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Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka Learning Tough Lessons

After being left at the altar by Paul George, the Lakers may need to rethink their free agent strategy.

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Magic Johnson’s smile beams brighter than stars over Malibu, but as he and general manager Rob Pelinka are discovering, it’ll take much more than that to attract superstar free agents to Los Angeles.

Sure, LeBron James might still end up taking his talents to Tinseltown, and with copious amounts of cap space, there are probably others that’ll follow. But make no mistake about it, the fact that Paul George didn’t even allow an official pitch from the Lakers before recommitting to the Thunder on a four-year deal worth $137 million speaks to many things about life in the NBA today.

More and more, what we’re seeing from today’s superstar in the NBA is that there are a dearth of lone rangers. With players being paid average annual salaries in the $40 million range and the league’s popularity continually increasing, NBA players can become rockstars anywhere. They can earn millions anywhere.

With globalization, the increased influence digital and social media have on our everyday lives and the world becoming smaller, it seems that many of today’s superstars are now searching for something money can’t buy—fraternity.

Long ago, NBA Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas spoke about the “secret” to winning in basketball, and the principle might actually be applicable to team sports, as a whole.

That secret, Thomas said, was essentially fraternity.

As we think back to the likes of Pau Gasol and Rajon Rondo—the former with the Lakers and the latter with the Mavericks—we are reminded of tales of players who were thought to have one foot in their professional graves. Gasol and Mike D’Antoni went together about as well as ketchup and peanut butter while Rondo and Rick Carlisle combusted as if they were gasoline and fire.

Many thought they were finished, but when they found themselves in new situations—Gasol in Chicago and Rondo in New Orleans—they were able to rediscover a level of productivity many had thought they’d seen for the last time.

That’s a really long way of saying that players who find themselves in situations where they’re happy and comfortable perform better. After all, they’re human, as well.

If nothing else, George’s re-signing in Oklahoma City is a testament to that fact. The social and professional environment matters. Big time.

Since Paul Pierce was joined in Boston by Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, the NBA entered into its contemporary arms race. We saw teams risk everything and break up cores that had been productive in an attempt to get over the top, and with varying degrees of success.

Shawn Marion was traded from the Suns and Jason Kidd was traded from the Nets. Teams sought to build superstar-caliber rosters, but didn’t properly account for how personalities and fraternity would contribute to their success, or lack thereof.

Although under slightly different circumstances, we saw Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Dwight Howard traded multiple times, but in each instance, their want to depart their situations was rooted in a desire to be a part of something bigger than themselves. Carmelo, in hindsight, had his best years in Denver. Ditto for Dwight Howard. Neither wanted to take a challenge of being a lone ranger.

Sure, every player wants to win, but everyone seems to equally want to find themselves among a peer group with which they can identify.

In all of this, that’s why Russell Westbrook deserves some special recognition, whether you love him or hate him. Unlike most of his contemporaries, Westbrook was willing to plant his flag in Oklahoma City, even after the departure of Kevin Durant. He didn’t need to know that two or three other superstars were willing to commit with him. He went into it blindly, and that took a tremendous amount of courage.

Be happy for him just as much as you’re happy for Sam Presti.

Among his peer group, it’s fair to consider Westbrook to be the only true long ranger. He’s just fortunate now to be joined by George. The two will probably be teammates for at least the next three years.

If there’s one thing we learned about George over the course of the year-long rumors concerning his inevitable relocation to Los Angeles, it’s that not every player values the same things. In it all, we found out that the key to George’s heart was a great culture, a great comrade and a sense of belonging that he otherwise may not have felt in Los Angeles.

Best bet, Magic Johnson learned quite a bit, as well.

* * * * * *

We are The Lakers.

It’s a phrase that Magic has said often, and with quite a bit of conviction. Jeanie Buss, Jimmy Kimmel and the basketball viewing public know it well.

Arrogantly, the Lakers and their fanbase can’t fathom a world in which a player has an opportunity to play in Los Angeles and turns it down.

Sure, they’re the Lakers, but until Brandon Ingram proves that he’s more of a pillar than a piece, the Lakers will continue to have trouble attracting an in-prime superstar who’s coming from a situation where he’s surrounded by other impact players.

With respect to Kawhi Leonard, in all likelihood, George’s opting to remain in Oklahoma City gives the Spurs at least some leverage in negotiations on a potential Leonard trade.

At the very least, what we (and the Spurs) have learned is that a disgruntled player who is more than one year away from free agency can have his mind changed. Being alongside a fellow superstar in an environment that seems conducive to winning and ruled by an intelligent front office can go a long way.

It’s enough to overcome pretty long odds…

Heck, it can even be enough to overcome a young star turning down the opportunity to sign with the hometown team he grew up rooting for.

With his pep rally and celebratory cigar, on Saturday night, we learned a lot about Paul George of the Oklahoma City Thunder.

And just like us, Magic Johnson learned a lot about what it takes to lure a star in the NBA, even when it appears that all of the cards were stacked in your favor.

For most of us, a year is a long time.

For the Lakers, now they know, it’s simply too long to take a great chance. Even for them.

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders.

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