It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
Lakers owner Jeanie Buss and the rest of Lakers Nation believed bringing back Earvin "Magic" Johnson as president of basketball operations was the beginning of an era of sustained success. How could it not be? Everyone loves Magic. He’s the most celebrated player in franchise history, and he’s the face of the Los Angeles sports scene with his Lakers and Dodgers presence.
POWER RANKINGS: Lakers keep tumbling down
But so far, it’s been anything but "Showtime" at Staples Center. The sheer number of missteps, odd roster moves and free agent/trade whiffs have raised a serious question. Is it possible Johnson and the Lakers don’t know what they’re doing?
Let’s take a look at some of the questionable moves Magic has made in his short tenure in LA.
Trading D'Angelo Russell
The Lakers gave up on Russell just two short years into his NBA career, but they didn’t just trade him to the Nets and move on. Johnson publicly bashed Russell’s leadership abilities as he was kicking him out the door.
The trade did at least serve as a salary dump. The Lakers were able to shed Timofey Mozgov’s contract, and they received a pick from Brooklyn that turned into Kyle Kuzma.
But looking back, Johnson sent Russell away far too soon. Russell is now an All-Star guard in his second season with the Nets, averaging 20.5 points and 6.7 assists per game while shooting 37.2 percent from beyond the arc.
Would having Russell make the Lakers' trade package more attractive to the Pelicans in a potential Anthony Davis deal? You bet it would.
Failing to acquire Paul George
Back in 2017, when George requested a trade from Indiana, he made it clear that he wanted to join the Lakers. Even if the Pacers traded him elsewhere, his intention was to sign with the Lakers once he reached free agency.
What did the Lakers do? They decided that it wasn't worth giving up any key assets. The thought was that George would spurn his new team and sign with the Lakers a year later.
I repeat: Paul George - barring a title chance in Indy - is hell-bent on heading for Laker Land. This message has been sent throughout NBA.
— Sam Amick (@sam_amick) February 23, 2017
But the Lakers didn't just fail to acquire George this past summer — they never got a meeting with him. It was an embarrassment for the organization to have a player of George’s caliber choose to play in Oklahoma City over Los Angeles.
Talk about a swing and a miss.
Drafting Lonzo Ball over Jayson Tatum, De'Aaron Fox
The NBA Draft is less scientific than we'd like to think. Predicting whether a 19-year-old will become a star is no easy task.
But when the team picking directly behind you drafts a player like Tatum, you will be judged. Ball was a question mark coming out of college. His unorthodox shooting motion was a red flag for many teams, and Los Angeles thought long and hard about De'Aaron Fox at No. 2 — not to mention the fact that Ball was followed around by a one-man circus in LaVar.
Ball has shown flashes of his potential, but his inability to consistently hit from the outside is troubling. Meanwhile, Tatum helped push Boston to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals last season, and he already has the polished offensive game of an All-Star forward. Fox has added a competent 3-point shot to his blazing speed and finishing ability.
Would Johnson select Tatum or Fox over Ball if he got the chance to do it all over again? Of course.
Watching Julius Randle walk for nothing
Randle was the first piece in the Lakers' rebuild. After missing out on his entire rookie season due to injury, Randle emerged as quality small-ball center.
The Lakers had the option to keep Randle as a restricted free agent last summer. Instead, they rescinded his qualifying offer and allowed him to sign a two-year, $18 million deal with the Pelicans. Randle is now in the midst of a career year, averaging 20.1 points and 9.0 rebounds per game while shooting 53.4 percent from the field.
The idea behind allowing Randle to walk was that the Lakers would acquire another max player. But they have failed to do so, and they sure could use Randle.
Botching Anthony Davis trade talks
It all came to a head when Davis (through agent Rich Paul) announced that he will not be signing an extension with the Pelicans. The obvious ties to Los Angeles emerged. Davis and James share the same agent in Paul, and the timing of the announcement gave the Lakers an advantage over the rival Celtics ahead of the trade deadline.
Johnson and the Lakers offered everything but the kitchen sink. Their entire young core (Ball, Ingram and Kuzma) was put on the table, plus multiple future draft picks. And yet New Orleans wasn’t intrigued.
The public courting of Davis had an effect on the current Lakers roster. A blowout loss to Indiana two days before the trade deadline and a road loss to the Hawks prior the All-Star break was evidence enough. Magic has attempted to say all the right things about players needing to be professional, but that’s easier said than done.
The failure to acquire Davis immediately also has major ramifications for the organization moving forward.
With New Orleans deciding to keep AD (for now), the Celtics can jump into the race this summer. The Celtics will clearly have the superior trade assets, especially if they include Tatum. The Knicks could also rise in the trade rankings if they score the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft lottery. The chance to select Zion Williamson would likely beat any Lakers offer.
So what's next for the Lakers?
The Lakers are under .500 and out of the playoff bracket. According to FiveThirtyEight's projections, the Lakers have an 18 percent chance of making the playoffs.
Missing the playoffs with James was unfathomable before the start of the 2018-19 season, but it’s beginning to look like a real possibility. And while the lack of a playoff berth would be a major disappointment, the Lakers face the potential for an even bigger disappointment this summer.
Johnson has proclaimed that his focus is on the 2019 class of free agents. Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, Kemba Walker and more will all be available. Johnson seems quite sure that he’ll be able to land one of these stars — but his certainty may be misguided.
Leonard reportedly prefers signing with the Clippers or re-signing with the Raptors. Durant playing with James seems like an impossibility, and the Knicks connection is much stronger than anything out of Los Angeles. The Knicks chatter also applies to Irving. Thompson wants to play his entire career with Golden State.
This is the doomsday scenario for Johnson. If they’re unable to land a star free agent this summer and the Pelicans send Davis to Boston or New York, the Lakers will be left with nothing. Sure, they may be able to land some second-tier free agents to pair with James, but that would be a major letdown.
Getting James was a game-changer for Johnson. That was just the start of his work, though, and so far, he’s failed miserably.
He’s traded away players that have gone on to have success elsewhere. He’s been ignored by a major free agent. He allowed the Pelicans to publicly embarrass him.
Lakers fans should be concerned with the direction of this team. Their chances of making the playoffs are growing slimmer by the day, and another summer full of failures appears to be on the horizon.