Beneath his bubbly personality, Magic Johnson often reveals a brutally honest assessment surrounding the Lakers.
His skepticism these days doesn’t just rely on the Lakers’ slim championship fortunes, the product of a first-round sweep last season to San Antonio, Dwight Howard’s departure and uncertainty surrounding Kobe Bryant’s torn left Achilles tendon, From one Lakers legend to another, Johnson also doubts Bryant will return in time for the team’s season opener Oct. 29 against the Clippers at Staples Center.
“I don’t think he’ll make the first game,” Johnson said Monday on NBC’s Tonight Show with Jay Leno. “I think that’s asking a lot of a man who’s dealing with an Achilles and he blew it out to come back for the first game. I think it’s going to be later than that.”
Neither the Lakers nor the Bryant have offered a definitive timetable. The latest has involved him running at 80 percent of his body weight on a treadmill and completing ladder exercises to improve his footwork without sprinting. But it remains to be seen when Bryant will advance to defensive and conditioning drills before fully practicing, let alone appear in any of the Lakers’ eight preseason games through Oct. 25.
The Lakers have preached patience toward Bryant’s recovery. But given Bryant’s well-documented history in overcoming injuries, the Lakers believe he will still remain an elite player.
“It’s all going to depend on Kobe. If Kobe can get back healthy and play like Kobe, I think they’ll have a chance at least to make the playoffs, maybe as the eighth or seventh seed,” Johnson said. “If Kobe is not Kobe, it’s going to be a long season for the Lakers.”
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).
“What’s interesting about the Lakers is they will be faster and quicker this season much to Coach D’Antoni’s pace of style that he likes to play,” Johnson said. “But as Lakers fans, we just got to pray.”
Johnson hardly enjoyed saying those words for obvious reasons. Beyond winning five NBA championships during the Lakers’ Showtime Era, Johnson also had a 4.5 percent ownership stake in the organization before selling it three years ago to Patrick Soon-Shiong. Johnson also recently celebrated his 22nd anniversary on his marriage to his wife, Cookie, by hosting a barbecue where he posed for pictures in his new Lakers championship room with various teammates, including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Cooper, Kurt Rambis, Jamaal Wilkes and A.C. Green.
That’s why Johnson sounded incredulous to Leno’s question on whether the Clippers will win more games this season than the Lakers. But Johnson wouldn’t bite his tongue.
“The Clippers are definitely going to win more games than the Lakers,” Johnson said. “They have a real chance to win a championship especially with coach Doc Rivers coaching them now. The problem is what is Blake Griffin going to do. Chris Paul has been fantastic. But Blake Griffin is going to have to play better in the playoffs if the Clippers are going to win a championship.”
Sounds more promising than the Lakers, which Johnson believes has no shot at collecting their 17th Larry O’Brien trophy. And in his eyes, that won’t happen even if Bryant manages to defy the odds once again.