Lately, I have thought of Magic Johnson’s departure as the Lakers’ president of basketball operations through the lens of a line from “Star Treatment” by the Arctic Monkeys, “That isn’t how they look tonight. Oh, no. It took the light forever to get to your eyes.”
Stars travel so many lightyears to reach us and change in form through the centuries. Likewise, our idols must adapt in different roles to stay relevant.
We spend so much time and energy building up the legend of our favorite athletes and analyzing the moves. USA Today has its LeBron wire, which must be largely focused on things off the court with the 34-year-old superstar not in these playoffs.
On the other hand, the thing we fear as much as anything else is seeing them falter after their playing career ends. Rare is the legendary player who becomes an amazing coach or executive like Jerry West. Most of them are ineffective head coaches, with Jason Kidd being one recent example, or woeful executives, like Magic Johnson. In the case of Kidd, his personality as a player foretold his rapid rise and fall as a coach. He did try hard, but he didn’t have sophisticated strategy or get along with people.
Magic, like Charlotte Hornets owner Michael Jordan, was recognized to not be a hard worker. Whereas Jordan designated a brilliant guy who could do heavy lifting as general manager in Rich Cho, Magic was uncomfortably partnered with Rob Pelinka, Kobe Bryant’s former agent. Working with a former agent might seem good in a vacuum related to luring free agents, unless that former agent is attached to a disliked former star in Kobe.
Miscommunication and mistrust were a hallmark of Magic’s tenure. He had wanted to fire head coach Luke Walton, but did not want to anger owner Jeanie Buss, with whom both he and Walton were close friends. Walton had a mutual parting with the Lakers after Magic resigned and landed the head coaching job with the Kings.
Also, Magic did not set a strong vision for roster building. Originally, the signings of veterans like Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson and JaVale McGee appeared part of a plan to cobble together a trade for Kawhi Leonard or Anthony Davis. Actually, as Bill Oram of The Athletic noted, these signings were intended for building a roster with LeBron in the face of evidence their inability to shoot from the outside made them a poor fit for a LeBron-led team.
Oram noted other brazen attempted moves, like the idea that trading Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to the Bulls for Jabari Parker would have been a positive trade (perhaps Magic recalled Parker as being a promising prospect a few years before tearing his ACL last year). Magic struggled to keep players’ confidence as several of them, young and old, were offered in trade proposals for Davis. Failing to acquire Davis, Magic traded starting center Ivica Zubac to the Clippers for Mike Muscala after Muscala scored 17 against the Lakers.
Stars take light years to reach us, so the image represent something not as true as a while ago. The Lakers believe highly in and the glow of stars like Magic and Kobe and bygone championship eras, although everything is much different now. Instead of seeing the game as it is now and studying it with analytics and thoughtful scouting, Magic pinned hopes on luring a star and believing the Lakers gold would be appealing enough.
Teams like the Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder outdo the Lakers and Knicks by building rosters intelligently and managing effectively while the Lakers and Knicks bank of name value.
ESPN.com’s Kevin Arnovitz suggested the Lakers should hire an outsider instead of someone from inside their ring. But I feel they will inevitably bemuse us with the public fall of another legend.