Magic Johnson is the Most Overrated Mind in Basketball
Earlier this century, the Los Angeles Lakers were a model of stability in a way you wouldn't quite expect. They had a triumvirate in coach Phil Jackson, general manager Mitch Kupchak, and owner Jerry Buss. Save for a one-season exile for Jackson, those three were a constant from the turn of the millennium until Jackson's retirement in 2011 and Buss' death in 2013. After control of the team was wrestled away by daughter Jeanie Buss from son Jim Buss, a palace coup saw city hero Earvin 'Magic' Johnson take over as the president of basketball operations in 2016, with Rob Kobe-Bryant's-former-agent Pelinka serving as the general manager. And the results have not been pretty.
(I know that Magic is not technically the General Manager, but he might as well be. No one talks about how Rob Pelinka's on the phone trying to make trades. And since Magic is the one who gets the credit when something good happens, it’s only fair to pin the numerous failures of the front office exclusively on him.)
Of course, we're all going to give him the benefit of the doubt because he's Magic Johnson. And that's five-time champion, hall-of-famer Magic fucking Johnson to me. But there's no sustainable track record of successful NBA players being good executives. None. Sure Pat Riley played for a few years, but that was back when the San Diego Rockets existed, and he managed 10 points a game for one season in his career. Mitch Kupchak actually wasn't bad, but when he entered the NBA the three-point line didn't even exist yet. Some of the best GMs in the league didn't play in the league – Sam Presti (division 3), R.C. Buford (division 1), Masai Ujiri (played in Europe), Daryl Morey (none). The only ones are Danny Ainge (who was actually an All-Star once) and Jerry West. That's it.
By the way, Mitch Kupchak's final few moves (signing Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng) obscured a long career of excellent moves. He took over in 2000 after West had constructed the Shaq/Kobe dynasty, and made several moves to keep them relevant for years after. He signed Brian Shaw to bolster the post-threepeat squad, and Karl Malone and Gary Payton in advance of their 2004 finals run. He constructed the 2009-2010 championship teams, pulling off the heist of Pau Gasol, drafting Luke Walton, Andrew Bynum, Ronny Turiaf, Sasha Vujacic, and Jordan Farmar, and trading for Shannon Brown and Trevor Ariza. He later traded for the point god Chris Paul (only to get screwed over by the league), and then still traded for Dwight Howard and Steve Nash (before his back was obliterated by Damian Lillard). He also drafted Julius Randle (as opposed to the next four picks Nik Stauskas, Noah Vonleh, Elfrid Payton, and Doug McDermott), D'Angelo Russell (as opposed to the rest of the abysmal top ten which, excluding Porzingis, saw Jahlil Okafor, Mario Hezonja, Willie Cauley-Stein, Emmanuel Mudiay, Stanley Johnson, Frank Kaminsky, and Justise Winslow), and snagged Ivica Zubac in the second round. So I think we can forgive him for Mozgov and Deng.
Back to Magic, who has not built up any goodwill through positive transactions that he can now openly squander. Let's go through every move the Lakers have made under Magic (excluding guys signed for training camp purposes and guys on 10-day contracts) and see how they hold up:
End of 2017 Season
Magic Traded Marcelo Huertas and Lou Williams for Tyler Ennis, Brad Newley, Corey Brewer, and a 1st round pick. Hold this thought.
So far we're off to a good start, right? Savor that moment.
Magic Traded D'Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov for the 27th overall pick (this is important) and Brook Lopez. I've complained a lot about how this was a horrible decision, but I'm not sure I explained exactly why this is the case. Let's take this opportunity to do so.
The main proponents of this deal will point to Kyle Kuzma, who was taken at #27 overall. And that's fair, but remember the pick we got from the Rockets? That ended up being #28. Considering that Kuzma wasn't a household name, there's a fairly good chance that Brooklyn (had this deal not been done) would pass on him at #27, letting the Lakers take him anyway.
