How not to run an NBA franchise: The failures of the Magic Johnson and Phil Jackson regimes. — Mistakes Were Made
Magic Johnson is a Hall of Fame basketball player and considered arguably the greatest point guard of all time. After his basketball playing days were over, he became a very successful businessman. We consider Phil Jackson the greatest NBA Coach of all time with a record 9 NBA titles won as a head coach. Jackson coached some of the most iconic NBA Players of all time, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. Jackson helped of all of them reach that championship level, multiple times. I do not mean this article to disparage their overall greatness, their success speaks for itself. Their record as a basketball executive, though? Utter disaster, to say the least. Below are the top 5 reasons both men didn’t succeed as NBA executives.
1. Thinking prior success in a different position = Future success in a new position
We see this mistake made in sports repeatedly. This mistake is more on the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers franchises than Magic or Phil, but since it involves them, it needs to be discussed. How many times have we seen star former player elevated to a head coach or executive position and fail at the new position? Too many times to keep count, yet sports franchises keep making this same mistake repeatedly.
Whether it’s Isiah Thomas; Michael Jordan, Elgin Baylor, Wayne Gretzky, Brett Hull, Derek Jeter with the Miami Marlins (it’s still early but returns aren’t looking good), Kevin McHale, Matt Millen, Chris Mullin, Willis Reed, Bart Starr, Wes Unseld, etc… I think you get the point, yes there has been successes like Larry Bird, John Elway (though he can’t pick a QB to save his life), Joe Torre, George Brett, Ozzie Newsome and Jerry West, I think there have been more failures than successes with this model.
We make this mistake in everyday real life all the time too; we equate someone successful in a field to being able to be successful in a different field that they have never performed in before. We don’t even start said person off in a lower position to see how they perform, nope whether it’s the athletes ego or clout, they immediately go to the top position and fail. The new position requires a skill or a skill set that the athlete didn’t have to use in their athletic hey days. This fact often gets overlooked by sports franchises. A look at Magic’s history showed he didn’t succeed at everything. He was a mediocre coach with the Lakers and he briefly hosted a bad talk show, so it wasn’t like everything Magic touched turned to gold. Phil Jackson, in his tenure with the Bulls and Lakers never showed an ability to grow and develop young players. Jackson preferred veterans because he was in the business of winning championships. The Knicks job was all about picking and developing talent, a skill Jackson never showed.
The Knicks and Lakers weren’t getting Magic Johnson the point guard or Phil Jackson the coach. They were getting the basketball executive version of both, and that’s a big difference.
2. Not putting in the work
Magic and Phil already achieved mega success and fame in their previous careers. Both were in phases in their lives when they were living off these well-deserved accolades, when they took the executive positions. The issue is they were competing against 28 other general managers (GM), who had nowhere the fame or prior success those two had but were working hard and hungry for success. Those other GM’s were going to small gyms in Eastern Europe, scouting obscure prospects. Magic and Phil weren’t doing that and didn’t feel the need to do that stuff either.
With most things in life you have to work hard to achieve success. Magic was already Magic and Phil was already known as the greatest NBA Coach of all time, they already worked hard and achieved their accolades. Both in their 50s and 70s respectively would not grind it out day by day, week by week, to help turn their franchises around. Magic even said he told Jeanie Buss (Lakers majority owner), that he would not be in the office every day like that and the Lakers still hired him! It’s no wonder the other 28 Gms were better prepared and better versed on players, prospects, etc…
3. Bad Drafting
In the 2014 NBA Draft, the Knicks did not have a first-round pick because of prior bad management. The Knicks had two second round picks. With the First of those picks they picked they picked Cleanthony Early. Notable players who were available who would have been a better pick; Spencer Dinwiddie, Jerami Grant, Dwight Powell, Jordan Clarkson and last but not least Nikola Jokic. That’s right, the Knicks picked Cleanthony Early over Nikola Jokic. With the second pick they picked, Thanasis Antetokounmpo (Giannis little brother). Better NBA player picked after their pick? Jordan McRae.
