Magic Johnson gets his wish, but he has a lot to learn

Updated February 21, 2017 - 8:17 pm

The first sign Magic Johnson might not be a total fiasco as the person now in charge of returning the Lakers to a position of strength within the NBA — or at least to a No. 8 playoff seed so the Warriors have someone to warm up against — came last week.

Johnson was explaining ways in which he desired a major role in the decision-making process within the organization.

“The main part for me is really learning the other part that I didn’t know, and that is to understand the (Collective Bargaining Agreement), the salary cap, where we are in terms of the salary cap and who’s a free-agent-to-be,” he told USA Today. “All those types of things you’ve got to learn. It’s a lot of things.”

In today’s world of building a winner, it’s almost everything.

The shake-up heard around the league Tuesday had the Lakers handing all basketball operations to Johnson while firing general manager Mitch Kupchak and executive vice president Jim Buss, son to Jerry and brother to Jeanie, team president and the one in charge who swung the ax.

Jimbo was a disaster. His being bounced was long overdue.

The greatest Laker of them all has been granted his wish, and there is truth to the argument things can’t possibly get any worse under Johnson than what the purple and gold currently represent, a team that will miss the playoffs for a fourth straight season and would be unrecognizable to the late Jerry Buss for its ineptitude and chaotic infrastructure.

All the playmates and brothel birthday parties in the world couldn’t bring a smile to Buss’ face if he saw the depths to which the franchise that won 10 NBA titles under his ownership has sunk.

Well, maybe they could for a guy who never met a beauty he didn’t like and probably date, but it would a forced smile.

Johnson has said all the right things about what he needs to learn, at least enough to make you think he has a better chance to resemble Larry Bird as an NBA executive than Isiah Thomas or Michael Jordan or, as we have seen in recent days, Vlade Divac.

As a guy who to this day is responsible for scaring the life out of more than a few fellow apartment tenants with his shrieks as that junior sky hook fell through the net in the 1987 Finals, I hope like anything Magic succeeds.

It’s not a given.

Here’s where things can go wrong: Asking a player, even one of the greatest of the greats like Johnson, to lead the operations side of things can be like asking a Fortune 500 CEO to play quarterback for the Patriots. Much of the time, the skill sets don’t match.

Running an NBA team isn’t about sitting in a gym and realizing which player has the best crossover. It’s about the salary cap, about analytics, about negotiations. You’re part mathematician and part lawyer and part macroeconomist. There are more subplots to the job than your favorite Shakespearean play.

It’s critical, then, Johnson surround himself with those who know more about the business side of the NBA than he does. About contracts. About the complexity of trades. About why cities such as Los Angeles and New York and Chicago no longer are desirable landing spots for free agents as they once were and a place like Cleveland offers the world’s most marketable player.

Maybe it’s smart to begin with Rob Pelinka, who reportedly has been hired as the team’s next general manager. Maybe a prominent NBA player agent who represented Kobe Bryant during his Lakers career could deliver similar results — or at least ones in the same stratosphere — as agent-turned-general-manager Bob Myers has with Golden State.

Pelinka certainly would know how contracts work. He obviously would have deep connections to league executives.

Johnson’s greatest advantage then could be in the evaluation department. In sports, it’s called the It Factor. Only the best of all time have it. Johnson had it. Jordan had it. Bird had it. It’s a unique quality that could perhaps allow Johnson to see in prospects what others might not.

If reports are even close to being true that Jeanie Buss had not spoken with Kupchak since Nov. 1 and her only recent contact with brother Jim came via attorneys, that neither she nor Johnson knew the Lakers were in deep on a potential trade for DeMarcus Cousins this week before Divac shipped the All-Star to New Orleans, changing direction at the top in Los Angeles shouldn’t surprise anyone.

It doesn’t mean Magic is the right choice to turn things around. It doesn’t mean he isn’t.

Already, Johnson on Tuesday traded guard Lou Williams to the Rockets for a 2017 first-round pick and forward Corey Brewer. The earth didn’t move. The Warriors didn’t wave any white flags. It’s just a start.

But something tells me Jerry Buss is smiling, and that it’s not forced.

Contact columnist Ed Graney at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be a heard on “Seat and Ed” on Fox Sports 1340 from 2 to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.

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