But the real meat of the deal was Mozgov, who Kupchak signed to a disgusting-at-the-time 4 year, $64 million deal, and played a single uninspiring season in which he looked washed (which we all already knew). The idea was to clear cap space so that the summer of 2018 would have two maximum salary slots available. It's the same strategy that the Knicks are using right now, having traded a valuable young player (Kristaps Porzingis) to create slots for potential free agents (Kevin Durant? Kyrie Irving?). And that's all well and good, but it cost D'Angelo Russell, the former #2 overall pick who showed signs of promise in his first couple of years, despite the whole Nick-Young-Iggy-Azalea-Snapchat scandal (by the way, shouldn't we fault Nick Young for cheating on his fiancée more than we do D'Angelo for snitching?).
The Lakers sold on him at his lowest point, forsaking the possibility of playing him and Lonzo Ball together, and denying him the chance to show continued improvement. But most of all, shedding cap space was a strategy for *the following year*. The reason it cost Russell to get rid of Mozgov was because Mozgov had a gargantuan 3 years, $48 million left on his contract. But if the Lakers really needed the cap space, they could have waited until the next summer when the free agents were eligible to sign, and now Mozgov would have a more palatable 2 years, $32 million left. Turns out, the Lakers only got 1 max-level player, so it ended up being a waste because they didn’t actually use the space that the deal cleared up. They could have kept Russell/Mozgov and still signed LeBron! And after this year, Mozgov would become an expiring contract, an therefore an excellent trade chip. That same Brooklyn trade would have been there several months later, when Russell's stock would have been higher, and Mozgov's liability would have continued to decline.
And it's not like the Nets would have cared about helping the Lakers sign an extra max player, because what do they care? The Cavs helped the Lakers shed salary (we'll get to that in a second) knowing that they had a chance to sign LeBron, and the Jazz took on a bunch of salary that helped the ascendant Warriors sign Andre Iguodala.
This is basic strategy – you bet on certainties more than possibilities. It's also basic philosophy – a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. We threw away the bird in the hand, and only found one damn bird in the bush!
Good thing he ended up being garbage, right? Oh wait, he's an all-star caliber player now (and was selected as an All-Star to replace the injured Victor Oladipo), and the leader of a playoff team that happens to have a better record (28-26) than the Lakers do right now (27-26). Fucking hell.
Magic drafted Lonzo Ball (good), Kyle Kuzma (good) traded the Houston pick to get two more picks, one of which is Josh Hart (good) and Thomas Bryant (hold this one too). If the Lakers didn't make the D'Angelo trade, they wouldn't have had the extra pick that turned into Hart and Bryant.
Magic signs Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to a 1 year, $18 million deal. Now KCP is fine (and I didn't yet hate him at this point), but it was widely assumed that the reason that they overpaid him was because he was a client of agent Rich Paul, close friend to LeBron James. I guess it's nice that they made the gesture, but if LeBron really wanted to play in LA, was Kentavious Caldwell-Fucking-Pope the reason that he would have signed elsewhere? Come on.
Magic signs Andrew Bogut. Dope.
Magic trades Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. for Channing Frye, Isaiah Thomas, and a 1st round pick. It was a gamble on Isaiah, who had been pretty bad in a limited run with the Cavs, and ended up also being pretty bad for the Lakers. As a direct comparison, Clarkson is actually a more efficient version of Isaiah – scores, and doesn't do too much else. And Nance is fine as a backup energy big man, but he was about to get expensive, and wasn't worth the money he ended up getting from Cleveland. Even though Clarkson was on a team-friendly deal ($10 million a year is reasonable for a solid third guard), it was about clearing salary, and they got a pick (which would be Mo Wagner) out of it. Considering that Wagner hasn't shown anything yet, you could argue that you'd rather still keep Clarkson long-term than KCP, but whatever. Perhaps a sub-par deal, but you can call it a draw.
Magic drafted the aforementioned Mo Wagner (can't say yet) and Svi Mykhailiuk (ditto, although he's at least serviceable for being such a low pick).
Magic trades a future second-round draft pick and cash for a current second-round draft pick, and drafts Isaac Bonga. This was a confusing pick at the time and remains pretty confusing. Bonga doesn't seem like he's good at all. But who cares, right?
Magic signs LeBron James. I already wasted 2000 words on why I didn't like this, so let us not speak of it any more. I didn't like it, but sure, this is objectively good.
