Magic Johnson arrived at LeBron James’ home determined to talk basketball with the game’s greatest player. Johnson didn’t have charts or graphs or a PowerPoint presentation. He thought back to the way late Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss recruited free agents.
“Dr. Buss was the ultimate closer,” Johnson said.
Johnson, the Lakers’ president of basketball operations, went alone.
He and James talked basketball during a late-night meeting June 30. It was just two legends of the game sitting down and getting to know each other, far from the frenzy of NBA free agency, blocking out all the distractions and noise and hopes and dreams of a franchise and its fans.
The next day, James agreed to join the Lakers.
“It would have meant a lot to him,” Johnson said of Buss, who died in 2013 after leading the storied Lakers to 10 championships during his ownership. “It would have been his kind of meeting. He would have loved to have been in my shoes talking to LeBron about the Lakers.
“He would have been so excited.”
James spoke to the Cleveland Cavaliers, his former team, immediately after the league’s free agency negotiating period began at 9:01 p.m. June 30. He also listened to a pitch from the Philadelphia 76ers. But he wanted to talk to Johnson in person, one-on-one, Johnson said.
Johnson asked questions and listened to James’ answers.
James asked questions and listened to Johnson’s answers.
Johnson told reporters during a conference call Friday that he was well prepared for his meeting with James. He watched videos of James as a young player with the Cavaliers, then when he joined the Miami Heat, then when he returned to Cleveland. Johnson studied James’ game.
The homework sessions paid dividends.
“I’m sure that’s what he wanted to hear and that’s what I wanted to present,” Johnson said.
They spoke about the strengths and weaknesses of the Lakers’ youthful core of Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma. They talked about James’ possible role as a leader. They discussed offensive and defensive philosophies.
They talked about Coach Luke Walton’s fast-paced style of play.
“He really knew our team’s strengths and weaknesses,” Johnson said.
Johnson said James was especially interested in the Lakers’ willingness to play for each other.
“It was a great basketball conversation,” Johnson said. “He’s a basketball genius.”
The signing of James to a four-year, $153.3-million contract was central to the Lakers’ rebuilding efforts. Johnson said last month he expected the work could take up to two summers to complete. He said it would be unfair to judge him on the results of one offseason.
Johnson and General Manager Rob Pelinka had planned for multiple scenarios in free agency, just as they had for the draft June 21. If one scenario fizzled, they would shift to another. If they didn’t land James, they had backup plans.
“Of course, he fast-tracked a lot of things, no doubt about it,” Johnson said of James.
Johnson and Pelinka consulted James before signing free agents JaVale McGee of the Golden State Warriors, Rajon Rondo of the New Orleans Pelicans and Lance Stephenson of the Indiana Pacers. The plan was to combine James with tough-minded veterans with extensive playoff experience.
The Lakers also re-signed Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
Johnson said “the ultimate decision-maker is me” but he also recalled how Buss and GM Jerry West would come to him during his playing days and ask for his counsel when they considered making moves to strengthen the “Showtime” Lakers of the 1980s.
“We’re going to go to LeBron and say, ‘Hey, if there’s a deal to be made or a guy’s available, what do you think about this guy?’” Johnson said. “We’ve already done that with the guys (McGee, Rondo and Stephenson) we’ve brought in.”
Johnson wasn’t worried about team chemistry or locker room leadership. But he cautioned against expecting perfection from the new-look Lakers from opening night. He referred to the struggles the Heat went through after adding James, Ray Allen and Chris Bosh in the summer of 2010.
“LeBron is the greatest leader in sports,” Johnson said. “The locker room is going to take care of itself. (But) we saw LeBron struggle in Miami in his first two months. It’ll be no different here. We’ll struggle to play together. We’ll have to learn where everyone wants the ball.”
Clearly, the Lakers’ rotation will change in dramatic ways with the addition of James and the others. Johnson couldn’t say for certain whether Walton might slow things down or speed them up. Johnson said he was eager to see what happens next.
“Look at Josh Hart,” he said. “He’s playing at a whole new level in Las Vegas (during the NBA Summer League, where the Lakers are 4-0 and have advanced to the quarterfinals Sunday). Some guys better watch out because he’s going to be pushing to start.”
Of the 20-year-old Ball, he said, “I told everybody the one thing we were missing was a mentor for him. Now we have one in Rondo. He can teach him to read defenses and just talk basketball to him. (With Ball and Rondo and other playmakers), LeBron doesn’t have to make every play now.
“We don’t want to wear him down for the playoffs.”
The Lakers have a lot invested in James – and James has a lot invested in the Lakers.
“We’re not rushing,” Johnson said. “We’re not going to make mistakes by rushing.”