Magic Johnson emerged back onto the airwaves to talk about the state of the Lakers. So of course that meant the Lakers legend would continue his years-long criticism of Jim Buss, the Lakers’ the vice president of basketball operations.
“This summer has to be the biggest summer of Jim Buss’ life,” Johnson said on Tuesday on ESPN’s First Take. “Now you’re starting to lose the fan base. If he doesn’t have a big summer with a free agent, it looks like they’ll have a good draft pick. Put that together with a good free agent, you can be right back into the mix. If this summer, that doesn’t happen where they can sign a great player, it’s over for us.”
The Lakers have hardly lived through happy times, recently. The Lakers (13-38) enter Tuesday’s game against the Denver Nuggets (19-33) at Staples Center losing 13 of their past 14 games and are destined to miss the playoffs for the second consecutive season and the seventh time in franchise history. The Lakers are also on pace to finish with their worst season in franchise history.
Yet, the Lakers could face a much better summer than last year after striking out on LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony while Pau Gasol also left via free agency.
The Lakers will keep their first-round draft pick from the Steve Nash trade three years ago if the selection lands within the top five. They will have a mid first-round pick stemmed from the Jeremy Lin trade. The Lakers expect rookie forward Julius Randle to recover fully from a fractured right leg that kept him out for the year following the the season opener. The Lakers expect Kobe Bryant to recover fully from right shoulder surgery after playing only 35 games this season. The Lakers also have cap flexibility to sign a marquee free agent at a maximum-level contract, including Marc Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Love, Goran Dragic or Rajon Rondo.
“We must get be back and relevant and sign a good free agent, get a good draft pick and send Kobe out the right way,” Johnson said. “The Lakers can get back in the mix, but the West is so tough. That’s the problem. The West is just so good. There’s going to be two teams over .500 that won’t make the playoffs. For Jim Buss, this is a big year for him and for the fanbase too in believing in him and trusting him. He can gain the trust back if he has a good summer.”
Johnson has criticized Buss in the past for numerous decisions. He took issue with the Lakers hiring Mike Brown in favor of Brian Shaw during the 2011 offseason after Phil Jackson retired. Johnson also disliked the Lakers hiring Mike D’Antoni in 2012 following Brown’s firing instead of hiring Jackson. Johnson has also said that Jim Buss should give more autonomy to Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak.
The Lakers have maintained that both of those coaching hires received the blessing of Lakers late owner Jerry Buss. Yet, Johnson has argued that Jim Buss hasn’t properly emulated his father, who oversaw the Lakers winning 10 of their 16 NBA championships after purchasing the franchise in 1979.
“His father was smart enough to understand that ‘I own the team, but I don’t have the basketball expertise to make those decisions.’ So let me bring in Jerry West, one of the best if not the best mind in basketball, to make basketball decisions. Then he consulted guys like myself,” Johnson said. “Jim is trying to do it himself and trying to prove to everybody that, ‘This was the right decision that my dad gave me the reigns.’ He’s not consulting anybody that can help him achieve his goals and dreams to win an NBA championship.”
Johnson admitted he has no relationship with Jim Buss, while adding that he “loves” Lakers president Jeanie Buss. Though she has overseen the Lakers’ business side, Jeanie Buss has been in charge of the Lakers’ franchise since her father’s passing on Feb. 2013. Jeanie Buss, Jackson’s longtime companion, has criticized Jim Buss in the past. Though Jeanie Buss has given the Lakers’ front office, including Jim Buss, a public vote of confidence, she has said she will hold Jim Buss accountable for his pledge that he will ensure the Lakers become a Western Conference contender within three years.
“Dr. Buss raised Jeanie and I up together,” Johnson said. “When Jeanie went to USC business school, he was bringing us along together. Jim was not part of the Lakers. He never really saw our championship years. Jim was doing his own thing. He came back later on, and Dr. Buss knew he wanted the kids to decide later on to run the basketball side because Jeanie was definitely going to run the business side. I like Jim as a person. But at the same time, a great CEO or person who is in a powerful position will surround himself or put together a team to help them achieve their goals and dreams. Jim has not done that.”
Amid Johnson’s frequent criticisms of the Lakers, it has long been suspected that his comments have a hidden agenda in ensuring a position of influence within the organization. But Johnson shot that contention down, pointing out he sold his 4.5 percent ownership stake to Patrick Soon-Shiong in 2010 before eventually being part of the ownership group that purchased the Dodgers. Johnson remains listed as a Lakers vice president, though he is unpaid.
“He’s mad at me because I criticize him,” Johnson said of Jim Buss. “Then he’s like, “Magic is trying to get a job with the Lakers. Magic is trying to bring me down.’ No I’m not. I’m telling the truth about the situation and trying to make us better and trying to get us into a winning situation in terms of back to being relevant. So you get mad at me when I tell the truth. Then he’s saying, ‘Oh he’s just jealous that my dad picked me over him.’ No, I decided to sell my shares. That was my decision. I knew I wanted to do something else. So quit pointing the finger at everybody else instead of pointing the finger at yourself.’
Still, Johnson praised the Lakers front office for a few things. He lauded the offseason hiring of coach Byron Scott, who played with Johnson during the Showtime Era, despite the Lakers’ recent struggles.
“Coach Scott got them playing hard. You got to give him credit,” Johnson said. “We don’t have talent. We don’t have enough talent to compete with the good teams in the NBA.”
Johnson also defended the Lakers for giving Bryant a two-year, $48.5 million extension on Nov. 2013, a month before returning from a left Achilles injury that sidelined him for eight months. Bryant played only six games last season before fracturing his left knee.
“Kobe didn’t ask for that money. This is not Kobe’s fault,” Johnson said. “Jeanie and Jim brought that contract to him because that’s been the Laker way. They always say to their superstars, ‘We’re going to take care of you.” They took care of Kobe. You know Kobe wasn’t going to turn that $48 million down.”
Johnson also argued Bryant had no obligation to take a paycut for reasons beyond winning five NBA championships and climbing to third place on the league’s all-time scoring list.
“Jim didn’t give him a reason to. There was no plan in place to say, ‘Kobe, if you take less, I can sign so and so,'” Johnson said. “There was no plan. Kobe said, ‘Okay let me take this contract because we’re not going to be good.’ This is still about Jim Buss. If Jim would say, ‘Mitch you run the show,’ it would be a lot better for the Lakers. Mitch Kupchak knows what he’s doing. He’s smart, hard working and at every practice. The fans would feel good about it as well.”
That left Johnson expressing optimism on only one thing. Though Bryant has suffered season-ending injuries for three consecutive seasons, Johnson maintained he will return for his 20th and likely final NBA season.
“He’s meant so much to basketball,” Johnson said. “He’s meant so much to LA. But still, he’s such a competitor and he loves to prove people wrong. He lives for that. He’s got that Michael Jordan [mentality]. He lives for it. He’s going to come back. That’s who he is. Now we just have to help him.”
And Johnson pins that responsibility, fair or not, on Jim Buss.
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