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Time to believe in Lakers exceptionalism again

Magic Johnson declared that he’s not willing to preside over an 11th-place team. Unlike his predecessors, he’s willing to make bold strokes to prove it.

Golden State Warriors v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

No one knows if LeBron James will consider the Los Angeles Lakers when he becomes a free agent in July. No one knows if Paul George will seriously consider leaving a successful Oklahoma City Thunder team for anyone, let alone the lottery-bound Lakers. This summer could be as empty as all the other summers for the Lakers, an elaborate party that no one but Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng bothers attending.

Or things could finally be different. LeBron could entertain a meeting with Magic Johnson, Rob Pelinka, and Jeanie Buss. George, disappointed after an inevitable Thunder playoff loss, could decide to return home to California and be the Lakers’ first post-Kobe superstar. L.A. could find its party turn into the hottest ticket in town.

Why would that happen when it hasn’t worked before? Because Magic Johnson wasn’t there before. Because the Lakers weren’t confident in their vision. Because the Lakers were trying to do too many things at once.

Everyone knows exactly who the Lakers are now: they are a team chasing stars. That’s it.

There is no primary mandate to rebuild through the NBA draft. There is no intent to add average-or-worse veterans to make the team halfway respectable in the interim. These Lakers will not be stockpiling draft picks, signing dinosaurs for tens of millions of dollars, or setting the No. 8 seed as a meaningful goal. These Lakers are going to the top, or nowhere.

There’s a beauty in that. Ostensibly, the Lakers under Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak were in the same mode. They tried in vain to land meetings with LeBron and Kevin Durant. They pitched LaMarcus Aldridge and Carmelo Anthony hard. They leaned on Lakers exceptionalism to make themselves believe they could keep drafting in the top three while also attracting stars.

It didn’t work. It was never convincing. It was, frankly, haphazard. The Lakers never sold it, perhaps not even to themselves.

Magic Johnson is a damn salesman. He’s perhaps the most photogenic and bankable star in NBA history. (Michael Jordan was bankable at his peak; his grouchy personality shines through a little well these days.) While Magic’s Twitter persona was long a running joke because it leaned on the obvious at the expense of true insight, it’s a good reminder that Johnson is relentlessly positive, despite all he’s been through. People love that! Especially in an exceedingly cynical world, smiles and sincerity are beautiful. Magic offers plenty.

Those who wonder what’s different about the Lakers’ new strategy ignore the gravitas differential between Magic Johnson and Jim Buss at their own peril. Like it or not, personality matters in these matters. How else has Pat Riley been able to mastermind so many free agent coups?

It’s telling that, shut out from the star wars, the previous Lakers regime gave up and starting chasing players like Mozgov and Deng. The new front office isn’t doing stuff like that. Instead of blowing salary cap space on a long-term deal for a better player, the Lakers handed Kentavious Caldwell-Pope a fat one-year contract. The team added a heckuva sweetener in D’Angelo Russell to excise Mozgov’s contract. The team tried to move off of Deng’s deal; Magic actually laughed out loud when asked Thursday if there was any interest from other teams.

This front office is not willing to compromise its vision just to marginally improve.

This is, of course, its own form of Lakers exceptionalism. But it’s a believable Lakers exceptionalism.

Jim Buss and Kupchak — who, by the way, built champions — couldn’t sell their vision to the fandom like Magic can. Why would we think that sales job went any better in front of the stars themselves? We actually have some indication it did not — remember that reports suggested the Lakers’ first presentation to LaMarcus Aldridge went so poorly he immediately crossed them off his list.

Magic is different. Pelinka, who is already experienced in pitching NBA superstars as a former high-end agent, is different. The Lakers apparently also have access to Kobe Bryant without the issue of convincing targeted stars to play with Kobe. For some of these guys the Lakers want to nab — especially Paul George and maybe in the future Kawhi Leonard — that matters.

There’s no guarantee this will work out for Magic and the Lakers because there are no guarantees in this league. But L.A. clearly knows what it wants to do, and the Lakers’ actions on Thursday and beyond make the path back to the top believable.

If you’ve loved every second the Lakers have been bad over the last half-decade, get those grins in now. There’s a real good chance this franchise is soon to be back to its natural state.