“It’s an achievement to win 73 games, no question,” Johnson said, referring to the record-setting 2015-16 Golden State Warriors. “But that doesn’t mean that [Michael] Jordan’s Bulls teams weren’t as good as that team or my [1980s Lakers teams] weren’t as good. The Warriors are in the discussion, but think about the runs we had — Jordan winning six [titles], us winning five. We dominated a whole decade. The Warriors haven’t done that yet. You have to do those type of things to be the greatest team of all time to me.”
In Johnson’s estimation, the “Showtime” Lakers peaked in 1986-87, when they won 65 games and their fourth title of the decade. That year, the Lakers posted a 115.6 offensive rating, a record that was tied by the 2017 Warriors. Johnson led the league in assists, earned all-star and all-NBA first-team honors and claimed his first MVP award. In the Finals, a 27-year-old Johnson led the Lakers past Larry Bird’s Celtics in six games, averaging 26.2 points, 8.0 rebounds and 13 assists to earn Finals MVP honors.
“That 1987 team stacked up with all of them,” he said. “The starters were so dominant, and our bench was the best bench in basketball. Because of the run-and-gun pace that we played at, Golden State’s teams now mirror our teams more than the Bulls because Michael and them didn’t play fast. We were sitting on the bench in the third quarter and didn’t have to play a lot of fourth quarters because we were so good.”
Magic Johnson’s Lakers
Michael Jordan’s Bulls
Stephen Curry’s Warriors
The wide-ranging trip down memory lane coincides with Johnson’s role as a spokesman for Champion. Johnson recalled buying the apparel company’s “shorty shorts” and sleeveless T-shirts as a child in Lansing, Mich., and donning its red, white and blue jerseys as a member of USA Basketball’s 1992 Dream Team. Champion is celebrating its 100th anniversary with a film centered on Johnson’s reflections on the gold medal-winning squad that featured 11 Hall of Famers, including Jordan and Bird.
Since being appointed Lakers president in February 2017, Johnson has set about trying to build an NBA Dream Team, with mixed results. He signed LeBron James to a four-year, $154 million max contract last summer but missed out on Kawhi Leonard and Paul George and had to settle for a series of one-year place-holders. For most of this season, the Lakers have been linked as a possible destination for New Orleans Pelicans star Anthony Davis, who further fueled the rumors Monday by requesting a trade through his agent, Rich Paul.
“The game today is about drafting well, developing your players, and adding free agents or trading for guys,” Johnson said of his approach to team-building in the modern era. “The hardest part has been the fact that we were over the salary cap when I took over. I had to trade a lot of guys I liked, but I had to create the cap space flexibility to be in line to get LeBron James. We were able to do that. Now I have enough cap space to bring in another superstar.”
Johnson has relentlessly pitched the Lakers as a prime destination for superstars, and he views the increased movement of A-list players in recent years as an opportunity rather than an obstacle.
Star movement “has been going on now for a while,” he said. “The real challenge is if you don’t have the stars signed for a long time. If you have them signed for three or four years, you’re going to be fine. We’re seeing the value of that with LeBron committing to us for four years. The guys we have today know that he’ll be here, the fans know that he’ll be here, and the players who are looking to come here know that, too.”
Johnson’s cutthroat approach to courting stars — which has led NBA Commissioner Adam Silver to fine him a record $500,000 for tampering with George in 2017 and another $50,000 for tampering with Giannis Antetokounmpo in February 2018 — stands in contrast to his reputation as a jovial floor general and his nostalgic memories of his playing days.
Indeed, camaraderie has been a point of emphasis for Johnson since grade school. He remembered playing against Jay Vincent throughout his childhood and later turning their mutual respect into a partnership at Michigan State. He thought back to the power of his lob passes to Spartans forward Greg Kelser, how a touch pass and forceful finish could ignite the crowd. He preached the importance of reading the room on behalf of his coach: understanding which guys were upset about their playing time, when guys needed a day off or when they needed to be pushed harder.
The Dream Team experience, Johnson said, was a window into how elite teams can function at their highest level, with Coach Chuck Daly setting the tone for a run to gold in Barcelona with two purposeful decisions. First, he made sure to pit Johnson and Jordan on opposite teams during practices and scrimmages to ensure maximum competition. Second, he showed respect to Jordan by naming him captain, setting up the Bulls great to pass the title to Johnson and Bird, the group’s elder statesmen.
“When that happened, everybody had to leave their egos at the door,” Johnson said. “I didn’t know what Michael was going to say. I was happy to just be a part of that team, and whatever role they wanted, I was going to play it. When Michael said that, I loved it. That’s who I am. I was probably going to naturally take over anyway, but it put me into more of a power position.
“The planes, bus rides and the locker room are just as important as the game. If you’re on the bus and somebody is mad, I’m going to try to work on him to not be mad. We had such a good time on the buses. We laughed so much. From Day One, all we wanted to do was blow everybody out and win the gold medal. And that’s what we did.”
Johnson’s most important NBA partnership — with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — also was one of his most complex, given their opposing personalities. Joining the Lakers as a 20-year-old, Johnson remembered idolizing the Hall of Fame center. When the solemn Abdul-Jabbar hit a game-winner to beat the San Diego Clippers in Johnson’s NBA debut, the exuberant rookie famously jumped into his big man’s arms.
“Kareem is a stoic guy,” Johnson said. “I was jumping around all through training camp, and he’s looking at me like, ‘Is Magic always like this?’ Then he hits the skyhook and I’m running, jumping, hugging. We get into the locker room and he said: ‘Rookie, come here. Do you realize we have 81 more games? Don’t ever do that again.’ I stepped back and said, ‘Kareem, if you hit a shot like that 81 more times, I’m going to jump in your arms 81 more times.’ He understood this is who I am and I’m not going to change. After a month or two, he was looking around for his high-fives. I was like, ‘Oh, you want one now?’ We slowly changed him.”
Johnson said Abdul-Jabbar was not only the most intelligent teammate he ever played with, but the “smartest athlete in history.” If the point guard helped his center open up just a little, the center helped his point guard understand the importance of preparing for games mentally, concentrating on specific assignments and reading about non-basketball subjects to expand his worldview. “I owe a lot to him,” Johnson said. “He taught me how to be a professional and how to develop as a man.”
When the Lakers signed James, they weren’t just eyeing the sport’s biggest talent. They sought an Abdul-Jabbar-like mentor for their young players and a Johnson-like personality capable of pulling everyone together.
“Chemistry doesn’t automatically build,” Johnson said. “You’ve got to bring in guys like LeBron who can make that happen. Our young guys were all together last year, and they really have a close bond. They hang out and tease each other on social media. But I need all 12 guys to come together if we’re going to be successful. LeBron understands how to bring everybody in.”
The master plan remains intact, but the immediate results have been shakier. The Lakers are 6-10 since James suffered a groin injury, and his month-long absence has been the longest of his 16-year career. As Los Angeles has fallen back to the West’s playoff bubble, the chatter about Coach Luke Walton has increased. For someone in Johnson’s position, the Lakers’ success with James and their struggles without him are a reminder that his current position as president has firm boundaries.
“We were losing a lot of close games last year that we just didn’t know how to win,” he said. “With LeBron, we were winning those games. The [young guys] have to go through those experiences. I can’t teach them from here. But LeBron and [Rajon] Rondo can teach them because they’re part of the team. When you’re an executive, it’s hard. You can’t be in there all the time.”
It’s only right that a player who built his reputation on passes, smiles and hugs still finds it hard to let go.