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Magic Johnson isn’t about to make the same mistake LeBron James did back in 2010
So when the Lakers’ president of basketball operations discussed his expectations for the coming season on Friday, nearly two weeks after he played such a pivotal part in convincing James to sign a four-year, $154 million deal to don the purple and gold, there were no bold championship predictions to be found.
A redux of James’ infamous Miami Heat speech, this was not. Instead, Johnson – whose Lakers finished just 35-47 last season and haven’t been in the playoffs since 2013 – cautioned that it could take some time for this new Lakers team to jell.
“I think the one thing that we have to, and the fans have to, be patient about is the chemistry on the court, because we’re putting together basically all these guys will be new to each other, right?” Johnson said in a conference call. “It’s probably going to take us at least a month or two, probably closer to two months, to really understand how to play with each other and how to read each other, all those things.
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“We saw that LeBron and Miami struggled for the first two months, and then they finally got it together and they were a championship-caliber team (winning two in all). I’m sure when he went back to Cleveland in (2014), they struggled until they got to know each other and then they were a championship-caliber team. And it will be no different here. We’ll struggle to understand how to play with each other, how everybody likes the ball and those types of things, but eventually we’ll get it together and I feel we’ll be one of the best teams in the West.”
This Lakers’ mix will be nothing if not interesting, as they added quite the cast of characters after landing James. Veteran point guard Rajon Rondo came aboard on a one-year, $9 million deal, followed by James’ longtime nemesis from the Indiana Pacers, Lance Stephenson, and former Golden State big man JaVale McGee. Second-year guard Lonzo Ball is having arthroscopic surgery on his left knee on Tuesday, but is expected to be ready for training camp. Young talents Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma remain vital to the program as well.
While the Lakers’ lack of shooting with this new roster has been roundly ridiculed, Johnson argued that the emphasis on playmakers who were also strong defenders was the way to go. This plan, like it or not, is one that James endorsed during the meeting with Johnson at his Los Angeles home at the start of free agency.
“When you think about some of the teams that had great shooting besides Golden State, all those teams really got beat,” Johnson began. “But then you look at a team like Boston, who had, again, multiple ballhandlers, guys who could put it down on the ground and get their own shot, (and) they advanced all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals.
“I watched every series, and had to say, ‘Ok, the game is played different.’ And then I talked to…LeBron, and he felt the same way, and so now let’s get guys that can handle the basketball, get their own shot, also who are tough on defense, tough-minded, and that’s how Rob and I decided to build the roster. We’re really happy about the additions that we have, and LeBron is happy. We’re building something, we feel, that’s special.”
James, quite clearly, grew tired of carrying such a heavy load during his time in Cleveland when it came to running the offense.
“(Having playmakers) takes the pressure off of him,” Johnson continued. “He doesn’t have to make every play. That’s what wears him out. That’s what wears him down. He doesn’t have to make every play now. We’ve got guys who can make plays on their own, so he’ll get to relax on offense some.
“And also, too, we’re a fastbreaking team so we’re not going to be just throwing it down, throwing it to him, we’re going to be out running, so that’s really easy. We don’t want to wear him out, and wear him down. We want him fresh in the playoffs, and this team will allow him to be fresh and ready for the playoffs.”
As for the prospect of adding another star via trade, it remains to be seen if the Lakers have anything in store. They have been in sporadic talks with the San Antonio Spurs about disgruntled star Kawhi Leonard, but there is no indication that they’ve made any progress on that front. As Johnson noted, their patience is rooted in the reality that they can add a max-salary player next summer as well.
“I think we’re going to stay disciplined (with the roster),” Johnson said. “We’re not going to make mistakes by going out and making a deal just to say we made another deal. Our timetable is still the same, yet if we feel that there is somebody out there or a deal to be made that could make our team better, then we’ll do it as long as it’s a great deal for us.
“And if it’s not, then we have our team and we will go to battle and go to war with this team, and we feel really good about this team.”