The Los Angeles Lakers aren’t messing around anymore. The rest of the NBA had better get used to it, too. Lakers President of Basketball of Operations Earvin “Magic” Johnson wasn’t kidding when he said he wasn’t worried or felt any pressure about his job when it came time for deliverables, especially in the free agent market, in re-shaping the team back into a title contender at a Tuesday’s press conference introducing the team’s top draft picks of 2018.
“No pressure on me,” Johnson said. “I’m going to do my job. I’ve always done that. Do you know how many Finals I’ve been in? So do you think I’m worried about this? I’ve played against Larry Bird in the (NBA) Finals, so c’mon, man. I’ve been in nine Finals. I’m Magic Johnson. I’m still the same guy. I’m not going to change. No pressure on me. I’m going to do my job. That’s what I do. I do my job. I’m excited. I’m looking forward to it.”
As it turned out, Johnson must have known something most of us didn’t know. If he does nothing else for the rest of tenure as president of basketball operations, Johnson has already delivered the good for fans of the Purple and Gold, getting LeBron James to buy in the mystique of the Lakers franchise and signing the 14-time NBA All-Star to a four-year, $154 million contract.
So much for the great unknown spectacle surrounding what Johnson and the Lakers would do when free agency hit Sunday, July 1. At Tuesday’s press conference, Johnson was coy on whether the Lakers would get the big fish they wanted this summer or wait out until the end of next season.
“If we don’t find who we think we can find, we’ll turn our attention to next summer,” said Johnson. “We have the cap space and flexibility. We created that and we’re looking forward to Sunday. But again, we are not putting all of our marbles into one summer. So we understand that we have two summers to add to what we’re building here. I’m going to stay disciplined. I’m going to stay focused. I told you before this is not going to get turned around overnight. We’re building something. We want sustainability. Jeanie (Buss) is (one) hundred percent behind us and our strategy. We’ve been having unbelievable strategy meetings every single day.”
Getting James, the biggest fish in the free agency market, and still regarded as the best player in the league, was no doubt the coup that Johnson and team general manager Rob Pelinka had hoped to pull off. The NBA landscape has now officially changed when James signed that contract on Sunday. To the Golden State Warriors, the reigning NBA champions, good night, and good luck.
The Warriors’ string of playing in consecutive NBA Finals just hit the jeopardy button with the Lakers signing James, who already has a couple of homes in Los Angeles. During the 2018 NBA All-Star Weekend, James who won the game’s MVP award, spoke glowingly of what the city offers when it comes to stars. And as far as anyone has checked, James remains the brightest light in a league full of stars.
“I think L.A. is a perfect place to host All-Star Weekend,” James said. “It’s one of the few cities that we have in our league that can accommodate all of this. And when I mean all of this, you have over 200-plus countries that’s covering the game. You’ve got so many people from all over the world coming to watch our game and just be a part of All-Star Weekend. And we know the traffic. We understand that. But traffic is traffic and — but L.A. can accommodate that. It’s built for stars. It’s built for entertainment. It’s built for cameras and bright lights, and it’s a great place for it.”
Those odds of Golden State going to a fifth straight Finals appearance just got lower. Putting more salt on this wound, the Lakers also slapped the Warriors in the face by snatching center JaVale McGee from them and inking defensive pest Lance Stephenson to the ballclub. The Lakers just gave the Warriors their ‘uh-oh” moment.
Instead of Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green looking up at James twice a year and meeting up with the four-time league regular season MVP the last four years in the NBA Finals, they now have to contend with him in their backyard of the Pacific Division. It’s been eight years since the Lakers made their way to the NBA Finals, thanks to the greatness of Kobe Bryant. The Lakers have dealt with plenty of low moments since.
Johnson, Pelinka and the Lakers are now banking on James and his mercurial skills to take them back to the level of championship status again. That means putting hope into a player, as a great as he is, who has logged 15 seasons of NBA wear-and-tear. The Lakers tried this older, but great stars strategy before with Steve Nash and Dwight Howard. As everyone now knows, that experiment strongly backfired with both players flaming out.
Nash was breaking down physically when he joined Bryant and Howard to form the Lakers’ version of the Big Three. It wound up not panning out. The Lakers don’t have to worry about James and his skillsets fading anytime soon.
“What I take pride in is taking care of my body,” said James. “Taking care of my body, making sure I’m available every night and continue to get better and better. I don’t really take it as a young guy, okay, I need to show him that I’m still able to do this. I need to continue to show myself, you know, because every night I step on the floor I have to lead my guys or prove to myself that I’m still able to play at a high level. I feel great.”