Column: Plaschke: Can the greatest Laker ever save the worst Lakers ever?

Jim Buss has been relieved of his duties as the executive vice president of basketball operations. (Feb. 21, 2017)

The Lakers now belong to Earvin Johnson, and there’s nothing magic about it.

The smiling, charismatic former star has been handed the serious job of fixing this city’s crown jewel sports franchise, and it will require more than a no-look pass or baby sky hook.

This is not some late-night TV show that can be canceled. This is not an interim coaching position that ends after the season. This is not partial ownership of a baseball team that doesn’t even require him to have an office.

In being named the Lakers’ president of basketball operations Tuesday, Magic Johnson has been given a real job with real difficulties where failure will have a real impact on his legacy.


The greatest Laker ever must save the worst Lakers ever.

“I’m putting it all on the line,” Johnson acknowledged in an interview with a handful of reporters Tuesday afternoon. “I knew that when I signed up for it. I’m good. I’m good.”

If Johnson pulls this off, it will cement his standing atop the list of Los Angeles sports immortals. But if he can’t, it could forever paint him, and taint him, as an inspiring entertainer who nonetheless couldn’t do the hard work of running Los Angeles’ favorite basketball team.

“I knew what I was getting into . . . your reputation,” Johnson said. “But I knew that when we got the Dodgers. I knew that when I bought the Sparks but we won the championship. One thing about me is, I’m a risk taker. You know that. If I didn’t think we could turn this thing around, you think I’d be sitting in this room?”

It’s a huge risk for Johnson, but an even bigger risk for Lakers President Jeanie Buss, who made the announcement Tuesday, culminating a process that was stunningly swift.

The ascension of Johnson from “advisor” to boss was predicted in this space last week, but few thought Buss would execute the expected swath-cutting move with 24 games left in the season.

She fired her brother Jim Buss from his job as vice president of basketball operations. She fired long-tenured Mitch Kupchak from his job as general manager. She even fired longtime Lakers loyalist John Black from his job as team publicist.

Kobe Bryant and Magic Johnson embrace before Bryant's final game at Staples Center on April 13, 2016.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

With the exception of Black, who was beloved by the Lakers community and may have paid the price for his close ties with Kupchak, the other firings were understandable considering the Lakers have just endured the two worst seasons in franchise history.

“Laker values are so strong . . . to watch it erode like that, it wasn’t Laker basketball, it wasn’t what this organization stands for, and so it was time for a change,” Jeanie Buss said Tuesday on Spectrum SportsNet. “I probably waited too long, and for that I apologize to Laker fans.”

Buss hopes Johnson can fill the leadership and salesmanship role once held by legendary Lakers boss Jerry West. She promoted him just in time for Thursday’s NBA trade deadline, and that may not be a coincidence. There apparently were worries that the old regime would sacrifice the Lakers’ future by making a deal to help them win games this season.

“It’s not going to be an easy fix, it’s going to take time,” Johnson said. “I wouldn’t be sitting here if it was a good situation. I know what I’m up against. Eventually we will turn it around.”

That attempted turnaround should have begun with a thorough and exhaustive search for a general manager. But seemingly moments after he was given his new title, Johnson apparently had already hired one.

In what could be construed as the first red flag of his administration, Johnson has unofficially given the job to Rob Pelinka, who is best known as Kobe Bryant’s agent and who has never worked in an NBA front office. While there is a trend toward hiring agents to run teams — the popular Bob Myers runs the Golden State Warriors — Pelinka enters as a polarizing figure with a reputation for being aloof and dismissive during his time as Bryant’s representative. And now it’s not just one front-office rookie running the Lakers, but two.

It is hoped Johnson’s hasty hiring of an old friend is not indicative of the way he will attempt to rebuild the franchise. On the other hand, he also quickly made his first trade Tuesday, and it was a good one, with the Lakers picking up a first-round draft pick and Corey Brewer from the Houston Rockets for hot-shooting guard Lou Williams.

No matter what happens, Johnson’s reign over the Lakers should be entertaining. But for it to work, it has to be consistent, and he says he understands.

“I’ve watched every single game every night for the last thirty-something years,” he said. “I said to my wife, ‘I’m always fussing at the TV or fussing from my seats. I might as well be in it.’”

But he’s been “in it” before and dropped out, in everything from his Lakers ownership stake to his vow to buy and bring an NFL team to Los Angeles. What’s different now? How can a man with diverse worldwide business interests suddenly shift his entire focus to one basketball team?

“The timing was right,” Johnson said. “Everything is going smooth in my business. I can step away now. If it had been five years ago, 10 years ago, I couldn’t do it. But the timing is right now.”

Time will tell. The honeymoon will be brilliant but short. For the most joyous of Lakers, basketball can no longer be a game. Earvin Johnson should realize there’s only one way to do this, and it has nothing to do with magic.

Get more of Bill Plaschke’s work and follow him on Twitter @BillPlaschke