A magical blueprint: The road Magic Johnson should take between now and next summer to help save the Los Angeles Lakers
Key for franchise transformation is securing top-three pick in June's NBA Draft
Let’s rewind back to December of 2014, when the Lakers were free-falling without parachutes, taking an old Kobe Bryant with them, and received some unsolicited advice from a baseball executive of all people.
“I hope the Lakers lose every game,” said Magic Johnson. “Because if you’re going to lose, then lose. I’m serious.”
The Lakers then were where they are now, scraping the bottom of the West, and here was a part-owner of the Dodgers essentially telling them to tank three months into the season! Well, Kobe snickered at that.
“That’s speaking from an owner’s perspective,” Kobe said. “From an owner’s perspective, his opinion is to get top picks and to use those as leverage to trade and get a competitive team.”
Magic confirmed as much by then tweeting the next day: “Last years draft there were no superstars, this year there are about 3-4 superstars in college basketball and we need one of them!”
Well, well. Life has a way of boomeranging, doesn’t it? The Lakers right now are about as competitive as the Brooklyn Nets on a bad night, winning just once since Feb. 10, and recently suffering back-to-back smackdowns by a combined 67 points. And that’s not including the other day when the crosstown rival Clippers just erased them by 24. Their fans don’t seem to care much about it, and there was no outcry from them earlier this month when the Lakers shut down a few veterans, thus reducing their chances of winning games. Therefore, this smells like 2014.
And what does Magic Johnson — now in charge of the Lakers and needing to do some heavy lifting to turn the franchise around — think about tanking?
“I would never be about that, sending that message to our players,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “You know that.”
Sure, as a player he was all about “winnin’ time” as he once famously said during the golden ‘80s. But there’s a strong suspicion, based on the latest evidence, that Magic the Laker Team President isn’t too broken up about the Lakers’ current and steady dive, despite what he says publicly.
Keep in mind that the Lakers’ No. 1 pick in the June Draft belongs to the 76ers unless it falls in the top three. Right now, the Lakers have the second-worst record and are six games “ahead” of the Magic, who have the fourth-worst record. Which means the Lakers hold good (but not guaranteed) odds of keeping the pick and choosing in the top three as long as they keep losing games. Which doesn’t appear to be a problem right now. They’re making a “business decision.”
Plus: This draft is projected to be deep, another reason to believe the Magic of 2014 is telling the truth more than the Magic of 2017.
And this Magic Johnson knows that an overhaul of the Lakers can’t begin without getting that pick, which could set the table for a domino effect of subsequent personnel moves that should culminate with the pursuit of Russell Westbrook in the summer of 2018.
Yes, this is undoubtedly the Magic blueprint, starting in June:
1. Get that top-three pick. If NBA scouts are correct in their crystal-balling, then this draft will bring some potential game-changers, and getting one with a top-three pick will be a cinch unless a GM outsmarts himself (see Joe Dumars, passing on Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade for Darko Milicic in 2003).
2. Dial up old friend Larry Bird and ask about Paul George. Tell Bird that the 2017 No. 1 pick is out of the question, but offer anyone else on the roster, maybe sell him on a package that includes Brandon Ingram and a future No. 1. Bird will likely take that, since he’s on the clock with George, who becomes an unrestricted free agent in 2018. This would be two old friends and competitors, helping each other out of tough situations.
3. Find some team(s) willing to take the clunky salaries of Luol Deng and/or Timofey Mozgov, the worst mistakes by Jim Buss, off the roster. Yes, that will be moving mountains, but the Lakers need to clear salary cap space rather quickly so they can …
4. Make a serious run at Westbrook two summers from now.
That last item on the checklist is most important of all, because the Lakers need a proven transformational player to make their turnaround complete, and they’ve made a history of doing just that. Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal and Pau Gasol all arrived in trades in the nick of time, and all of them willingly. As a SoCal native who grew up a Lakers fan, much like George, Westbrook would definitely listen to discussions but only if the Lakers give him a reason to jump, other than money.
A year from now, maybe Westbrook is weary of needing to post triple-doubles just to keep OKC in the playoff mix. Maybe the pull of great weather, of aligning himself with Magic and going home is enough to bolt the Midwest while still in his prime. It wouldn’t be a Kevin Durant situation because Durant left a Western powerhouse in OKC, which isn’t the case should Westbrook move on.
And so, if Magic and new GM Rob Pelinka do their jobs right and also are blessed with a little luck, here’s how the Lakers could look two years from now: George, Westbrook, the 2017 No. 1, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr. and whatever D’Angelo Russell fetches in a trade.
That’s a move in the right direction, as opposed to the direction they’re moving in now.
A combination of high lottery picks, trades for proven players, free agent signings and the development of current players is how Magic can cement his reputation as a basketball savior and savant in Los Angeles. It’s the path taken by another Laker Hall of Famer, Jerry West, although it’s probably unfair or unreasonable to ask Magic to become a carbon copy of The Logo.
But the pieces are in place for Magic to make the Lakers great again. Their fans are currently more fixated on the NCAA tournament than the home team, mainly because they see a solution for their misery in college basketball and envision one of the several lottery picks on display wearing Laker gold next season.
As for this season? Just like the Lakers themselves, the fans gave up a while ago. The next big Lakers moment will happen this summer, when everyone in LA will be looking and waiting for Magic Johnson to deliver one more big assist.
Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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