‘He’s better now’: Magic Johnson says Lakers should bring back D’Angelo Russell

SANTA MONICA, Calif. — D’Angelo Russell lasted as the youthful face of the Lakers for just shy of 24 months. Then, the legendary point guard he was compared to as a teenager took over the team’s basketball operations, questioned Russell’s ability as a leader and abruptly traded him to the Brooklyn Nets in a salary-cap-clearing move.

Now Russell is an All-Star, and he will enter restricted free agency on Sunday at the same time that, in a pretzel of fate and irony, the Lakers have enough cap space to afford him. There have been reports that both sides could be interested in what would be one of the NBA’s most unexpected reunions.

While such a second marriage has perhaps gained recent support among fans, here’s another name to add to the list of those in favor: Earvin Johnson.

Yes, Magic. The very man who deemed Russell unfit for the Lakers would welcome a return.

“He’s better now,” Johnson told The Athletic on Monday night, tapping his right temple with an index finger as he stood in a parking lot outside the NBA Awards at the Santa Monica Airport. “He’s a different player. He’s more mature.”

Johnson was honored with the NBA’s Lifetime Achievement Award alongside his friend and nemesis Larry Bird. The two Hall of Famers faced off in three NBA Finals, with the Lakers winning in 1985 and ’87.

On the red carpet, Jeanie Buss said Johnson’s abrupt resignation as president of basketball operations on April 9 was a “surprise” and that she “didn’t see it coming.”

Johnson has maintained a large presence in the Lakers universe since quitting. Since then, he has both accused general manager Rob Pelinka of “backstabbing” and questioned the organization’s power structure, but he has also tweeted his enthusiastic support of the trade Pelinka executed to land Anthony Davis.

While he no longer pulls the strings guiding the direction of the franchise, Johnson hopes his voice will still carry some weight even though he said he has not discussed free agency with Buss.

“I haven’t talked to her directly,” Johnson said. “I’ve sent messages, I’ve left her messages. … I call her assistant or whoever and just like I say, ‘Hey, we’ve got to do A.D.’ I left them all a message: ‘You’ve got to do it.’ Because now you’re set for 10 years, even after LeBron. And I’m glad they did it.”

That move gutted the Lakers’ young core. Pursuing Russell once free agency hits on Sunday would, in the most roundabout way, restore one of its earliest members.

Russell was one of the first pieces of that now-bygone core, averaging 13.2 points per game as a rookie in 2015-16 and 15.6 points in his second season. He clashed with coach Luke Walton, however, and his tenure in Los Angeles was marred by a leaked video he took that showed teammate Nick Young discussing infidelities.

It was in the middle of that sophomore campaign that Johnson and Pelinka were tabbed to replace Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak, the front office that had made Russell the surprise No. 2 choice in the 2015 draft. Johnson was determined to rid the Lakers of the most crippling contracts Kupchak and Buss had left them, starting with Timofey Mozgov.

On June 20, 2017, the Lakers traded Russell and Mozgov to Brooklyn for Brook Lopez and his expiring contract. Johnson laughed when it was pointed out to him that the Lakers could essentially use that cap space to sign Russell.

Still just 23, Russell became a first-time All-Star last season in Brooklyn, averaging career highs of 21.1 points and seven assists. He will be a restricted free agent, meaning that Brooklyn would be able to match any offer. The most the Lakers or any other team could pay him is expected to be around $27 million, based on cap projections. However, recent reports have indicated the Nets landing both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant is increasingly likely, paving the way for Russell’s exit.

The Lakers are also dreaming big.

After agreeing to trade for Anthony Davis, the Lakers have roughly either $24 or $28 million in cap space, depending on whether the freed Pelicans star is willing to waive a trade kicker.

Much of last week was occupied by analysts questioning whether Pelinka, in his zeal to complete the Davis deal, had overlooked certain nuances of the salary cap and made it more difficult to create space for another max player. But sources said the Lakers remain confident they can get close enough to the roughly $32 million needed to sign a player like Irving or Kemba Walker to a max deal — by dumping the contracts of Moe Wagner, Isaac Bonga and Jemerrio Jones — if they get a commitment from a top-tier player.

If not? That’s when Johnson says the Lakers should look Russell’s way — “after the super-superstar” options are off the board.

“Now he’s ready,” Johnson said. “He’s much more mature. I said the only thing, he was immature back then. He could always score, but the guys would never play with him because of what he did (with the Young video). But now all those guys are gone and he’s on another level now.”

If the Lakers are not able to lure a third max star next to Davis and LeBron James, the Lakers will have to get creative divvying up contracts.

Johnson suggested more players the Lakers could pursue in such a scenario: Portland’s Seth Curry, Milwaukee’s Nikola Mirotic, Philadelphia’s J.J. Redick and Toronto’s Danny Green.

“There’s guys like that,” Johnson said. “There’s a lot of guys. So we can’t be just saying, ‘Hey if we don’t get Kemba, if we don’t get so and so, it was a disaster.’ No. You’ve still got to fill out a lot of these roster spots.”

Johnson made a choice to no longer make these decisions. But, being Magic, he continues to have opinions. If nothing else, on Monday he offered a glimpse of how he would have attacked this offseason and, perhaps, a road map for those he left behind.