Magic disappears: Johnson leaves Lakers in lurch

Franchise at crossroads in wake of Johnson resigning as team president

He arrived bringing hope to a proud franchise gone stale, made bold promises upon arrival, threw a log on the fire in the belly of the fans, flashed the famous smile and everyone fell in line and fell for it.

And then, like magic, poof — or more like oof — Magic Johnson vanished and left the Lakers hanging.

This was in 1994, when the most radiant superstar of his generation was a freshly retired player searching for a new way to be seen as a winner. And so Magic did something unorthodox and took the Lakers’ coaching job, even though he’d never coached before. He lasted all of 16 games before pulling the plug on a misguided experiment, and maybe that was the no-look pass we all should’ve seen coming two decades later.

Because once again, Magic failed in a poorly planned way to make an impact in the game other than running the fast break. In another bizarre moment to cap this season of several, he bailed on the Lakers again, this time as president of basketball operations after 14 months. He made that official with a spontaneous and confusing ramble moments before the season finale Tuesday.

Looking weary and feeling weepy, Magic began with: “I cried before I came here and I’m about to cry now” and then calling his decision, which seemed rash, “a tough thing.”

He added: “You gotta be happy. I gotta be happy.”

Nobody had an advance heads-up, most notably Jeanie Buss, the principal owner who put her reputation on the line in 2017 by putting Magic in charge shortly after wrestling control of the club from Jim Buss in a family takeover. And now, what exactly has changed since the dreadful era of Jeanie Buss’ baseball cap-wearing bro? The Lakers, who haven’t made the playoffs in six years and just put the wraps on a lost season with LeBron James in the fold, remain an organization that’s been frantically searching for traction ever since the passing of the great Jerry Buss.

For her part, Buss struck a loyal pose next to Johnson in the wake of his about-face, having a Lakers-issued statement that was all good: “We are deeply grateful for all Magic has done for our franchise — as a player, an ambassador and an executive.” Buss also sent a social media love-letter that read in part: “You’ve brought us a long way. We will continue the journey. We love you.”

Where there were once cheers, there now echo snickers directed toward these 16-time champions, who find themselves keeping company with castoffs and retreads. It’s a bad look and it comes at a vulnerable time, as the Lakers soon embark on a summer of searching for a star to salvage what’s left of LeBron’s career. That will be done without Magic at the helm after he concluded he wasn’t made everything the job entails after all.

Magic quit because he couldn’t be Magic anymore, not in the way he wanted to be, not in the special and fawning way folks treated him prior to this trainwreck. In particular, those close to him say he hated criticism of his personnel decisions. And that volume was turned up the last few months after the botched Anthony Davis trade attempt at the deadline, then again when the Lakers looked feeble on the floor down the stretch with and without LeBron, costing the club a playoff spot.

For someone so beloved, someone who sits on the Mount Rushmore of Los Angeles sports figures, that negativity has stung, particularly in this social media age during which there’s no escaping the glare. Too often, the basketball public reminded Magic of those he threw off the Lakers’ boat as president — chief among them the young point guard D’Angelo Russell, diminished by Magic for being unfit to lead the Lakers.

Russell is now an All-Star on playoff-bound Brooklyn. There were others: Lou Williams, Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr., Brook Lopez, heck even Ivica Zubac, who was dealt at mid-season. All of them are thriving in other uniforms and causing second-guesses.

Yet Johnson’s tenure wasn’t a total loss: Kyle Kuzma and cap space came in the Russell trade, he drafted Lonzo Ball (who has has shown flashes of promise between injuries) and the Lakers are in position to sign one or multiple free agents this summer thanks to Magic’s fierce protection of salary cap space.

Running a team means plenty of unglamorous grunt work: film sessions, scouting, planning, dealing with agents, putting out fires, being accountable and sitting at the desk where the buck stops. It’s the sort of behind-the-scenes, no-glory duties that convince superstars to seek another line of work when they’re done playing.

So many all-time greats fail to find equal footing as general managers or team presidents because of those very details, and also because of their own impatience in dealing with lesser players. Jerry West is the exception — and what must “The Logo” be thinking about his old team today, as he steers the playoff-bound Clippers across town?

Was Magic willing to do what was necessary to thrive in that big chair? Or when he attended the NCAA Tournament recently, did he get more satisfaction from rooting on his beloved Michigan State than charting the strengths and flaws of top Draft prospects?

And what about deciding the future of coach Luke Walton, who dodged bullets all season? There is ample reason to believe Magic wanted to fire Walton as soon as today but felt a measure of resistance from Buss. She never publicly insisted Walton was safe, yet never hesitated to show her warm feelings for him, either. Those who know Magic say he didn’t want to deal with that fallout.

Johnson left it all very vague. He spoke about “all the backstabbing” without elaborating. He appeared drained by the experience and the exit. It took something from him, stole some of his “joy.” There were rumors about a team uprising in which a group of employees expressed annoyance at Magic’s leadership. Perhaps that contributed.

Another theory, floated by NBA types: Johnson knew, or had a strong hunch, that an empty summer was in store for him and the Lakers and maybe it was time to bow out now and not take those arrows.

If the Lakers fail to get Davis — again — and also whiff on A-list free agents (like Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard), it both damages the perception of the Lakers as a destination franchise while destroying the notion of Johnson being a magnet.

This all will stick to him and his legacy off the court, astonishing for someone who succeeded in business but airballed all the pure basketball opportunities created for him by the Lakers and the Buss family.

The Lakers must regroup. Buss needs to repair a fractured front office, injecting competent leaders who can make sense of the roster and put forth a stated and realistic goal. Lakers GM Rob Pelinka, a former agent, handles the Lakers’ financial nuts and bolts next to Magic. If that remains the same, then the Lakers need an experienced president who knows the turf.

Most of all, they’re up against a pair of clocks. One is set toward the Draft and the summer, when the Lakers will chase the level of talent that can help them win now. The second clock is set to LeBron. He turns 35 next season, with three years left on his contract, and a deep well of resolve about to be tested. How can they maximize whatever he has left? Or do they … trade him?

It’s all muddled and perplexing, a new normal for the Lakers. The proud former championship machine finds itself at the crossroads once again. It has been a steep fall, from the mountaintop of prime Kobe Bryant to the laughingstock of Tuesday’s shocking revelation.

Johnson made his decision. He checked out, believing it will be good for him. And, perhaps, it will be good for the franchise, too.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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