Reeling Lakers return to practice for 1st time in Magic era
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. (AP) — Magic Johnson swept in to soothe the rattled Los Angeles Lakers, a young, struggling team still reeling from front-office upheaval and the trade of leading scorer Lou Williams.
The Hall of Famer’s words were brief before practice Wednesday, with some of the players meeting for the first time the former star of the franchise’s “Showtime” era in the 1980s.
“He’s going to come in here and try to make us better, get us back to winning,” Jordan Clarkson said.
Co-owner Jeanie Buss installed Johnson as president of basketball operations after firing longtime general manager Mitch Kupchak and dismissing brother Jim as executive vice president of basketball operations a day earlier.
“Everything happened so fast,” rookie coach Luke Walton said. “The initial thought is why do it right before the trade deadline, but Magic came in and we got to work right away.”
Walton was processing his own conflicted emotions, having been close to Kupchak and Jim Buss. He spoke to both men on the phone after their ousters, listening as they offered encouraging words about his bright future with the franchise and ability to work with the young roster.
“It was definitely a little sad,” Walton said. “It’s important to really remember all the great things they did while they were here, too. On the other hand, you have Earvin coming in. He’s in there and making phone calls.
“It was a strange feeling all day, honestly.”
Walton said Johnson spent the last two days at the team’s practice facility, talking with him and other employees about focusing on their individual jobs.
“If I’m sitting in a room with Magic and he’s selling me on something, most times I’m buying it,” Walton said.
Julius Randle experienced “the awe factor” when Johnson addressed the team.
“He is going to be around,” the power forward said. “He has an open door policy to talk to him whenever we need to.”
Perhaps more important to the players than the front office shake-up was the absence of Williams, who is headed to the Houston Rockets for Corey Brewer and a future draft pick, a deal that has yet to be confirmed by either team. Rookie Brandon Ingram called Williams’ departure “a real heartbreaker.”
The 30-year-old guard led the Lakers off the bench with 18.6 points per game. Williams was a fourth-quarter spark and steadying presence in the locker room.
“That was my vet,” Ingram said. “He told me a lot of things on and off the court.”
The Lakers have yet to announce Kupchak’s replacement, although Walton referenced speculation that agent Rob Pelinka would be hired as GM.
Walton said he wasn’t involved in the team’s discussions with Pelinka, who has been a frequent presence at Lakers games as Kobe Bryant’s agent.
“I like Rob,” Walton said. “If it was someone I didn’t like, I’d probably be disappointed.”
The 16-time NBA champion Lakers come out of the All-Star break with a record of 19-39, third-worst in the league. They are at Oklahoma City on Friday and host San Antonio on Sunday.
Focused on what he calls “the big job” he has to do, Walton tried to sound an upbeat note amid the mixed emotions still swirling around the team.
“It’s tricky because I am sad that Mitch and Jimmy aren’t here anymore, but at the same time, I’m excited to be working with Magic and Rob when it finally happens,” he said.
“I believe in the group that we have. We believe in our future.”