Oh man. This is where things get dumb.
Magic signs Rajon Rondo. Rondo is theoretically good, but always injured (in his last eight seasons, he's played 65, 69, 72, 68, 30, 38, 53, and 68 regular season games). He's also famously a malcontent, which might have something to do with the fact that before the Lakers, his last four seasons were spent with five different teams. He's also 6 years removed from being an All-Star, and can't really shoot threes or free throws. This seemed like a problem, especially considering how you'd want to diversify your weaknesses with the Lakers' other point guard (Lonzo Ball) who also can't shoot threes or free throws. Rondo has stayed true to form, thus far only playing in 19 out of 53 games (36%) and shooting 59% from the free throw line.
Magic signs Kentavious Caldwell-Pope again for 1 year, $12 million! What is happening? He was solid in his one year with the Lakers, but $12 million?? This is where that Clarkson money is going! You already got LeBron, you don't need to overpay for one of his buddies! Despite my personal hatred for KCP (he always just seems to make dumb plays), he has been bad this year, every single stat going down, and his three point percentage down three full points.
Magic signs Lance Stephenson for 1 year, $4 million. Like Rondo, he's a malcontent (six teams in three years), and has only one good skill (being a complete clown). The main thing he's been known for this year is his new air-guitar celebration, which he now uses every time he hits a shot. He's good for a 15-point explosion once every handful of games, but is otherwise useless.
Magic signs Javale McGee for 1 year, veteran's minimum. I actually liked this one, because Javale was good for the Warriors, and he's a steal at the minimum even though he can't shoot threes and free throws. I'll give Magic one here.
Magic signs Michael Beasley. You might be sensing a theme, but he was on six teams in eight years (seven if you count his two Heat stints as separate) and also can't shoot threes or free throws. He also doesn't really do anything but score. Maybe Magic just had a type.
2018-2019 Season (so far)
Magic signs Tyson Chandler. Sure he's washed, but still an above average defensive player, and a complete zero on offense. I get that you're only signing him for his defense, but it would be nice to have ONE guy who can shoot threes and free throws. Heck, if you just needed a big body, I can suggest a guy who was already under contract with the Lakers. But he helps, so fine.
And this is where we are right now. You might be thinking that in all, while not great, it's at least somewhat defensible. But no, this is far from the entire story.
What Magic Didn't Do
While it's enjoyable enough to poke holes into all the decisions that Magic did make, even more crucial are all of the things that he didn't do. None of this is in retrospect; these should all have been common sense.
Magic did NOT trade Nick Young, who could also have fetched a first-round pick, to a playoff team, instead letting him play out his contract and sign elsewhere in the offseason. If Lou Williams fetched a first-round pick, Nick Young could have at least gotten a second-rounder, or maybe a pick swap. Worth mentioning: he ended up going to the Warriors and winning a championship the next year. These are the kinds of moves that separate good GMs and bad GMs – the former understand where to extract value from nothing. Sam Presti is known mainly for his drafting, but has also pulled off sneaky-good deal: he turned a washed-up Carmelo Anthony into solid starter Dennis Schroeder, got Dion Waiters for a low first-round pick, traded an overrated Serge Ibaka for the young Victor Oladipo and Domatas Sabonis (who would later turn into Paul George), and turned garbage (Joffrey Lauvergne, Anthony Morrow, and Cameron Payne) into rotation players Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott.
Magic did NOT re-sign Brook Lopez. At the beginning of this season, there was a conversation around who the Lakers would use for size. They even resorted to playing Kyle Kuzma at center, an experiment which was mercifully ended after the signing of Chandler. I know I keep harping on about this point, but it would have been nice to have someone who could SHOOT THREES. He's currently playing for a contender in Milwaukee, and shooting 6.5 threes a game on 38%, which is better than famed shooter KCP! He was also signed for $3 million, which is less than Tyson Chandler and Javale McGee combined.
Magic did NOT re-sign Thomas Bryant (claimed off waivers). Remember the other guy who was taken in the Lonzo/Kuzma/Hart draft? He's actually a decent rotation player for the Wizards, doesn't shoot threes often but can still hit them, and can shoot free throws! Oh, and if he were eligible (by shots attempted), he'd have the highest field goal percentage in the league!!!
