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Kudos to Magic Johnson for quitting on the Lakers

Messy resolutions are still resolution. Reassessing the front office now presents a perfect chance to build around LeBron James.

Getty Images/SB Nation illustration by Tyson Whiting

Magic Johnson could have handled all of this better. Before announcing his resignation as the Lakers’ president of basketball operations, he could have given his boss Jeannie Buss a heads up. He could have prepared a written statement in lieu of vamping extemporaneously with reporters in the bowels of Staples Center. He could have communicated with coach Luke Walton, general manager Rob Pelinka, the PR team, LeBron James. He could have been a little more ordinary, even as his life, presence, and personality are extraordinary.

But get past the odd spectacle of his surprise and unorthodox resignation, and you see that this is perfect for the Lakers, and frankly commendable.

Johnson realized at some point — maybe months ago, maybe hours ago — that he was not perfectly suited for this job and he didn’t want to do it anymore. A prideful, ordinary president of basketball operations almost assuredly would not have resigned even after that realization. Perhaps an ordinary president of basketball operations would never have that realization. But very few people in this positions of immense control and freedom go away willingly. We just saw Ernie Grunfeld hang on to a similar job with the Wizards for almost two decades despite minimal success and plenty of high-visibility failure. Johnson did the job for two years, decided he hated it, and walked away.

Of course, Johnson is worth a billion dollars and isn’t beholden to NBA employment to leave a mark, make a living, or secure generational comfort. He’s done all that. He took the job at Buss’ behest because he wanted the challenge, or because he legitimately thought he’d be good for the Lakers, or because he was bored of being simply a mogul and TV analyst.

Johnson has always tried new things. Remember when he coached the Lakers for a spell after his retirement? The TV thing was wholly unnecessary but he tried it. (He might end up doing it again. For all that he lacks as a studio analyst, he had a magnetic charisma that brings out the best in others.)

Johnson leaves as a punchline. The Lakers continued their franchise-record playoff drought under his watch. His front office is directly responsible for failing to build a playoff-capable team under the greatest player of this generation. Watching the Warriors dominate with range and knowing James’ greatest successes have come when surrounded by shooters, Johnson’s front office signed Lance Stephenson, JaVale McGee, Michael Beasley, and Rajon Rondo. Johnson basically tortured Walton over the last half of the season by leaving him dangle. The bizarre exit just feeds into this narrative: Johnson was not up for this.

A more stubborn, prideful person would have stuck it out until they could legitimately leave a success. Instead Johnson walked away of his own volition, saying his work was done. Shouldn’t we applaud that? The self-awareness to recognize the bad fit going forward and the bravery to take the plunge — to sell low on yourself, basically — is (to my recollection) unprecedented in this league. Again, Johnson has the financial comfort and legacy to do it. Most do not. He won’t hurt for money, attention, or respect under any circumstance. But that doesn’t make it any less commendable.

And really, this is perfect for the Lakers. Buss can fully assess the state of the franchise and roster, perhaps in collaboration with James. Walton still might depart — he did not seem to connect with James, and while Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball did show progress before maladies claimed their seasons, we don’t know how much Walton’s crew is responsible for that. The nature of Johnson’s exit should give Buss full license to reassess Pelinka as well, and perhaps start from scratch in the front office as the Lakers approach another critical summer.

Buss would never have been able to fire Johnson, not this soon. In this sense, he did her a favor, because he was not good at his job. It’s not all roses: Johnson really did botch the announcement by not talking to her first (a pretty brutal thing to do to a close friend) and he’s put her in an extraordinarily difficult spot with regards to Walton’s future. But in the long run, the Lakers, and thus Buss, will be better off for Johnson packing his bags without being asked.

Some of us thought that James’ decision to sign with the otherwise moribund Lakers indicated a return to glory for the franchise. Johnson’s front office turned out incapable of fulfilling that promise. Now the Lakers have James for at least three more years plus a blank slate to hire a competent, experienced front office that can play in free agency and the trade market, potentially hire a coach, and move forward with lowered expectations.

All things considered, this is a good place to be for the Lakers. Sure, it’s not the playoffs. But given the alternative, it’s hard to complain.