Summer of Showtime: Why All Eyes Will Be on the Lakers

The closer is ready, waiting in the wood-paneled Terrace Dining Room at Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, before the Lakers annual charity golf tournament. July 1 is still 10 weeks away, but Magic sounds as if he has been practicing his pitch. “You tailor your message to the individual,” Johnson starts. “You have to know what’s important to them and how we can help them achieve their goals, on and off the court, but especially on. You also have to tell them how special this is and what it means. Face of the Lakers, nothing competes with that. You’re great here, you win here, it’s forever. It’s magical. It brings you so many things you can’t even see or imagine. Here I am, almost 60, and I’m still the prince of the city.” He howls, but he is not joking.

Letting Johnson run point for free-agent presentations seems a little unfair. When Kuzma interviewed with the Lakers at the combine in Chicago last May, he was sweating through his dress shirt. “I mean, it’s Magic Johnson, but then he smiles, so you smile and the whole vibe changes,” Kuzma recalls. “This isn’t some analytics guy with glasses talking about your per-48. It’s laid-back, feet up, chilling and talking.” Kuzma is from Flint, Mich., 55 miles from Johnson’s hometown of Lansing. He launched into his life story, sharing that he and his mother were once homeless. The Lakers, desperate for an infusion of edge, were smitten.

Johnson talks to Pelinka every day at 5 a.m., when he is driving to Equinox Fitness Club for a workout with Byron Scott, and the GM is driving to El Moro Trail for a six-mile run. Before the trading deadline in February, Johnson wanted to clear cap space for a second max contract and replenish a first-round draft pick while remaining competitive. The Lakers accomplished all three objectives, sending Clarkson and Nance to Cleveland for Isaiah Thomas, Channing Frye and the pick.

Johnson’s first year in charge was not without challenge. He became versed in tampering rules (after the Lakers incurred two fines totaling $550,000) and Big Ballers (falling silent after LaVar’s critiques from the Baltics). Johnson gave Lonzo space, jotting notes to share in the summer, away from the reality-show cameras: “He needs that little floater. . . . He’s got to be able to finish drives. He looks to pass and defenses know that. . . . He has to be on balance with his jumper. When his feet are close together, and he’s off balance, he misses every time.”

Despite a couple public airballs, the season was a success. “We had to show that we have really good young players, and we did that,” Johnson says. “That’s what guys and their agents want to see: ‘If I put my talent with your talent, can we win?’ I think we proved you can.” Beyond the Oklahoma City and Miami models, Johnson admires another blueprint, in Boston. “Kyrie Irving got with young, talented players,” Johnson says. “It’s not that you have to have a Big Three anymore. You have to have young horses to go with a superstar or two.” If the Lakers land one, they could re-sign Randle, a restricted free agent. If they nab two, Randle is probably gone.

“They’ll get somebody soon,” says an All-Star due to hit free agency in the near future. “They play hard. They play together. They know their role. And, most important, they’re in Los Angeles.” For years the Lakers sold their town and their tradition, and it was not enough. But the rejections of Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony, Greg Monroe and LaMarcus Aldridge, boosted them as much as any acquisition. They were forced to trust a shrewd scouting department, led by Jesse Buss, and rebuild the same way as their peers, with a pile of picks. Now the sunshine might matter.

Johnson ducks out of the Riviera clubhouse in his black Lakers polo and hops into a golf cart, headed for a hundred fairway photo ops. “Come on, let’s get pictures!” he hollers. “We want foursomes—two on this side, two on that side.” He hugs strangers. He promises playoffs. Then, as the celebrities and philanthropists ride toward the first tee, he rushes back to the clubhouse. His car is waiting. The rebuild is ending. July beckons.

“I can’t wait,” the closer says.