The Kingsroad: Magic Johnson and the Lakers' Path to LeBron James
There may not be a more confident man on the planet than Earvin Johnson Jr.
Sixteen months into his job as Lakers President of Basketball Operations, Johnson sat at a podium and shot down the idea of being nervous for the impending free agency period.
“You know how many Finals I’ve been in?” the five-time NBA champion asked. “You think I’m worried about this? I’ve played against Larry Bird in the Finals. Come on, man. I’ve been in nine Finals. I’ve been in the college NCAA championship.
“I’m Magic Johnson.”
Minutes later, Johnson vowed to a huddle of reporters that he would resign from his post if the Lakers didn’t land a star free agent over the next two summers. It took him two weeks to deliver the biggest superstar of all.
On Monday, the Lakers officially announced that they signed LeBron James.
So how did Johnson and General Manager Rob Pelinka go from front office rookies to landing the world’s best player in just over a year? By making one smart move after another, gradually building the Lakers into an attractive destination.
In February 2017, Johnson and Pelinka stepped into their roles and inherited a team that would go on to finish the year 26-56 — third-worst in the NBA.
To compound matters, the Lakers had little cap space and their only pick in the upcoming draft would have been sent to Philadelphia if it did not land among the first three selections.
With this in mind, Johnson immediately made a move to add to the war chest, trading Lou Williams to Houston for the 28th pick in the draft (and Corey Brewer).
After the ping pong balls fell the Lakers’ way, giving them the No. 2 pick, Johnson and Pelinka cleared cap space and added another draft slot in one swing.
It cost them D’Angelo Russell, but the Lakers were able to trade Timofey Mozgov (and his sizable contract) to Brooklyn, while also receiving the 27th pick and Brook Lopez.
A few days later, they and the Lakers’ scouting department (led by Assistant General Manager and Director of Scouting Jesse Buss) had a grand-slam draft night.
They selected Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart — the latter two chosen using the picks that Johnson’s moves had landed — landing three players that would make an immediate impact as rookies and also provide reason to believe that the Lakers had one of the brightest futures in the league.
Free agency came next and Johnson’s front office eschewed giving out multi-year deals, instead preserving cap space for this summer and beyond.
They did sign Kentavious Caldwell-Pope for a single year, making the team more competitive for zero longterm cost. He and Lopez provided valuable skills during a transformative season for the team, while the ascension of the three rookies and Brandon Ingram played an even bigger factor.
The Lakers’ young talent pushed the team to a nine-win improvement from the regular season. Aside from the standings, they simply played much better, improving their defensive rating from last in the NBA the year before to 12th.
But the front office still had one more big deal to make before the summer.
At the trade deadline, they sent Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. to Cleveland, receiving two soon-to-be-free-agents (Isaiah Thomas and Channing Frye), thus clearing up even more cap space. Plus, the Lakers managed to negotiate a first-round pick in the deal.
So, armed with an ocean of cap space and a core of talented young players still on their rookie contracts, the front office set their sights on LeBron James — the generational star fresh off playing in his eighth straight NBA Finals and leading the entire playoffs in scoring at 34.0 points per game.
It had been six years since the Lakers last landed a free agent who was an all-star the year before (the fateful Dwight Howard season). But this is a new era of Lakers basketball.
LeBron James is a Laker.
Johnson, Pelinka and co. have also drafted Moe Wagner (using the Cleveland pick), Svi Mykhailiuk and Isaac Bonga, while signing Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, JaVale McGee, and Caldwell-Pope (re-sign). The results of those moves will be crucial, but everything revolves around acquiring LeBron.
As reported by ESPN, the night that free agency began Johnson personally visited James’ home in Brentwood, pitching the Lakers’ as a destination from one legend to another.
Surely James — who could have chosen any of the 30 teams in the NBA — has a long list of reasons why the Lakers were right for him, both on and off the floor.
It certainly helps that the man in his house that night is one who has achieved exactly the kind of success that James seeks in the basketball and business realms.
With the domino-trail of moves he made over the last 16 months and the grand stature he possesses in sports and beyond, that man turned a 25-win team with little cap space into a contender led by the greatest player on the planet.
Such is the Magic of Earvin Johnson Jr.