For a brief moment, Magic Johnson didn’t appear in the mood to laugh or smile. That’s because the famed Laker couldn’t help but acknowledge the unsettling reality surrounding the purple and gold, including their championship aspirations and the rehab surrounding Kobe Bryant’s torn left Achilles tendon.
“It’s going to be a tough season especially with Kobe being out,” Johnson said in an interview with this newspaper before a recent brunch at the Skirball Cultural Center for his self-named foundation. “Kobe has to get back healthy. That’s the key. If Kobe is back healthy, are they a legitimate championship team? I don’t think so. Are they a playoff team? I think they can be a playoff team if he’s back healthy. It’s all up to Kobe and his health status.”
Bryant hasn’t experienced any setbacks with his injury, even traveling to Italy in recent weeks while fitting in his rehab work. But contrary to the recent optimism expressed from Lakers executive vice president of player personnel Jim Buss, Bryant isn’t expected to return during training camp. When Bryant suffered the injury April 12 against Golden State, the Lakers estimated he’d stay out at least for six to nine months. That timetable hasn’t changed. Bryant also has publicly circled November or December as his return, keeping the possibility he could play by or near the season opener.
The Lakers’ uncertainties go beyond Bryant’s injuries. Dwight Howard bolted to the Houston Rockets. In a cost-cutting measure, the Lakers waived Metta World Peace via the amnesty provision. For the same reasons, the Lakers didn’t prevent Earl Clark from signing a two-year, $9 million deal with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Despite having only the mini mid-level exception ($3.2 million) and veteran’s minimum at their disposal, the Lakers signed a crop of talented players. That included an established center (Chris Kaman), a dependable scorer (former USC product Nick Young), a lengthy defender (Wesley Johnson), an energetic guard (Jordan Farmar) and young talent (Robert Sacre, Elias Harris). The moves are considered better fits for D’Antoni’s up-and-down system. But the loss of Howard and World Peace will likely exacerbate the Lakers’ inconsistent defense. J
“For Coach D’Antoni, he’s going to be able to do the things he wants to do. That’s run and gun and play at a fast pace,” said Johnson, and he then suggested that’s not such a good thing. “For the first time, the Lakers will be underdogs and under the radar. Let’s see how they respond to that. A lot of people think they’re not even making the playoffs. Let’s see what the players decide to do.”
Johnson then recalled how Kareem Abdul-Jabbbar’s retirement following the 1988-89 season sparked plenty of skepticism on the Lakers’ fortunes. Although Johnson never won an NBA title after that, he led the Lakers to a 63-19 record the following season before falling to the Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference semifinals. Despite the firing of coach Pat Riley afterwards, the Lakers then advanced to the 1991 NBA Finals before falling to the Chicago Bulls in five games.
“I remember when Kareem retired and they picked us and said the Lakers are over with,” Johnson said. “I got so mad. I didn’t know what to do. I was thinking, ‘So nobody can play but Kareem?’ I got with James Worthy and the rest of the guys. I told them ‘Do you hear what they’re saying about us?’”
Lately, the chatter has also entailed the Lakers’ 2014 offseason.
Steve Nash and Robert Sacre remain the lone players with guaranteed contracts after next season for a combined $10.6 million, giving the Lakers plenty of financial flexibility when a flurry of talented players can become free agents. That includes LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Zach Randolph, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Rudy Gay and Luol Deng. Restrict free agents may include Paul George, DeMarcus Cousins and Greg Monroe. For the 2014-15 season, Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, Marc Gasol and Rajon Rondo could also become free agents.
“They’re going to have about $50 million,” said Johnson referring to the number presumed available the Lakers will have to spend on free agency. “As long as they don’t mess it up, potentially they can have great free agents. It’s not just about the free agents. They’ll have $50 million to spend. A lot of superstars get traded too. So they’ll be in line for free agents when teams think they’re tired of a guy. Just like the Knicks were ready for Carmelo, the Lakers will be in the free agent hunt and can take on a big player’s salary looking to be traded.”
But how realistic is it for the Lakers to acquire James after winning consecutive NBA titles with the Miami Heat? His availability also hinges on whether James opts out of his contract that ends following the 2015-16 season.
“LeBron could opt in, but I don’t think he will because he could get paid more,” Johnson said. “That would be a stupid move by LeBron to opt in. That doesn’t make sense. Even if he signs back with Miami, he has to opt out to get more money.”
And with that, Johnson believes the Lakers have set themselves up well financially to pursue James, among others.
“It’s a great positon to be in,” he said. “They have to manage the cap well and they’ve done that. So it’s all up to Jim Buss and the Buss family on what they’re going to do.”
Still, part of the Lakers’ attraction could hinge on how well or poorly they play this season, a variable that left Johnson straying away from his usually positive personality.
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Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org