By Andrew Tan
On Tuesday night, Los Angeles sports mogul and former all-star point guard Magic Johnson announced his resignation from the Lakers’ front office as president of basketball operations. Johnson’s decision to leave management stunned the NBA world, including Lebron James, considering his strong ties to the organization and his brief two-year tenure as the team’s chief executive.
In the two seasons during Johnson’s control of the vaunted franchise, the Lakers went a lackluster 72-92 overall, including this past year in the first year of Lebron’s megadeal in La La Land. This seemingly drastic choice by Johnson to step away from the team, for which he cited freedom of all things as the primary reason, closes the book on a tumultuous run for the Lakers with very little success to show for an unbelievable amount of hype.
When Johnson first took over before the 2017 NBA draft and proceeded to select Lonzo Ball with the second overall pick, he essentially sealed his fate. For inextricably tied to the talented point guard who has yet to live up to his pre-draft expectations is Lonzo’s unruly media circus of a father, Lavar. Throughout Johnson’s time as a Lakers executive, Lavar constantly bullied the coaching staff and front office whenever he thought Lonzo wasn’t getting enough playing time or was being deployed incorrectly. Lavar’s role in the fracas that is the Lakers past two seasons is material for an entirely different column, but here I would like to focus on this past season.
Now to the summer of 2018. Free agency rolls around. Enter: Lebron. King James is the apparent successor to the gaping hole Kobe Bryant left in the Lakers when he retired in 2016 (but really when he tore his Achilles in 2013). Suddenly young purple-and-gold prospects who have shown only flashes of promise seem like they will inevitably reach their ceilings with the ultimate floor general in the City of Angels.
Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma — the list goes on (even to the likes of Josh Hart and Ivica Zubac). These raw prospects still playing out their rookie deals get to learn from the best of the business. The Lakers are a lock for the playoffs now. And when they get another superstar? Look out.
The Lakers proceed to go 37-45, improving just two games from the 2017-18 season. Granted Lebron was injured for much of the season. Then again, the Los Angeles youngsters did little to inspire hope in fans (non-delusional fans, that is), either to cement themselves as core pieces on a championship team or to increase their trade value for a possible trade the Lakers might make for another top-10 player like Anthony Davis.
But no matter. The plan for the Lakers was always to splurge on another marquee free agent in the summer of 2019. Big names abound and the Lakers should have options. Except that most of these superstars are reported to have their eyes set on other destinations. Klay Thompson will likely look to re-up with the Warriors. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving reportedly want to team up in New York. Kawhi Leonard would prefer to play on the LA team without Lebron, angling for the Clippers. Yes, there is still the possibility of trading for Anthony Davis but the Celtics should also be in the mix this summer and there is no guarantee that the Pelicans even decide to trade him.
Of course, all this free agency speculation is just that: speculation. One must also consider the media’s obvious bias toward metropolises such as New York and LA in these discussions. Still, the Lakers, more than ever, appear to be on shaky ground as it pertains to piecing together a true championship contender and as counterintuitive as it sounds, much of that is due to Lebron.
Since his NBA debut, Lebron James has essentially been the best player in the league for his entire career. He took the league by storm first with the Cleveland Cavaliers, then took the Miami Heat to three NBA Finals, winning two. And now he looks to win on the biggest stage with the most popular franchise in the history of the sport. Except there’s one albatross of a problem that comes with Lebron: Wherever he goes, chaos often follows.
The first chapter of Lebron’s career was a simpler time. The self-proclaimed King James declared that he would pass Michael Jordan as the GOAT of basketball and the rest followed. However, in the first several years of his career in Cleveland, his teams were not nearly good enough to win a championship although Lebron did his best to will them to the promised land.
So Lebron left and in his wake Cleveland stood in ruins, relegated back to being a bottomfeeder franchise without his services. The Cavaliers had begun so dependent on Lebron that it allowed an incompetent owner and front office to continue running the team, mistakenly associating its previous success with management rather than the transcendent talent that had just left for Miami.
Lebron was admittedly successful in South Beach, but that’s because the mastermind of the Heat, Pat Riley, had already struck deals to bring together a dynamic threesome of Lebron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. The trio terrorized the league at the turn of the last decade until Lebron decided that he had unfinished business in Cleveland.
The Cavaliers lucked out on their third first overall pick in four years with the selection of Kyrie Irving and brought another star to Ohio by trading Andrew Wiggins to the Timberwolves Kevin Love. Retooled and reloaded the Cavs made four straight finals appearance, winning one, an impressive feat considering the unprecedented superteam that is the Golden State Warriors. Unfortunately, it was because of Lebron that Kyrie Irving, who hit the shot that won the Cavs the 2016 championship, wanted out. With Irving gone, Lebron and the Cavs stood no chance against the Kevin Durant-Stephen Curry Warriors. Sure enough, the Warriors embarrassed the Cavs in the Finals and Lebron went running to LA, which brings us essentially up to speed.
This brief history of an illustrious career for one of the best players in NBA history doesn’t seem to add up to Lebron being a problem for a team. And certainly I do not mean to say that Lebron himself is a problem. The issue arises when a team falls into the trap of treating Lebron as a panacea, a cure-all for a franchise’s woes. Lebron is a generational talent and has a narrow argument for being the GOAT, but in every case in which he has made a legitimate run at the title, he has a competent cast of stars around him. Such is not the case in LA, and if Magic Johnson, one of the most likable characters in the NBA, can’t do anything about that, well … good luck, Lakers.
Contact Andrew Tan at tandrew ‘at’ stanford.edu.