LOS ANGELES — His basketball instincts weren’t always right, but they were never wrong. There’s too much evidence of this over the course of a Hall of Fame career, where Magic Johnson created dreams for himself while simultaneously crushing those of others.
Where do we begin? Aside from the no-look passes that became a trademark, he once tossed the ball downcourt to avoid being intentionally fouled, the backspinning ball slowly bouncing the final seconds off the clock to send the Los Angeles Lakers to a playoff victory. Who ever thought of doing that?
He’s back at it, this time in charge of running and restoring the Lakers with the sole purpose of winning, and once again Magic must remember his initial instincts when he took the job and learn to trust them.
His blueprint was never to have the Lakers blast out from the starting blocks and win the month of October -- do they give out trophies for that? Instead, it was to ride the still-freakish talents of LeBron James with short-term veterans and let the young players develop on reasonable time so they can be ready for big-boy ball in the spring.
This is probably what caught Luke Walton and outsiders by surprise the other day when the young coach heard a higher octave than normal from Magic, who gave Walton an early lecture with the Lakers in the midst of a sluggish but perfectly understandable (and harmless for now) 4-6 start.
But believe the sources who yesterday stressed calm, saying Walton is in no danger of losing his job this season, that Magic’s meeting was merely an early (if premature) shake-up call.
This faith in Walton seemed curiously timed Sunday when the Lakers reached their LeBron-era low point, getting lapped 121-107 at Staples Center by the Toronto Raptors. That loss came with Kawhi Leonard sitting out because of a sore left foot and with the Lakers hearing boos from fans with steep hopes.
Leonard is in play for the Lakers next summer when he hits free agency, but for this season anyway, he’s on a team with fewer adjustment issues and the easier path to the NBA Finals (meaning, they play in the East). Toronto is 9-1 and for once appears LeBron-proof (meaning, he’s in the West now).
If Magic was really in a rush to keep up with the Stephen Currys, Kevin Durants and Klay Thompsons -- which seems an exercise in frustration at this point, honestly -- he had two chances to try a shortcut and his basketball instincts advised him otherwise, perhaps wisely.
In the summer of 2017 -- only months after Johnson was named Lakers president -- the Indiana Pacers informally put Paul George on the trade market. There was a strong feeling in Indiana that George, a year away from unrestricted free agency, would not re-sign and it was best to get value for him now, rather than watch him walk and get nothing. The Pacers wanted a package of young players and/or Draft picks plus salary cap filler. And negotiations with the Lakers started with Brandon Ingram.
Magic passed on the deal, figuring George (a Southern Cal kid) would sign the following summer as a free agent (he didn’t) and in a worst-case scenario, the Lakers would keep their cap room and Ingram would show improvement (he has).
Leonard is now a year from free agency, he grew up in the L.A. area and was shopped by the San Antonio Spurs this summer. While San Antonio wasn’t eager to send him to a Western rival, Kawhi would’ve been a Laker at the right price. And once again, negotiations started with Ingram as part of a package.
Johnson passed again as he figured Kawhi could come to the Lakers for free, so to speak, in the summer of 2019. Why not continue, then, home-growing Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart -- all of whom the Lakers drafted -- and watch most if not all of them make noise in due time?
While the volume of Magic’s meeting with Walton was perhaps turned up, the subject was misleading. Magic isn’t demanding the Lakers play winning ball right away, although that would be fine by him. He’s demanding the Lakers play defense right away, and he holds Walton accountable for that.
The Lakers rank in the bottom third of the NBA defensively, with improvements being marginal and only showing in spurts. This has occurred despite center JaVale McGee playing surprisingly well as a rim protector and all the young legs in the rotation. If the Lakers can’t defend now, how can they expect to defend in the playoffs, provided they make it there? Now that would surely make Walton an endangered Laker coach.
Therefore, it was better for Magic to let him know now than suffer the consequences later.
The Lakers were buried by more defensive breakdowns Sunday, spotting the Raptors 41 first-quarter points and watching Serge Ibaka miss only two of 17 shots en route to 34 points (nearly 20 above his season average). But it was the second game of a back-to-back for the Lakers, and Walton was still the coach after the game. So, no, there’s no hot seat.
“They got to where they wanted, they got into a rhythm and it made it tough to stop after that,” Walton said.
The missing piece, someone who’d instantly cure the Lakers' defense (among other issues), didn’t play. Leonard's foot was too bruised in the final moments of the Raptors’ win in Phoenix two nights earlier. Still, he's having an MVP-like start: 26.1 points, 7.6 rebounds and some of the finest perimeter defense in the league.
He came to Toronto from the Spurs via a summer blockbuster trade with Danny Green, who says what Kawhi’s doing right now shouldn’t be the slightest surprise, even after missing virtually all last season with an injured quad muscle.
“I expected exactly what he’s shown so far,” Green said. “He’s one of the best players in this league and is determined to prove that on a night-in, night-out basis. I’ve seen from him this before. I’m seeing it again.”
Here’s the question the Lakers want answered: Is he happy in Toronto?
“You’d have to ask him,” said Green, and good luck with that. All Kawhi revealed when asked about a perceived love for the Lakers while growing up near LA was this: “I was an Allen Iverson fan.”
Which means exactly nothing on Nov. 5, other than July 1, the first day of free agency, is a long ways away.
Between now and then, the Lakers and Walton are under the boss’ orders to clean up the defense, reduce mistakes late in close games and stay on point.
“Just try to stay even keel,” said LeBron, who pledged his support for Walton. “We don’t need to read too much into nights like this.”
Tell that to Magic.
* * *
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.