Lakers try to make sense of a disappointing season amid shock of Magic Johnson’s exit
At his exit interview, Lakers guard Lonzo Ball gives an update on his health, discusses Magic Johnson’s departure and what it’s like to play with LeBron James.
The view from the padded folding chairs arranged in rows along the Lakers’ practice court featured a backdrop of Lakers logos in the foreground. In the background, peeking just above the top of the backdrop, was a row of 10 championship trophies that sit on a windowsill in Jeanie Buss’ office.
Occasionally, the top of a head full of blond hair could be seen moving around the office as most of the Lakers’ players took turns sitting before reporters and discussing their seasons in a yearly tradition known as exit interviews.
Headed into a sixth consecutive offseason without any playoffs, without its president of basketball operations, the organization began the process of figuring out how to proceed.
“I was a little bit shocked,” Kyle Kuzma said. “Just like everybody else was. It wasn’t predicted or nobody had that on their minds. But we say it all the time as players, it’s no different from the front office or anybody. The one thing you can do in life is to do what’s best for you, and for Magic, he’s Magic Johnson. He doesn’t need to prove to anybody anything and he just made the best decision for him and that’s all you can ask.”
Kuzma was one of 16 Lakers players who spoke on Wednesday morning. Neither Buss, nor general manager Rob Pelinka, nor coach Luke Walton addressed reporters.
James had planned to address reporters on Tuesday at 6:30 p.m., but Johnson resigned about 30 minutes before that and James canceled his news conference.
Buss spent Tuesday evening at the Lakers’ facility, rather than at the team’s season-ending game.
Buss typically attends games and sometimes holds business meetings during or before them. Earlier in the week she had dinner with Phil Anschutz, who owns 27% of the Lakers and AEG, which owns Staples Center. Anschutz is the largest individual owner of the team, but as the head of the Buss Family Trusts, Buss makes the team’s practical decisions. Dan Beckerman, the CEO of AEG, is on the Lakers’ board of directors.
“Jeanie has our complete trust and confidence,” Beckerman said on Wednesday. “And we have all the faith in the world in her and that she and her team are going to continue to do what’s in the best interest of the franchise as she’s always done.”
On Wednesday she did not make any impulsive decisions. Pelinka, about whom Johnson expressed some hesitance on Tuesday evening, remained the team’s general manager. Walton, whom Johnson said he didn’t want to force Buss to fire, remained the head coach.
No change in their status is imminent, though people familiar with the Lakers’ thinking said Walton might be asked to alter his coaching staff after a season in which the Lakers went 37-45.
The only move the Lakers made on Wednesday morning was to part ways with head athletic trainer Marco Nunez after an injury-plagued season. But that decision was long in the works. The Lakers had considered firing Nunez after last season.
During his 2018-19 exit interview, Lakers forward Brandon Ingram talks about dealing with a blood clot that ended his season prematurely.
On Tuesday night, Johnson held court, discussing his decision to resign, right up until the game started. As he did, word filtered out to Walton and his players. The ones who had to play scrambled to regain their composure.
Josh Hart, out after knee surgery, found out when a buddy called him on his way into the arena. He paused on his crutches to take the call and hear the news.
Rajon Rondo arrived at the arena after Johnson’s announcement too.
“I walked in and thought LeBron had retired or something,” Rondo quipped.
Walton addressed the team shortly before the game started. According to players he reminded them that nothing had changed about their challenge against the Portland Trail Blazers.
“We discussed it a little bit in the locker room, how we felt and stuff like that,” Kentavious Caldwell-Pope said. “But we really didn’t discuss as much [during] the game and how it happened. So we really just let it sink in and today was when it really hit. That was really surprising that that happened. No one knew.”
The 2018-19 season was supposed to be one that returned the Lakers to the playoffs, after they landed the game’s biggest star. It wound up, instead, being a season full of distractions and lessons learned.
“In sports and basketball, you always preach family,” Kuzma said. “Everybody is a family. … In a regular household family, things get tight and things are all positive, things are all negative sometimes. That’s just how a family is. So, everybody on this roster is very cool with each other. Hung out and as the season progressed, guys got closer, obviously. …
“You’re going to have that disconnect sometimes but, I can’t say enough positive things about everybody in that locker room.”
Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli
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