Shortly after Magic Johnson abruptly resigned as the Lakers‘ president of basketball operations in April, Sam Amick of The Athletic wrote about the “ESPN elephant in the room,” suggesting that there had been rumblings for much of the year that ESPN was working on a story that would be “extremely unflattering” for Johnson and would focus on his mistreatment of employees.
Johnson denied at the time that such a report had anything to do with his decision, admitting to reporters that he could be demanding, but insisting that he “never disrespected” anyone.
More than a month and a half after Johnson stepped down, it seems that ESPN report has finally surfaced. Baxter Holmes of ESPN.com published a fascinating, in-depth look at the Lakers today, citing team employees who said that Magic used “intimidation and bullying as a way of showing authority” during his two years as the head of basketball operations in L.A.
“He comes off to the fan base with the big love and the smile,” an ex-Lakers athletic training official told Holmes. “But he’s not — he’s a fear monger.”
Holmes’ many sources – which include several current and former Lakers staffers – described Johnson and GM Rob Pelinka as leaders who made major roster decisions unilaterally, berated staffers, and created a culture that marginalized many employees and generated fear among staffers — at least two employees suffered panic attacks, per Holmes.
“It’s f—-ng crazy over there,” one former Lakers star told confidants, according to Holmes.
Holmes’ story is packed with so many interesting details that it would be impossible to pass them all along without approaching his 6,000+ word count ourselves, so we recommend checking out the piece in full. Here are several of the highlights:
On Lakers’ roster moves:
- Members of the basketball operations department and coaching staff told Holmes that Johnson and Pelinka completed many of last summer’s free agent signings after having sought little to no input from them. Some members of the organization learned about the moves through media reports.
- “We all had the same reaction that the basketball world did, like what the f— are we doing?” one Lakers coaching staff member said, referring to a series of signings that included Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, Michael Beasley, and JaVale McGee. “Not only are we not getting shooting, but we’re also getting every basket-case left on the market.”
- During the 2018 draft, the Lakers set up two “war rooms,” with Johnson and Pelinka in one and other front office executives and scouts in the second. Staff members in the second war room were anticipating the team would use its No. 25 pick on Villanova’s Omari Spellman, the top player left on their board. Instead, the club drafted Moritz Wagner, shocking scouts and other staff members, per Holmes.
- Pelinka later told staffers that he had heard negatives about Spellman and spoke to Lakers player Josh Hart about them before deciding to pass on the Villanova forward. Some members of the organization told Holmes that the pick represented the kind of unilateral decision that the Lakers’ top executives made without looping in key figures who would typically be involved. “For him to covertly go to a player and go behind everybody’s else’s back, that’s the problem,” a coaching staff member said.
On Luke Walton and the head coaching search:
- After being told by Johnson prior to the 2018/19 season not to worry if the Lakers got off to a slow start, Luke Walton was admonished by Magic two weeks into the season when the club had a 3-5 record. The Lakers’ head coach was confused about why the team had suddenly changed its message, but members of the staff later came to believe that LeBron James‘ agent Rich Paul played a role, as Holmes explains.
- In November, Paul approached NBA commissioner Adam Silver at a lunch and complained about Walton, telling him that he believed Tyronn Lue – not Walton – was the right coach for the Lakers, sources tell Holmes. Paul also let it be known via back channels that he wasn’t pleased with Walton’s inconsistent lineups and his allotment of minutes, says Holmes.
- After the Lakers moved on from Walton, they missed out on their top two head coaching targets – Lue and Monty Williams – before hiring Frank Vogel. Multiple staffers who spoke to Holmes said the process left the team in a state of “shock” and “confusion.”
On the Lakers’ handling of players:
- Members of the organization had problems with the Lakers allowing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to continue playing during the 2017/18 season while he was serving a 25-day jail sentence for violating the terms of his DUI probation. The judge’s work-release rules allowed KCP to practice and play in-state games with the team, but staffers weren’t impressed with the decision, which they viewed as the Lakers trying to curry favor with agent Rich Paul, according to Holmes.
- “Anybody [else] would have put him on personal leave or suspended him,” one coaching staff member said of the KCP decision, per Holmes. A front office executive added: “I had a major problem with that.”
- Sources close to some specific Lakers players tell Holmes that those players’ trust in management had “all but evaporated” after the details of the team’s Anthony Davis proposals repeatedly leaked to reporters prior to the trade deadline. “Guys know there’s no trust there,” a Lakers coaching staff member told ESPN before the end of the season. “Guys know the new [administration] has completely bent over to the agent world and were overly sensitive to having these one-sided relationships with these guys where they kind of control our every move because we’re ‘big-game hunting.'”
- Some players felt that LeBron was complicit in the handling of the Davis situation, given his connection to the Pelicans star through Paul, sources tell Holmes.
On Rob Pelinka:
- Pelinka would often sit in on pregame and halftime coaches’ meetings, which is unusual for a GM, writes Holmes. “It’s weird from the player’s standpoint,” a coaching staff member told ESPN. “The players are not able to open up and speak freely, because you’ve got the guy in the room who supposedly controls your future, so why would you open up and be honest and confrontational when that might be what is required for that moment?”
- Current and former staff members expressed serious concerns about Pelinka’s credibility and the flow of information in the franchise, says Holmes. “We think, more often than not, he’s not being truthful,” a coaching staff member said. “That goes throughout the organization.”
- Despite the concerns about Pelinka, he has a strong backer in Linda Rambis, who has long been a major supporter and ally of the GM, according to Holmes. Rambis, a close friend of owner Jeanie Buss, has been referred to as the Lakers’ “shadow owner,” and one front office staffer says Rambis “loves” that role.