Basketball: Magic Johnson denies fuelling reported Lakers dysfunction

Magic Johnson denied mistreating any employees during his stint as team president that ended last month. PHOTO: REUTERS

(Reuters) - Reacting to an ESPN report earlier Tuesday (May 28) that described a toxic culture in the Los Angeles Lakers' front office, Magic Johnson denied mistreating any employees during his stint as team president that ended last month.

"I've been in business 35 years," Johnson said in an ESPN television interview with Stephen A. Smith and Michael Wilbon. "I've had partnerships with some of the biggest companies, Fortune 500 companies, in the country. Now, I've never sat in (a human resources) person's office in 35 years. Two years with the Lakers, no HR appearance. ...

"Do you think Jeanie Buss would allow me to abuse the employees? If that was the case, she would have called me in. (Chief financial officer) Joe McCormack would have called me in, the lawyer for the Lakers. ... It never happened.

"I'm a person who brings everybody together, uplift the employees. I've never abused an employee, and I never will. That's not what I'm about."

The ESPN report included a claim that Rich Paul, the agent of Lakers star LeBron James, went directly to NBA commissioner Adam Silver to lobby for head coach Luke Walton to be fired early in the season. Walton was fired at the end of the 2018-19 regular season.

Paul told Silver, per the report, that Tyronn Lue would be the ideal coach.

Johnson admitted letting Paul fly on one trip with the team from New York to Los Angeles, but he also expressed frustration that he wasn't given full authority to hire his own employees when he joined the Lakers' front office in February 2017. Instead, he was hired alongside new general manager Rob Pelinka.

The ESPN report claimed Johnson and Pelinka were often working unilaterally, including on potential trades and in free agency.

"Rob and I, when we were there, we worked well together," Johnson said. "But, the little things that were going on behind the scenes, that bothered me. ...

"I would have hired my own people at the beginning. The one thing I didn't get to do was hire everybody that I wanted. Rob and I got put together. I inherited Luke Walton. (If I had a chance) to hire my own people, then you can judge me. You can judge me by trades I made. You can judge me by, I didn't have enough shooters."

Johnson added: "Did I do some things wrong? Of course. And I admitted those things. I'm not a guy who's going to run from the truth. I'm going to tell you the truth. And you can talk bad about me if I did something wrong. I don't mind that. ... I learn from my mistakes.

"I'll also tell you what I didn't do. ... Nobody's ever called me and said,'Magic mistreated an employee.' Ever. ...

"Now a lot of Laker employees didn't like that I held them accountable. That's what my job was. Did I have to fire some people? Yes, because we had to bring about change and get better. I think we got a great staff. I'll say this right now: The Lakers got a great staff. What's gotta happen now is we gotta get out the news. I'm really upset that I'm here talking about that."

Johnson said earlier this month that he knew it was time for him to resign his post as team president when authority to make personnel decisions, including firing Walton, was instead put to a collective front-office vote and Walton stayed.

Paul denied the report from ESPN, which included details of how he attended practice to "scout" players and coaches he might not want around.

"I understand my position," Paul said. "I respect all those in our industry. At the end of the day, all I can do is continue to do a job for my client. That's it. I can't worry about what somebody thinks, the perception.

"All I can do is work hard and continue down the path that I'm on."

Lue interviewed for the job following Walton's dismissal, but wound up passing on a three-year offer.

Johnson helped lure and sign James to a US$154 million (S$213 million) contract last July. But beyond the landmark signing, the team largely fell short in bids to bring in a second star to pair with James. Paul George re-signed with the Oklahoma City Thunder, and overtures geared toward landing Pelicans centre Anthony Davis were rebuffed by New Orleans.

Johnson and Pelinka wound up reeling in known pariah Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson and JaVale McGee to round out a roster that featured mostly young talent.

"We all had the same reaction that the basketball world did, like what the f*** are we doing? Not only are we not getting shooting, but we're also getting every basket case left on the market," one Lakers assistant coach was quoted as saying of the roster-building confusion.

Pelinka, with input from the Buss family and adviser Kurt Rambis, is at the controls entering the 2019 off season, but James is reportedly leading the recruitment of free agents.

Jeanie Buss, the principal owner since Dr Jerry Buss died in 2013, said she did not expect to hire a replacement for Johnson after he resigned without informing her first.

"I feel like everyone that's no longer there, as sad as it is that they're no longer there, it's a blessing," one former staffer told ESPN. "It's not a good place to be. It's not what Dr Buss wanted it to be."

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