Magic did NOT sign any competent player last offseason. If you want better alternatives to Rondo, Beasley, McGee, and Lance, then there are a ton. Avery Bradley (2 years, $25 million) also can't shoot threes and is always injured, but at least he kind of plays defense. Tony Parker (2 years, $10 million) at least chooses to not shoot threes and is actually a good veteran influence. Elfrid Payton (1 year, minimum) was a younger option. Fred VanVleet (2 years, $18 million) would have been a good piece if he wanted to leave the Raptors, Rudy Gay (1 year, $10 million) has been awesome this year, and ditto for shooter Joe Harris (2 years, $18 million)! Couldn't you have at least thrown $10 million at Demarcus Cousins? Or $15 million at Trevor Ariza? A flyer on (possible comeback player of the year) Derrick Rose (1 year, $2 million)? Even DeAndre Jordan took a one-year deal! You could take the $35 million that was wasted on Rondo/Lance/Beasley/McGee/Chandler/KCP and given it to Rose (PG), Harris (SG), Ariza (SF), and Gay (PF). That's an entire lineup that's actually decent!
Magic did NOT re-sign Julius Randle. I don't care if he said that he didn't want to be here in a diminished role and was worried about his minutes and his agent didn't like the Lakers. He is a good young player, and you *always* keep those. Just offer him the money and make him turn it down if he wants to play elsewhere. At worst, he could have been used as an extra trade chip for Anthony Davis, so you wouldn't have to give up one of Ingram, Ball, or Kuzma. At best, he would continue to improve – which he has, because he's averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds on 54% shooting! Agh! This isn't hard at all!
Magic did NOT trade for Kristaps Porzingis. I get the whole 'let's leave cap space open' deal that is seemingly doomed to fail, but if you could have added Porzingis for almost nothing (2 picks and a young player) then you have to do it.
Magic did NOT hang up on Dell Demps. The biggest current storyline in the NBA is that Anthony Davis wants a trade, and is asking for the whole farm. I've seen serious NBA analysts and writers suggest that a package of Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart, Ivica Zubac, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and three first round picks might be necessary. And it seems like Dell Demps is acutely aware of this – the Lakers current reported offer is Ingram, Ball, Kuzma, Rondo, Stephenson, and two first round picks. Which is weird because that would leave the only point guard on the roster as… Alex Caruso? What? And if that isn't bad enough, Demps has supposedly asked for all of the above, 4 first round picks (!!!), AND for the Lakers to take back Solomon Hill's salary! This isn't how it fucking works! This is like when Donald Trump offered the Democrats a deal of $25 billion for wall funding, in exchange for re-opening the government (something that he already wanted) and no funding for DACA (which the Democrats actually wanted). This has never worked! Four first round picks! Four! That means that the Lakers would be owing picks until 2025! How is this something that people – and most importantly, Magic – are taking seriously? You don't negotiate with someone who's trying to rob you at gunpoint if they're doing it over the phone!
Whatever the situation is, it really doesn't make sense for the Lakers to trade for Davis if Demps isn't going to agree to something reasonable (and by reasonable, I mean two of Ingram/Ball/Kuzma, Caldwell-Pope, Zubac, and 2 first round picks). It's crazy that literally no other team is bidding for him, and the Pelicans have no leverage because it's publicly known that Davis wants out, yet the asking price is *still* so high. This shouldn't even be a conversation! Here's the logic…
This year: Davis, if you added him to the current roster, still probably wouldn't be enough to beat the Warriors. If you strip the roster to add him, it's not even a discussion. So what's the rush to add him now? To make an unrealistic, doomed-to-fail push for it anyway? Why not just wait and see if Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, or Kevin Durant are possibilities in the offseason?
