The life of LeBron James, Los Angeles entertainment mogul, has been going well enough in his first nine months in town. He’s had some success with his self-serving chat-a-thon, "The Shop," on HBO and has hit some bumps with "Million Dollar Mile," a competition show which pits athletes against citizens making a run for prize money. That show was bumped by CBS to the moribund Saturday time slot after just two episodes.
The life of LeBron James, Los Angeles Laker, has been more "Mile" than "Shop." On Tuesday, James’ situation with the Lakers may have crumbled altogether, the prospects of him ever being able to bring the franchise back into championship contention disintegrating with the sudden departure of team president Magic Johnson.
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On announcing his resignation, Johnson said he wanted to get back to being Magic Johnson, chatting and tweeting with players without the weight of tampering charges looming over him. The Lakers job, he said, was not fun.
That’s an ominous sign for James and Lakers backers everywhere. The timing is especially distressing. If Johnson had real confidence that he would be able to entirely rebuild the team’s roster this summer, there’s no way he’d bail out here in mid-April.
If he thought there was a chance — even a 50-50 shot — that he could bring in the Pelicans’ Anthony Davis by trade and/or a max free agent like Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson or Jimmy Butler, he’d still be running the Lakers.
At worst, in that scenario, Johnson could be there to make his pitch to free agents. If it failed, he could then say, "I’m accountable," and resign.
By quitting now, without giving previous warning to owner Jeanie Buss, Johnson is essentially conceding that the Lakers’ summer prospects are bleak. Remember, when Johnson took the job in February 2017, one of his selling points was his ability to be a selling point.
The Lakers had famously struck out on a series of free agents, and Johnson’s star power was expected to strengthen their ability to pitch the franchise to players.
Johnson got James last summer. But that was it. It didn’t take Johnson to lure James, either. James was heading to the Lakers to increase his entertainment portfolio, Magic or no Magic. As for supporting transactions, Johnson did not make a trade for Leonard, and did not even get a meeting with Paul George, who decided to stay in Oklahoma City before free agency officially hit.
He was not able to bend the NBA to his will this winter when the Lakers pursued a Davis trade.
Johnson got the message. This wasn’t going to be as easy as sitting across from a free agent, dazzling him with the well-known Magic smile and making the Lakers great again. Having James on board, Johnson discovered, didn’t necessarily make things easier, either.
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The number of free agents looking to join forces with James as he careens toward into the back half of his 30s, it turns out, is limited.
That doesn’t bode well for James in Los Angeles. He was fantastic this season — 27.4 points, 8.5 rebounds, 8.3 assists per game — but suffered the first major injury of his career and was inadvisably critical of his young teammates, making his own contributions to a disastrous season.
Perhaps Johnson could imagine sitting down with, say, Leonard and saying, "LeBron’s getting older and he might throw you under the bus, but come be a Laker!" No amount of dazzle in the smile can make that an attractive pitch.
James can only wonder what’s next. Will the Lakers bring back Jerry West, who is 80 and enjoying his time with the Clippers? Would they make a play for Kobe Bryant, who almost certainly does not want the job? How about Buss’ ex, Phil Jackson, who was sniffing around Lakerland earlier this season? Try to poach Bob Myers from the Warriors?
Heck, how about turning the tables and hiring Dell Demps? (Kidding.)
The bigger issue for James is whether whomever the Lakers hire to replace Johnson can add two top-tier stars to the roster, whether a deal can be made for Davis and another player can be persuaded to come aboard. James can’t win with the Lakers’ current roster.
But Johnson’s resignation signals that at least one guy with knowledge of the situation — Johnson himself — doesn’t think it can happen. He’d still be in his job if he thought it could.
So what we saw this year might be what we get from James’ Lakers tenure. It’s increasingly likely that James the mogul will produce more television programs in Los Angeles than James the Laker will produce playoff appearances.