Magic Johnson Played His Cards Perfectly For 18 Months And Landed LeBron James

Ryan Phillips

On February 21, 2017, the Los Angeles Lakers hired Magic Johnson as the franchise’s president of basketball operations. The move was met with, at best, lukewarm support. Johnson’s directive was clear: return the Lakers to contender status in the crowded Western Conference. Many questioned whether or not he could actually pull it off. Well, in less than 18 months he accomplished that without making a false move along the way.

Johnson’s first decision, before even hiring a general manager, was trading Lou Williams to the Houston Rockets. Williams was a real asset as a volume scorer and Johnson landed a first-round pick in the 2017 NBA Draft for him.

Then, in his first real move with the Lakers, Johnson hired Rob Pelinka as his general manager. A long-time player agent, Pelinka had never worked in an NBA front office but he was whip-smart and widely respected around the league. Some questioned the hire, but no one doubted Pelinka’s intelligence and knowledge of the inner workings of the league. The duo has reshaped the Lakers with a view towards modern basketball and the current changes occurring in the game.

While the Lakers were largely expected to sit on their hands during the 2017 offseason biding their time for 2018, Pelinka and Johnson instead secured a monster of a trade. They unloaded Timofey Mozgov’s four-year, $64 million contract and D'Angelo Russell on the Brooklyn Nets in exchange for the 27th pick in the 2017 draft and Brook Lopez’s expiring contract. Everyone was puzzled as to why the Nets would have made such a ridiculous move, but Pelinka and Johnson somehow convinced them to do so.

Then the Lakers got lucky. Their 2017 first-round pick would have gone to the Philadelphia 76ers if it fell outside the top three in the lottery. Instead, fortune was with Los Angeles and the second pick was in Johnson’s hands. The Lakers then had arguably the best draft of 2017.

With the second pick, Johnson and Pelinka decided to take Lonzo Ball (we’ll get to him later). At 27, the Lakers shocked many observers when they selected Utah’s Kyle Kuzma, a versatile wing many thought didn’t have much upside. Then, they traded the 28th pick (acquired from Houston for Williams) to the Utah Jazz in exchange for the 30th and 42nd picks. At 30 they took Josh Hart, a hard-nosed veteran guard out of Villanova, and at 42 they selected Indiana’s Thomas Bryant.

After a stellar draft, Johnson and Pelinka made arguably their smartest move of all: they resisted trading young assets for Paul George. Rather than acquire a player who had stated he wanted to be in Los Angeles, the Lakers held firm and would wait and see how George performed before hitting free agency. In the end, that was the right decision. As I’ve written repeatedly, George is not worth the $30-plus million he will now make. Trading for him and having to pay him that much would have saddled the Lakers with a horrible contract.

The Lakers also made a shrewd move by signing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to a one-year, $18 million contract. Not only did they get a 24-year-old defensive-minded shooting guard on a short “prove-it” contract, they also began a relationship with agent Rich Paul. Paul happens to also rep a guy named LeBron James.

When Johnson took over he could have easily decided to scrap the franchise’s entire infrastructure. Instead, he opted to keep what worked and dump what didn’t. Importantly, he stuck with Luke Walton as the team’s head coach. Walton is one of basketball’s brightest young minds, and he proved during the 2017-18 season that he is a formidable coach. Everyone on the Lakers’ roster got better during Walton’s second season on the bench. On top of that, his preferred spread-the-floor, up-tempo style lines up with how Johnson wants the team to play.

Before the 2018 trade deadline, Pelinka and Johnson made yet another stellar deal. They unloaded the contracts of Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. in a trade with the Cleveland Cavaliers. In exchange, they took on the expiring deals of Isaiah Thomas and Channing Frye, while also getting a first-round pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. That deal meant the Lakers could now create the cap room for two max contracts this offseason.

Meanwhile, on the court it became clear that Brandon Ingram had improved dramatically, while Kuzma and Hart had proved to be major steals in the draft. When he wasn’t injured, Ball also showed that he belonged in the NBA and could be a force if he stays healthy. It would have been easy for Johnson and Pelinka to get frustrated from the noise out of Lonzo’s father’s mouth, but they remained patient and now, a year later, no one pays any attention to what LaVar Ball says.

That young group of players clearly impressed more than just the Lakers’ front office, because on Sunday night LeBron James announced he would be joining them. How much faith did James have in Magic and Pelinka to build a contender? He inked a four-year, $154 million deal to don the purple and gold. That says something.

The Lakers also didn’t panic as it came time for LeBron to make his decision. They didn’t fling a bunch of assets at the San Antonio Spurs to acquire Kawhi Leonard. They appear content to wait out the market and even just ink Leonard as a free agent next summer if needed.

Johnson took over a Lakers franchise with some young assets and no real direction. He hired a brilliant, respected general manager who worked a number of savvy deals and also managed to keep a group of tight-knit young players together. Then he made his team an instant contender by landing LeBron James. Oh, and the Lakers still have cap space to make more moves.

It’s unlikely the Lakers are at a point to challenge for a title next season, but no one could argue they aren’t in a great spot. They have one of the greatest players of all-time on the roster, a ton of young talent and the cap room to add more. At every step along the way, Johnson has nailed this build back to relevance.

Like many, I questioned the wisdom of bringing Magic Johnson in to run the Lakers instead of a veteran NBA executive. We have all been proven dead wrong.