Late in a news conference Tuesday introducing the Lakers’ two official draft picks, Magic Johnson stole the show.
The Lakers’ president of basketball operations announced exactly why he thinks he’ll succeed in attracting free agents.
“I’m Magic Johnson,” he said.
Then, Johnson went a step further. He set a timeline for himself. If the Lakers can’t attract top players in the free-agency periods of this summer or next summer, Johnson said he will resign.
“This summer and next summer,” Johnson said. “That’s it. If I can’t deliver I’m going to step down myself, [controlling owner Jeanie Buss] won’t have to fire me. I’ll step away from it, because I can’t do this job.”
Johnson’s ultimatum is nothing new. Jim Buss, then the Lakers’ executive vice president of basketball operations, made a similar promise in 2014 during a meeting that involved his siblings and fellow co-owners.
“If this doesn’t work in three to four years, if we’re not back on the top — and the definition of top means contending for the Western Conference, contending for a championship — then I will step down because that means I have failed,” Jim Buss told The Times in 2014.
Jim Buss is still a co-owner of the Lakers, but he has no role in its basketball decisions after his sister fired him and general manager Mitch Kupchak. Part of her frustration with the previous regime was their inability to attract, or sometimes even get an audience with, top free agents. That has seemed to change lately, where top players have made public their interest in the Lakers.
Johnson said he and general manager Rob Pelinka planned to present their plan to Jeanie Buss on Tuesday and again Wednesday.
“Then we’re going to get ready,” Johnson said. “I’m ready.”
Johnson was asked if he feels pressure.
“Look, I have been playing … do you know how many Finals I have been in?” Johnson said. “So you think I am worried about this? I have played against Larry Bird in the Finals. I mean, come on man. I have been in nine Finals. I have been in college NCAA championships.”
The top players on the market this year are expected to include James, George and Chris Paul, but it’s unlikely that Paul, the former Clippers star, would leave the Rockets in free agency.
George, a Palmdale native who has a Los Angeles-area home, has in the past expressed interest in playing for the Lakers, but the Oklahoma City Thunder, who acquired him from Indiana Pacers before last season, made him feel exceptionally welcome and valued. Their organization and star point guard Russell Westbrook made a positive impression on George, despite a first-round exit in the playoffs.
George also shares an agent with Julius Randle, the power forward and small-ball center the Lakers drafted in 2014. Randle will be a restricted free agent starting Saturday night. The rules don’t prohibit the Lakers from discussing a contract offer with Randle’s agent, Aaron Mintz, but as the Lakers focus more on the top-tier free agents available, earnest negotiations between the two sides have not begun yet.
Also on Monday, Sports Illustrated published what they said was a leaked part of a voiceover script for a presentation to George. It aimed to sell George on his dreams of becoming a star in Los Angeles.
Asked about that, Johnson said he didn’t care.
“I’m excited because you have to understand that every guy is different so you can’t use the same pitch for everybody,” Johnson added later. “I understand that, so you have to design your pitch to whoever you’re talking to at that time. I’m ready to go. I’ve been preparing for this for a long time. The hard work really was creating the flexibility and the cap space. Now we’ve just gotta … now the other hard work comes with trying to sign some people to come play for the Lakers.”
Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli