They won 11 championships combined, changed the game, made the league healthy and became icons. You cannot begin to describe basketball without mentioning them and what they did and how many they influenced. That’s the impact of Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson.
They made teams great. But can they create great teams? That’s the ongoing challenge for a pair of Mount Rushmore players who oversee the Los Angeles Lakers (Johnson) and Charlotte Hornets (Jordan) as they learn how success in one area of basketball isn’t so simple in another.
When the playoffs begin on April 13, there’s the very real chance it will go forth without both MJs. Decades ago, this was unthinkable. As players, their teams (Jordan’s Chicago Bulls and Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers) made the playoffs every season and were often strong title contenders.
The teams they represent today have no shot at any of that.
Johnson is team president of the Lakers, who were eliminated from playoff contention last Friday. The Jordan-owned Hornets are a stumble or two away from elimination, which, if it happens, will be another sign of a new normalcy for him.
The Lakers haven’t made the playoffs in two seasons under Johnson’s watch. The Hornets made the playoffs only twice in Jordan’s nine seasons as owner -- and just three times in the 13 years since Jordan, previously the Hornets’ president, has been in control of the franchise. At the very least, it’s a humbling experience for Magic and Jordan and shows how much harder they must work to restore faith among their teams’ fan bases.
Pressure to perform in L.A.
Magic is just getting started, but any leeway you give must be tempered with the higher stakes he faces. Not only does he have LeBron James under contract for three more years, he’s in charge of the Lakers, a proud franchise with 16 championships and a certain standard. That sense of urgency equals a reduced grace period for the relatively new team president.
“I’m a winner, and that’s what we’re gonna do,” Johnson said shortly after being given the franchise keys by controlling owner Jeanie Buss. That bold statement means Magic welcomes the pressure that comes with the job. He did, after all, help lead the Lakers to a title as a rookie in 1979-80 and the good times lasted over a decade with him. Of course, that was when he ran the fast break and threw no-look passes.
In this job, he must judge talent, negotiate trades, oversee the scouting department and convince free agents there’s no better place to be than in L.A. with the Lakers.
He’s also competing against astute talent evaluators and negotiators who’ve been in their positions for years, individuals who have worked their way up the ranks while being well-versed in the necessary grunt work.
Magic is banking heavily that by clearing salary cap space, he’ll add enough talent around LeBron to make a title run. His plan isn’t foolproof, however, and may backfire should he come up empty this summer.
Johnson traded D’Angelo Russell to the Nets in the summer of 2017 because Brooklyn agreed to take Timofey Mozgov’s clunky contract in return, which was given by former Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak in 2016. The Lakers also received a mid-round No. 1 pick in the deal, which Johnson used to take Kyle Kuzma.
Kuzma plus cap space sounds great … yet unlike Kuzma, Russell is now an All-Star, leaving some Lakers fans are howling.
Magic also drafted Lonzo Ball with the No. 2 pick in 2017, ahead of De’Aaron Fox and Jayson Tatum. Ball may eventually become a solid player, maybe even a star and his basketball instincts are sharp (and he’s only 21). But so far and for whatever it’s worth right now, he’s behind Fox and Tatum in development.
Johnson struck out last summer in signing Paul George in free agency as George didn’t even give the Lakers an interview. George chose Russell Westbrook over LeBron as a teammate and became a Kia MVP candidate this season.
To keep the cap space clean this summer, Johnson signed journeymen like Rajon Rondo, JaVale McGee and Lance Stephenson to one-year deals. Their impact has been mixed and there wasn’t a shooter in the bunch to address the Lakers’ biggest weakness in 2018-19.
That, plus injuries to LeBron, Ball and Brandon Ingram, destroyed the Lakers’ playoff hopes this season before April, an embarrassment for the franchise.
All this does is place a greater sense of urgency for Johnson this summer to make the right decisions with the Lakers’ draft pick, their salary cap space and in any potential trade packages he makes for the New Orleans Pelicans’ Anthony Davis. Should he miss at most or all of these, the Lakers run the risk of burning through another season where they don’t contend for a title with LeBron, who turns 35 in December.
Hornets struggle to gain traction
Jordan is dealing with a far longer (and if not as frustrating of a) dry spell. His troubles aren’t magnified because Charlotte is a small market, the Hornets aren’t on anyone’s radar outside of there. Plus, many loyal UNC fans still remember his NCAA title-winning shot in 1982. He’s not getting the James Dolan treatment does in New York (in other words, no one is asking Jordan to sell the club).
But is it too much to ask Jordan to find answers? Those questions are being asked.
Since becoming owner in March of 2010, Jordan has seen two winning seasons (2013-14 and ’15-16), burned through five coaches and is on his third general manager. His team is unlikely to have cap space until 2021 because of questionable deals given to Nicolas Batum, Cody Zeller, Michael-Kidd Gilchrist and others.
So much for the perception that Jordan is tight with a buck. Instead: Is he wise with the dollars? That will be put to test this summer when he decides what to do with unrestricted free agent/superstar guard Kemba Walker.
If Walker makes an All-NBA team this season, he can make as much as $221 million over five years if the Hornets decide to give him that max contract. If he misses out on All-NBA, his ceiling with the Hornets is $189 million over five years. Other teams can offer $140 million over four years.
Walker, Charlotte’s all-time leading scorer, is a three-time All-Star who can score like mad. The ball-dominant guard will turn 29 next season and has won three playoff games in his eight seasons with Charlotte.
In the past, Jordan said he’d be willing to pay the luxury tax if the Hornets were contenders. Well, if he pays Walker the max or anywhere near it, the Hornets will be a tax team. If he lets Walker walk, the Hornets lose a talent they’ll be unable to replace right away.
Jordan backed away from most personnel decisions once becoming owner. He did reportedly veto a proposal from the Boston Celtics, who offered six No. 1 picks for the first-rounder Charlotte used on Frank Kaminski (No. 9 pick, 2015). In 2014, the Hornets were reportedly offered a pair of first rounders for the No. 9 pick, which they declined and took Noah Vonleh.
Drafts have been a major problem on Jordan’s watch. Aside from Walker, none of those taken by the Hornets have become impact players, although the jury is still out on Malik Monk and Miles Bridges.
The good news for Jordan is the Hornets are winners everywhere else. They play in a fan-friendly downtown arena, enjoy healthy home crowds and make money. Plus, Jordan paid $275 million for the club, which, per Forbes, has an estimated worth of $1.25 billion.
Johnson and Jordan never need to worry about money, celebrity or their place in the game. But is it possible they can still fail at basketball?
Their reputations as team builders is less certain and stable. It’s a work in progress and in some ways in peril, if only because they were such great players and game-changers in another basketball life.
They’re suddenly pressed to make the right basketball decisions, something that never caused them or their teams to sweat long ago. Now? Strange as it sounds, Magic and Jordan could use a little luck.
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