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SPORTS DIGEST: Magic leaves the Lakers wondering what happened

That wasn’t how I pictured the Lakers season ending.

The story wasn’t the last game of the season, Portland defeating the Lakers, 104-101 at Staples Center April 9.

The story came before the game, when Lakers President Magic Johnson announced he was stepping down as president immediately. Johnson made the announcement to the news media before even telling team owner Jeanie Buss.

By stepping down slightly more than two years after taking the job, Johnson admitted he wasn’t the right man to run the Lakers. Running the team got in the way of everything Johnson liked to do  — and was good at.

Not every great basketball player (and Johnson was a great basketball player) can accurately evaluate the greatness of others. Johnson wasn’t a good coach (he was 5-11 as the interim coach at the end of the 1993-94 season) and he knew that, too.

Still, his departure puts Buss and the Lakers behind the eight ball as the 2019 offseason begins, with the Lakers outside the playoffs and looking in for the sixth straight season.

By stepping down now, Johnson won’t be the person firing Luke Walton. In fact his decision to quit now may save Walton’s job for one more year.

Buss didn’t want to fire Walton. She knew that injuries, not Walton’s coaching, were the reason the Lakers missed the playoffs this year.

But Buss said last week she would let Johnson make the final decision on Walton. Johnson’s replacement may ultimately decide to fire Walton, but if that replacement isn’t hired before June 1 whoever gets the job will be too busy with the draft and free agency to evaluate Walton, let alone find someone to replace him.

At that point, it might be advantageous to keep Walton around, unless LeBron James decides otherwise.

Johnson’s decision also impacts general manager Rob Pelinka. The two came in as a tag-team, the former face of the franchise and the former agent to Johnson’s successor — Kobe Bryant — as face of the franchise.

Neither had front office experience. And it showed.

After persuading James to sign with the Lakers last July 1 (and it didn’t take much persuasion), Johnson and Pelinka weren’t very good at surrounding James with players who complimented his game.

They renounced the rights to Julius Randle, who promptly signed with the New Orleans Pelicans and averaged 21.4 points and 8.7 rebounds a game this season. The rebounding total would have led the Lakers. The points total would have been second to James.  

They also allowed center Brook Lopez to leave despite the wishes of Walton and staff to keep him.

They packed D’angelo Russell, the second overall pick of the 2016 NBA Draft, in a trade with the Brooklyn Nets to get Timofey Mosgov and his bloated salary off the roster. Russell averaged 21.1 points a game for the Nets this season, played in the all-star game and led the Nets to the playoffs. 

So 26 months after she made the biggest decision of her stint as controlling owner of the Lakers, Buss finds herself back where she was two years ago when she fired her brother Jim and Mitch Kupchak and brought in Johnson and Pelinka to run the team.

Johnson and Pelinka drafted well. They brought in Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Jason Hart that first year. The jury is still out on last year’s draft because Mo Wagner didn’t get as much chance to play because of the veterans that were brought in to surround James with better players.

The best of those veterans was Rajon Rondo, who was perhaps a better leader on and off the court than James was. Lance Stephenson had his moments, as did Javale McGee, but Michael Beasley was a washout long before the Lakers got him and he didn’t improve his status before the Lakers traded him to the Clippers, who promptly released him.

Buss would be smart to hire a veteran front office leader to right the Lakers’ ship. Hopefully, it will be someone James respects. That person must set the course for the Lakers in terms of the 2019-20 basketball season and into the future.

The Lakers have James under contract for three more seasons. They have a good nucleus around him. And they have plenty of salary cap to go get some solid players to fill in the blanks.

But there is a solid playoff team right down the hall in Staples Center that is only going to get better this offseason, also. Right now, the Clippers have the better roster and the better front office. And that’s the first time you could ever say that about Los Angeles’ two basketball teams.

PLAYOFF TIME: The Clippers won’t know until after their April 10 game with the Utah Jazz whether they travel to Oakland or Denver for the first round of the playoffs this weekend. Rest assured, neither the Golden State Warriors or Denver Nuggets really wants to play the Clippers right now.

The Clippers are a solid team peaking at the right moment for the playoffs. The only thing that could make things better for the Clippers would be a healthier Patrick Beverley, but he will give Seth Curry, Klay Thompson or whoever else he has to guard fits in the opening round of the playoffs.

Beverley only averages 7.6 points a game, but he is the person on the Clippers who sets the tone or mood for the team, with in-your-face aggressiveness that rubs off on the rest of his teammates.

The Clippers can beat you offensively and defensively. Two of their top three scorers, guard Lou Williams and forward Montrezl Harrell, come off the bench. Rookie point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander runs the team.

Forward Danilo Gallinari has bounced back from an injury-plagued first year with the Clippers to average 19.9 points a game this season.

Four of the players in coach Doc Rivers’ rotation were acquired at the trade deadline. Shooting guard Landry Shamet averages 10.8 points a game as a starter and center Ivica Zubac averages 8.9 points and 7.6 rebounds as a starter. 

JaMychal Green and Garrett Temple average 8.5 and 4.7 points a game off the bench, respectively.

If the Clippers draw Golden State in the first round, their chances of advancing to the second round are not very good.

The Warriors have won three of the last four NBA titles and have coasted through the regular season, waiting for the playoffs to arrive for them to turn the game up another notch and blow the opposition away.

If the Clippers can somehow pass San Antonio for the seventh spot in the West, their chances for advancing are much better. 

The Nuggets have some talent. Forward Paul Millsap is a 12-year veteran who can do everything. Center Nikola Jokic is one of the best young big men in the league and Jamal Murphy is one of the good, young point guards. 

But the Nuggets do not have a lot of playoff experience. They also don’t have a player like Williams to come off the bench and provide instant offense.

If the Clippers can find their way into seventh place, they could find their way to the second round of the playoffs as well.

WEAK DIVISION: One of the reasons the Dodgers have won six straight National League West Division titles is because the National League West isn’t as good as some of the other divisions in baseball.

The Dodgers are on their first losing streak of the season (two games) after dropping the first games they have played out of the division this year.

The Dodgers were 8-2 to open the season against the Arizona Diamondback, the San Francisco Giants and the Colorado Rockies. They hit home runs in their first 10 games of the season to set a new franchise mark.

Now, they have lost two games to the Cardinals. It won’t be their last two-game losing streak this season, trust me.

The biggest concern is losing Hyun-Jin Ryu again to a groin injury. Last year, Ryu missed more than three months after tearing the groin. This year’s injury doesn’t seem quite as a severe.

The return of Clayton will ease the loss of Ryu, if Kershaw can be anywhere close to his old self. Personally, if Kershaw was the third best starting pitcher on the staff by the end of the season I would be very happy, because that would mean Walker Buehler had continued to make progress and Julio Urias was reaching his potential.

There are still 150 games left Dodger fans. This is no time to panic.

By Don Wanlass

Staff Writer