College Professional Sports

SPORTS DIGEST: Magic takes the wand as executive of the Lakers

Magic Johnson lasted as a special adviser to Lakers boss Jeanie Buss for about two weeks.

On Feb. 22, Buss cleaned house, promoting Johnson to president of basketball operations and removing her brother Jim as vice president of basketball operations.

She also fired longtime general manager Mitch Kupchak and public relations man John Black.

Johnson acted quickly in his new role, trading shooting guard Lou Williams to Houston for small forward Corey Brewer and the Rockets first round draft pick. He also hired Rob Pelinka as general manager. Pelinka has never worked in an NBA front office before, but he served as Kobe Bryant’s agent for most of Bryant’s career and also was the agent for James harden and other NBA players.

Buss said she hopes the moves “will return the Lakers to the heights Dr. Jerry Buss demanded and our fans rightfully expect.”

“I took these actions today to achieve one goal: Everyone associated with the Lakers will now be pulling in the same direction, the direction established by Earvin and myself,” Buss said. “We are determined to get back to competing to win NBA championships again.”

While many have wondered what took Buss so long to make these changes, I actually wondered what was her hurry.

Making the move two days before the trading deadline almost was a sign of desperation — or a sign that Buss was afraid her brother and Kupchak might do something rash in an effort to save their jobs.

The Lakers were involved in trade talks with the Sacramento Kings for center Damarcus Cousins last weekend, but reportedly balked when the Kings insisted that Brandon Ingram be included in any package.

The Lakers instead were offering Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle and Ivica Zubac. Frankly, I wouldn’t have dealt any of those players for Cousins, a talented big man who leads the league in technical fouls and is known for not getting along with coaches, teammates or the front office.

No one knows what kind of executive Johnson will be for the Lakers. He learned in a brief 16-game stint back in 1994 that head coaching wasn’t for him.

Since then he has a portfolio of several successful businesses he has operated, providing him enough money to become a part owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Los Angeles Sparks.

But being a hall of fame player and a hall of fame executive are often two different things. Ask Michael Jordan, who owns the Charlotte Hornets. They still can’t make the playoffs.

Larry Bird has had some success as an executive with the Indiana Pacers and Johnson might be trying to match and exceed the success of his longtime rival.

Of course, Jerry West has had a long tenure of success in basketball operations after retiring as a player, building the Lakers Showtime era teams led by Johnson on the court, as well as the early 2000 championship teams led by Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal.

West also has had a hand in the success of the Memphis Grizzlies and now the Golden State Warriors, so it can be done.

“It’s a dream come true to return to the Lakers as president of basketball operations working closely with Jeanie Buss and the Buss family,” Johnson said in a statement released by the Lakers. “Since 1979, I’ve been a part of the Laker Nation and I’m passionate about this organization. I will do everything I can to build a winning culture on and off the court. We have a great coach in Luke Walton and good young players. We will work tirelessly to return our Los Angeles Lakers to NBA champions.”

Magic knows it won’t be easy.

He later told reporters the Lakers were three to five years away from contending for championships.

They have a solid young nucleus to build around in Ingram, Randle, Clarkson, Zubac, D’Angelo Russell and Larry Nance Jr.

With two first-round draft picks in the upcoming June draft, they could add to that young nucleus. Johnson’s legendary status in the game and his warm personality should help attract free agents, which Kupchak and Jim Buss couldn’t do.

But Magic is going to have to prove that he can spot basketball talent and then help nurture that talent. He also will have to put together a front office team that can manage the Lakers over the long haul.

It’s a daunting task, but Laker Nation will be behind him as long as the team keeps improving.

Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers finds his team in the shadow of the Lakers again, even though the Clippers have the sixth best record in the NBA. The Clippers need a healthy Chris Paul if they are going to make a deep run in the playoffs this year. (Courtesy photo)
Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers finds his team in the shadow of the Lakers again, even though the Clippers have the sixth best record in the NBA. The Clippers need a healthy Chris Paul if they are going to make a deep run in the playoffs this year.
(Courtesy photo)

SECOND FIDDLE: And then there’s the Clippers. They have the sixth best record in the entire NBA as the stretch run for playoff positioning begins Feb. 23 and they are hardly mentioned in the city’s biggest newspaper Feb. 23.

The only way the Clippers are going to emerge from the Lakers’ gigantic shadow is to advance to the NBA’s Western Conference final — and that means beating either Golden State or San Antonio in the playoffs. In other words, it isn’t going to happen.

Doc Rivers, the Clippers coach and president of basketball operations, is now in Magic’s shadow as he tries to pull the trigger on a trade that could elevate his team.

Rivera says getting point guard Chris Paul back from a thumb injury will be like adding a player at the trade deadline, but Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan have been together for six years now and are no closer to the Western Conference finals then they have ever been.

They face the Warriors in the first game after the all star break Feb. 23. Maybe the Warriors will be rusty and the Clippers can sneak out a win.

If they do, it would snap a nine-game losing streak against the Warriors. Heck, the Lakers have defeated the Warriors twice in the past year.

The Clippers have a gaping hole at the small forward position they need to fill before the trade deadline passes.

Otherwise, they will be home for the summer by the end of May.

WEST COAST HOOPS: Four of the top six teams in the latest Top 25 men’s college basketball poll are from the West.

Undefeated Gonzaga is number one followed by Arizona at four, UCLA at five and Oregon at 6. That should bode well for the Pac 12 once March Madness arrives with the NCAA Tournament.

USC should be able to ride the coattails of the top three teams in the league to earn a tournament bid, even though they are in fifth place right now.

The Trojans, however, are on a two-game losing streak (UCLA and Oregon) and face Arizona Feb. 23 in Tucson. They need a strong showing against Arizona and a win over Arizona State to start making a claim for a sure tournament bid.

They are a better team with a healthy Bennie Boatwright back in the lineup, but they’re best win of the season was against UCLA, and the Bruins bounced back from that loss to shell the Trojans by 32 the next time they played.

The Trojans  play an uptempo game that is almost as exciting as the Bruins, but they need to make it to the NCAA Tournament to get noticed.