Davis' declaration that he wanted out of New Orleans -- the very same players that Johnson essentially told, "suck it up and do your job" when the distractions appeared to be getting to some of them.
Johnson, however, is not sucking it up. He's not doing his job. He's quitting. And leaving the Lakers with as many questions -- if not more -- than when he arrived.
There were immediate concerns about whether Johnson would embrace the modern NBA when he was hired, particularly given his questionable analysis of NBA talent that somehow has not been deleted from his Twitter account.
Ice-cold takes like these made it even more comical when Johnson reportedly celebrated being able to finally tweet what he wants following his resignation.
You can argue about Johnson's choice to draft Lonzo Ball, but Kyle Kuzma was a home run at No. 27 and Josh Hart appeared to be another one at No. 30. The Lakers improved, Luke Walton appeared to be the right coach for the job, and they had promising young assets to lure in free agents or bundle in a trade for a superstar.
But after they got that superstar, when LeBron signed in July, Johnson and Pelinka's puzzling moves looked much more like the guy who was tweeting about how good Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Knight were going to be. For years, the blueprint for success on LeBron-led teams was to surround him with shooters. Not only did the front office fail to do that -- they appeared to intentionally go in the opposite direction under the guise of adding "playmaking."
It didn't work.
Neither did their attempts to get Davis, and then their last-ditch effort to add shooting -- a glaring hole since the start of the season -- resulted in the team bizarrely parting ways with talented young big man Ivica Zubac and second-round pick Svi Mykhailiuk for Reggie Bullock and Mike Muscala. The brunt of the frustration of a wasted LeBron season fell on Walton, whom Magic was reportedly ready to fire before deciding he was actually the one who should go.
This is all to say that if Magic wasn't having fun, he's at least partly to blame. Sure there were injuries to LeBron, Lonzo and others, but under Johnson's direction, the Lakers went from having championship aspirations (founded or unfounded), to entering the lottery once again with a suddenly vincible James and a roster full of young malcontents who might or might not be talented enough to lead the franchise to wins in the near future.
So what do the Lakers do now? They move on. It's all they can do. Johnson left the team in good shape financially, with plenty of cap space this summer to attempt to bring in another star to pair with James. They might take another swing at trading for Davis, and will undoubtedly do their best to woo top-tier free agents like Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard to La La Land.
But let's hope whomever Buss eventually chooses to help lead the Lakers through the treacherous and meandering waters of roster construction understands one thing: It's certainly not going to be fun.
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