The Boston situation: Davis (echoed by his father) has already implied that he isn't interested in staying long-term with the Boston Celtics, which is the other main team interested in acquiring Davis. And if the Pelicans truly value the CeltIcs' Jayson Tatum over any of the Lakers' assets, then it won't matter what the Lakers offer anyway. So why not wait until the summer, see if Kyrie Irving leaves Boston (at which point it's unlikely that the Celtics would want to trade for Davis), and wait until the Pelicans truly have no other bidders? The Pelicans want to move on with their lives too, so it's not like they'd hold on to Davis through the year out of spite.
Davis' other preferred teams: A list that supposedly exists says that Davis would also be fine with going to the New York Knicks, Milwaukee Bucks, or Los Angeles Clippers. The Knicks don't really have the assets – their best package would be Frank Ntilikina (who sucks), Kevin Knox (who seems like he sucks), Dennis Smith Jr. (who is fine), their first-round pick this year, and some other combination of picks (they have the two Dallas picks from the Porzingis trade to play with). Also, players who were traded can't be traded again as part of a package until two months later, so Smith Jr. could only be traded in the offseason. The Bucks don't really have any pieces of value – their best chip is Khris Middleton, whose contract is up this year, meaning that he's about to get very expensive. Does a package with Thon maker, Donte DiVincenzo, Malcolm Brogdon, some picks (they owe one because of the Eric Bledsoe trade), and Khris Middleton on a sign-and-trade sound appetizing? And the Clippers seem like they're standing firm on their strategy to try and sign some big guns this offseason. While they have a nice team, none of them outside of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander are true young talents, noting that Tobias Harris is expiring.
All other teams: Let's assume that no non-playoff teams would be interested in trading for Davis. The Pacers would probably wait and see how Oladipo recovers before making a serious move. If Miami empties out the war chest (Dion Waiters, Josh Richardson, Justise Winslow, Bam Adebayo, Derrick Jones Jr.) to get Davis, they'll just be as bad as the Pelicans were with Davis (although in the East, that might be a playoff team). Washington seems unwilling to part with Bradley Beal, Portland has been reluctant to break up the Lillard-McCollum duo, and Philadelphia probably wouldn't include fellow Klutch Sports client Ben Simmons in a trade. Denver, Sacramento, and Brooklyn probably don't want to mess with their burgeoning team chemistry, and the Nikola Jokic-Davis pairing could be awkward for the Nuggets. Oklahoma City is capped out to hell, while Charlotte, Dallas, Houston, Utah, and San Antonio have nothing to offer.
The Dark Horse: The *only* team that seems remotely possible is the Toronto Raptors. If they manage to re-sign Kawhi Leonard, they could create a package around Jonas Valanciunas, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Malachi Richardson, and Pascal Siakam. That gives them a big three of Kyle Lowry, Leonard, and Davis, which makes them a definite long-term contender. Depending on how gutsy they're feeling, they could pull the trigger on this right now and risk both Leonard and Davis leaving for nothing, although they'd have the chance to flip Davis for parts after Leonard leaves.
All of this to say – there are way too many moving parts for the Lakers to commit to throwing the kitchen sink right now. The best course of strategy would probably be to give a solid offer now, but with the threat that the offer decreases in the offseason for all the reasons mentioned. But it's Magic, so he probably hasn't thought of that yet. Or, here's the real move…
Magic did NOT (yet) trade for Nikola Vucevic. The average basketball fan would probably be like "who??", and that's because Vucevic is currently wasting away in Orlando. He just so happens to be an All-Star this year, and is probably their best player. Importantly, he's also a center, and probably around 75% as good as Anthony Davis is. He averages 8 fewer points, 1 fewer rebound, 1 fewer assist, and 1 fewer block. But he shoots better from the field and from three, and has played in every game this season. The advanced stats back this up: Vucevic is definitely not as good offensively as Davis (they're about the same defensively, although those stats are flawed), but it's not like Davis is running away it. Vucevic is also on an expiring contract, so it wouldn't even cost the Lakers that much to get him. Not only does it make you competitive for this year, it keeps your cap space open in the offseason, and gives you the option to re-sign him if you don't have a better alternative. And if he walks, you didn't even give up that much to get him! If you're still interested in Davis, you can show the Pelicans that you don't actually need him, decreasing their leverage even further. How has this deal not been done already?! Magic!!!
Statistics current as of Feb 4, 2019.