In the 2015 NBA draft, the Knicks had the 4th pick and picked Kristaps Porzingis. Porzingis was a solid pick that Phil would later poison the franchises relationship with (explained later). Other notable NBA player they could have selected? Devin Booker. The Knicks made a trade for the 19th pick, which ended up being Jerian Grant. Better players, still available to pick, were Bobby Portis, Larry Nance and Kevon Looney.
In the 2017 NBA draft, the Knicks selected Frank Ntilikina with the number 7 selection. Better players still available with that pick, Donovan Mitchell, Bam Adebayo, John Collins, Jarrett Allen, OG Anunoby, Kyle Kuzma, Derrick White and Josh Hart. Can you imagine a Knicks starting five featuring Porzingis, Mitchell and Jokic? Knicks fans can only dream.
In the 2017 NBA Draft, the Lakers selected Lonzo Ball number 2 overall. Though I wouldn’t call Ball a bust, he wasn’t the savior of the Lakers they hailed him either. Notable better players the Lakers could have picked were Jayson Tatum, De’Aaron Fox, Donovan Mitchell and Bam Adebayo.
The Lakers made trades in the draft to also get Kyle Kuzma, Thomas Bryant and Josh Hart all were solid picks and some what helped redeem the miss on Ball.
In the 2018 Draft, the Lakers selected Moritz Wagner with the 25th pick. Wagner was an ok selection who ended up doing more with the Wizards than the Lakers. Better selections still available Landry Shamet and Mitchell Robinson.
4. Inability to connect or relate to young NBA Players
Magic and Phil’s heyday was the 80s, 90s and 2000s. Both tried to bring what made them successful in those times to the modern day NBA, and they both failed miserably to relate to modern NBA players.
D’angelo Russell was a high draft pick of the previous Lakers regime. Russell’s inability to live up to high expectations, immature behavior and inability to understand what a private conversation is led him to be considered a bust by some. Magic took over mid way through Russell’s second season and before the next NBA draft, he traded Russell and Timofey Mozgov for Brook Lopez and the 27th pick. The Lakers hailed the deal at the time as a move to get rid of Mozgov contract, and they had to attach an asset (Russell). Magic trashed Russell on his way out of LA, calling him non leadership material. After Magic resigned from the Lakers he would later state, that he had to get rid of Russell because of the whole Russell/Nick Young incident (Russell secretly taped Young admitting to cheating on his fiancee than leaked it to the internet). There are so many things wrong with the thinking behind this trade.
Magic traded Russell when Russell trade value was at its absolute lowest. Rusell was just the number 2 pick in the draft 2 years prior and all you get back was Brook Lopez and the 27th pick? I guess the Lakers were also trying to clear the deck to let Lonzo Ball have free rein at point guard, but geez. The smarter play would have been to hold on to Russell and let him regain some value and then trade him. Another novel idea is that Russell and Ball could have both played together in the backcourt. Height wouldn’t have been an issue, and Lonzo played off ball a lot at UCLA.
Trading away an asset like Russell because he got into a feud with a journeyman like Young is just asinine. It shows Magic didn’t understand player value. Young was out of the league in a year, and no longer on the Lakers. Who gives a damn what he thinks? Russell would become an all-star that next year with the Nets and become one of the most coveted free agent last offseason. What makes this trade even worse was that after Lopez had a decent season with the Lakers, Magic decided not to match a 1 year 5 million dollar offer from the Milwaukee Bucks. Lopez would help to transform the Bucks into one of the best offenses in the NBA. He helped spaced the floor and provided 3 point shooting. You know what the Lakers lacked last year? Decent three point shooting. Magic would later apologize for not resigning Lopez. The Lakers got Kyle Kuzma out of this deal, but I still argue the deal was too hasty.
