CHICAGO - Magic Johnson learned a painful lesson as an NBA coach for 16 games, his Lakers went 5-11 at the end of the 1993-94 season. It was once most eloquently stated by Johnny Kerr, a star center from the 1950s and 1960s who coached the expansion Chicago Bulls: That’s five guys running around with my paycheck.
Johnson orchestrated basketball teams as magically as anyone ever has in basketball history.
It’s another thing when you are the conductor without any ability to make music.
Johnson is embarking on that tour again as head of the Los Angeles Lakers’ basketball operations. And as unsuccessful as Johnson was as an NBA coach and as awkward as he could be at times as a commentator — he celebrated the Bulls’ dysfunctional backcourt this season as elite, likened Michael Carter-Williams to Jason Kidd, said Brandon Knight and Jimmer Fredette were can’t-miss players and said Rajon Rondo would take the Mavericks to the conference finals — there’s no reason to believe Johnson will not be a success running the Lakers.
Frankly because this is really a job in which you wear a suit and tie, but you need to be as lucky as a guy shooting craps.
Get the No. 1 draft pick in the right year; have some other team pick the wrong guy, like Greg Oden or Sam Bowie. Have your top player be the best friend of a really, really good player. Yes, there are really, really smart guys who have done this job running basketball teams. Well, two, anyway, Red Auerbach and Jerry West. Maybe a few more. But not many.
Remember, this is a profession with no standards.
You don’t need a degree, don’t need to pass a test, go to general manager school. No one knows exactly what the qualifications are. Being a pro player hardly qualifies you since the reason you were a player is because you could play well. Nothing else. West was; Auerbach wasn’t. But being a pro player doesn’t disqualify you.
Pat Riley was, and he’s been very good.
Larry Bird has done fine.
Of course, Bird is perhaps on the verge of not doing so well because his best player, Paul George as a Southern California native, appears ready to bolt for the Lakers as a free agent after the 2017-18 season. Which will then make Magic smarter than Larry.
This, by the way, is another reason we love the NBA. In what other sport does this stuff happen?
Heck, last week after Magic’s hiring was announced by the Lakers, the ESPN sports behemoth engaged in an internecine debate about whether this was some affirmative action hiring, inappropriate and perhaps racist. It was all too confusing to even understand, though it got a lot of their hosts on TV again.
Anyway, Magic’s hiring was yet another wonderful turn in the House of Buss, a Shakespearean-like tale of family intrigue in which favored daughter Jeanie fired her brother Jim, and his longtime consigliere, Mitch Kupchak.
Even the longtime media guy, John Black, fingered as not having been friendly enough to Kobe Bryant, who’s agent, Rob Pelinka, comes on as Magic’s technical adviser about numbers not in the box score, was fired.
Really, how delicious is all this? The Lakers are back, if not on the court, and not likely for a few more years.
Which did give Jeanie the opening to can her brother.
This all goes back to the death of patriarch Jerry Buss in 2013. Phil Jackson was supposed to return as Lakers coach, eventually to transition to the front office to stabilize and continue the great Lakers’ winning tradition. But Jerry Buss was mad at Phil for not proposing to his little girl and giving her a ring. Phil liked the girlfriend thing, still.
So Jerry — really — instructed Jim and Mitch to hire someone, anyone, other than Phil and on short notice. It would be Mike D’Antoni, who was fired by the Knicks and taking a year off. But who turns down the Lakers?
Problem was those players coming off Phil’s last two titles didn’t like D’Antoni’s free-style game, like Carmelo Anthony didn’t in New York, and D’Antoni was out. Replaced by Jim’s choice of Mike Brown, who was awful and soon out, as well.
Jerry had six kids, but someone has to be in charge. So he picked Jeanie in his will. She’s not a basketball person, so Jim ran basketball operations. Though no one ever said it, it seemed obvious Jackson was poised for a return when Jeanie said Jim had three years to get the Lakers back in serious contention. Phil took a job in New York to keep busy.
With Kobe playing two years of a farewell tour, everyone knew that the Lakers’ three-year plan stood no chance.
But then worlds collided.
Jeanie broke up with Phil and Jim and Mitch heaped a bunch of money on Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng for no apparent reason in a rebuilding. None of their high draft picks seemed to project as a star — Los Angeles demands a star — and then when a star came on the market last week for almost nothing, the Lakers whiffed on DeMarcus Cousins.
That probably was the straw, as it were. Talk about sucking.
Jeanie took a match to basketball operations and fired just about everyone, and poof, there was Magic, who had been tabbed an “adviser” a few weeks back.
Magic is no dummy; he’s been one of the game’s most successful post-career businessmen, and you might say he’s had a lot of luck in his life, barring that HIV diagnosis, which wasn’t lucky at all.
So now he steps in to a really tough job because you have 29 other teams in this internet/globalization age where players can become marketing stars.
The biggest plays in Cleveland.
A few years back with Buss fatally ill, the Lakers tried to win one more for the Gipper. So they cashed in years of draft picks for Steve Nash and Dwight Howard, and that didn’t exactly work out.
So they need to get one of the top three picks this season to retain their draft pick. Magic set about aiding that project right away by giving away Lou Williams, the Lakers’ best scorer.
It’s the sort of draft, even with a hometown star at UCLA in Lonzo Ball, that could get the Lakers going again. And in reserve, the Lakers appear to have George locked up.
That’s why suddenly there was trade talk about George last week. The word around the NBA is he’s leaving for the Lakers after next season. Will they wait? Or will they, like the Knicks with Anthony, cash in players for George now?
George is not LeBron or Durant, but he’s a good start.
Magic has said he understands this is not an immediate turnaround. After all, he’s not starting with Magic Johnson as the Lakers did in 1979. Or trading for Wilt or Kareem, as the Lakers previously did, making contending so much simpler. But it’s not like Magic is competing against a Midas touch of rivals.
The Lakers may yet be back.
Magic has been lucky before.
Sam Smith covered the Chicago Bulls for 25 years with the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of the best-selling book “The Jordan Rules.”