Using the word “betrayal,” Magic Johnson made it clear that general manager Rob Pelinka was the one “backstabbing” him, telling people that he wasn’t working hard and wanting to take his job with the Los Angeles Lakers.
In an appearance on First Take on Monday morning, Johnson did not hold back, identifying Pelinka as the person he was alluding to when he mentioned that he was tired of the “backstabbing” and “the whispering” that was going on behind his back when he suddenly stepped down as Lakers president of basketball operations on April 9.
“I start hearing, ‘Magic, you are not working hard enough. Magic’s not in the office,'” Johnson told First Take. “People around the Lakers office were telling me Rob was saying things, Rob Pelinka, and I didn’t like those things being said behind my back, that I wasn’t in the office enough. So I started getting calls from my friends outside of basketball saying those things now were said to them outside of basketball now, just not in the Lakers office anymore.”
Johnson later added when asked who betrayed him in the Lakers organization: “If you are going to talk betrayal, it’s only with Rob.”
Johnson’s departure stunned the NBA, with star LeBron James saying he would have appreciated at least a phone call.
“I respect LeBron for what he just said,” Johnson said after watching a clip of James’ comments on HBO’s “The Shop.” “I love LeBron, I love his family … but sometimes as a man, you have to make decisions based on your well-being. And I made that decision.”
Johnson explained that the other reason he ultimately stepped down before the Lakers’ regular-season finale was that he felt he no longer had the power to make decisions, having previously answered just to controlling owner Jeanie Buss. Johnson said he wasn’t allowed to fire then head coach Luke Walton after Tim Harris, Lakers president of basketball operations/NBA alternate governor, became too involved in basketball decisions.
“The straw that broke the camel’s back was I wanted to fire Luke Walton,” Johnson said. “I showed her the things he did well and the things he didn’t do well. I said listen, we got to get a better coach. First day, well let’s think about it. Second day, OK you can fire him. Then the next day, no, we should try to work it out.
“So we went back and forth like that, and then she brought Tim Harris into the meeting, some of the guys, and Tim wanted to keep him because he was friends with him. I said, when I looked up, I only really answer to Jeanie Buss,” Johnson continued. “Now I got Tim involved. It’s time for me to go. I got things happening that were being said behind my back. I don’t have the power I thought I had to make decisions. And I told them, when it is not fun for me, when I think I don’t have the decision-making power I thought I had, I got to step aside.”
Johnson said he had no problem trying to help Joey Buss, co-owner/team president of the South Bay Lakers, and Jesse Buss, co-owner/director scouting and assistant GM, to eventually move up in the front office. But he also explained that there are too many people in the Lakers organization trying to have a say in basketball matters.
“[Harris] is supposed to run Lakers business but he was trying to come over to our side,” Johnson said. “Have everybody who has a role with the Lakers, stay in that role. OK, Tim Harris, you’re the president of business, stay over there in business. Jesse and Joey [Buss], hey, you’re the general manager assistant to Rob. Joey, you run the G League team. Then do that and do it well. Once you show you can drive excellence, now maybe you can move to another department. But right now, everybody has a voice.”
Johnson said that Jeanie Buss is listening to those closest to her, including longtime friend and Lakers executive director/special projects Linda Rambis and former Lakers head coach and her ex-fiancé, Phil Jackson.
Johnson said stepping down was not related to being unable to fire Pelinka.
He said the plan was that he was prepared to help elevate Pelinka to eventually replace him but that he could no longer work alongside someone he felt was trying to undercut him.
When asked if anyone else backstabbed him, Johnson said it was just Pelinka.
“Just Rob,” Johnson said. “Other people didn’t bother me … what happened was I wasn’t having fun coming to work anymore, especially when I got to work beside you, knowing that you want my position.”
With the Lakers mired in controversy, there has been speculation that the Lakers should consider trading James.
Johnson said “that’s not going to happen.”
“Listen, this guy is special,” Johnson said of James, whose first season with the Lakers was sidetracked by a groin injury that cost him 17 consecutive games in the middle of the season. “He has helped our young players so much. He’s made Kyle Kuzma better, Brandon Ingram better. The way he approaches the game… and I’ll tell you who he really took aside, Lonzo Ball. He has been a great influence.”
James will need more help this coming season, and the Lakers could have $32.5 million in salary-cap space this summer to potentially sign a max free agent.
Johnson was asked to name his top free agent. He laughed that he doesn’t have to worry about tampering anymore and can say whatever he wants.
“With speculation that KD [Kevin Durant] is going somewhere else… speculation that he is going to New York… I love Kevin,” Johnson said. “Or he might stay in Golden State. I would say Kawhi [Leonard] and Kyrie [Irving] are the two guys, one of those two.”
— Ohm Youngmisuk / ESPN