Right before the Trade deadline last year, Magic traded away Michael Beasley and Ivica Zubac, one of the few bright spots that year for the Lakers for Mike Muscala. I’m an avid NBA fan, and I had no idea who Mike Muscala was. The Rumor is that journey man JaVale McGee was upset that Zubac was usurping Mcgee’s playing time. Magic had promised him the starting center spot when he agreed to sign with the Lakers and he would bad mouth the Lakers to players if they didn’t keep that promise. The Lakers stated they knew they couldn’t afford to resign Zubac in the upcoming off season and had to get something for him.
The truth sounds like a mixture of both. The problem again is Magic not recognizing asset value. Zubac was an asset, and Magic gave him away for the equivalent of a pair of used basketballs. The move again was to appease another journeyman player.
One of Jackson’s first move was to resign Carmelo Anthony. Anthony was the franchise player, and the move was a no brainer on the Knicks part. Less than 3 years later, Jackson is publicly badmouthing Anthony. Anthony has a lot of friends in the NBA player fraternity. Is it really a good idea to bad mouth him about flaws you knew he had before you resigned him? Porzingis so hated the direction the Knicks franchise went that year he skipped his season ending meeting. Jackson bad mouthed Porzingis for the move, which backfired and ended up with the Knicks and Jackson mutually parting ways. The Knicks players didn’t like Jackson publicly badmouthing them (who would).
Jackson also tried to force the triangle offense in the modern NBA. Here’s the secret about the Triangle, Jackson had some of the greatest players of all time Jordan, Pippen, Bryant and O’Neal running it. That is the real reason the Triangle was a success! Jordan and Bryant went away from the Triangle often during those years as well. When you try to run the triangle with bad or inexperienced players, you get bad basketball which the Knicks played a lot of in the Jackson era. A strict adherence to the Triangle also caused the Knicks to pass up on better draft prospects for players who fit the triangle. Instead of creating a system that fit their players, the knicks forced an old antiquated offensive system on their players and were amazed it didn’t work (sigh).
Free Agency Misses
Magic for his part was able to get LeBron James to the Lakers. Or Lebron moves to LA and plays for the Lakers. Whichever way it still happened under Magic’s watch. The issue was the team Magic put around Lebron. The NBA was going the way of three point shooting and floor spacing. Magic built a team of “tough guys” who were poor shooters to build around Lebron. A marvelous idea for a 1980s or 90s basketball team, but a terrible idea for a 2018 NBA Team. Magic signed Lance Stephenson, Rajon Rondo, JaVale McGee, Michael Beasley and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. All non shooters and a few ball stoppers. Cleveland had shown the blueprint on how to build a team around Lebron (3point shooting, rebounders, defenders) and a team that went to 4 straight NBA Finals. Magic thought he knew better. That Lakers team not only did not make the finals, it didn’t even make the playoffs.
The problem Jackson’s Knicks had was it couldn’t attract any star free agents in free agency. After resigning Anthony, the Knicks future free agent signings were a comedy of errors. Jackson signed past their prime old Lakers players like Lamar Odom and Shannon Brown. Jackson gave big money and over paid role players like Arron Afflalo, Robin Lopez, Derrick Williams, Kyle O’Quinn, Brandon Jennings and Courtney Lee. He overpaid past their prime stars like Joakim Noah. It’s like Jackson didn’t view a single NBA game past 2012 or knew the definition of value. Jackson was like a bad NBA fantasy player who drafts players because he or she heard their name before somewhere.
There were other issues like bad trades, bad coach hirings (Derek Fisher) and Bad PR moves (Magic Johnson going on the show First Take trying to defend his bad decision making and bashing the Lakers in the process) by both individuals. All in all the Magic and Jackson regimes are chapters in the Knicks and Lakers recent past that both teams and their fans hope to soon forget.
Originally published at https://mwmblog.com on April 7, 2020.