- Dave McMenamin, ESPN Staff Writer
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It has been nearly 20 years since Magic Johnson coached the Los Angeles Lakers for 16 games in the 1993-94 season*, but the Hall of Famer's opinions about his former franchise are as strong as ever.
Johnson, an analyst for ESPN appearing on KIA NBA Countdown during the NBA Finals, was on a conference call Wednesday with reporters to discuss the Finals and not surprisingly, the subject of the Lakers came up.
Below is a transcript of Johnson's latest thoughts on the purple and gold:
Q: What do you think of Dwight Howard, what is best for him?
JOHNSON: "I can't tell you what's best for him -- for Dwight Howard. I think that he'll probably make the best decision possible for him.
"I would say that he will probably enjoy playing for Kevin McHale, because Coach McHale, not only was he a Hall of Fame player – and I feel with Tim Duncan, the best power forwards that have ever played the game – but you have an emerging superstar and a guy that you can definitely play with James Harden.
"And I think that the other young players that they have, (Omer) Asik and (Jeremy) Lin, (Chandler) Parsons, those guys are right there too, with Dwight Howard, will take the next step as being one of the elite teams – one of the best four or five teams in the league and definitely will give themselves a chance to win a championship.
"So that's really where it is. The Lakers have to decide what they want to do. Dwight has to decide what he wants to do.
"I don't think you're going to have enough money for Chris (Paul) and Dwight. I think you're going to have to concentrate on one or the other probably, and I don't know if they want to play together; if one will decide to take lesser money. Now, one might decide to take lesser money and join forces there. But if they both command top dollar, that's going to be hard for Houston to pull off."
Q: The state of the Lakers, where you see them now and a year from now?
JOHNSON: "The state now is really just making a decision on Dwight Howard. I know that the Buss family, Jim Buss, are interested in sitting down and trying to strategize to find out, what do they want to do. And once they make that decision, then the next thing is Kobe Bryant, his return. Hopefully he can come back strong and healthy. And then they have to decide if they want to add somebody or not.
"But a year from now, with all the cap space that they will have, I think the Lakers will be able to sign two or three players and I think it puts them right in position to be a great franchise for the next five years if they make the right decisions and the right moves.
"So I'm excited about next summer for the Lakers. I think it's going to be tremendous. The Lakers just can't make dumb decisions right now to mess up that cap space."
Q: With Dwight Howard moving forward, do you think they are a better team with him involved?
JOHNSON: "I don't know, it just depends on who you put around him if they decide to sign him. You have to have some great players around him and then Dwight Howard has to get better. I'm not happy with this Dwight Howard, but if he gets into the gym and really works on his game and gets some go‑to moves, I think that it will be a wise decision to sign him.
"But he has a lot of work to do this summer on his offensive skills. He's always been dominant and a great rebounder as well as shot‑blocker. But he needs to definitely work on his offense.
"And we have to remember, the game has changed a lot. You don't see too many Dwight Howards anymore. Now it's about if you have a good point guard, 2‑guard, a 3‑guard or a power forward like a (Pau) Gasol and or Chris Bosh who could go inside, outside.
"So, the game has changed. The Lakers just have to make a decision on whether they feel Dwight can be the face of this franchise for the next, what, 10 years or so, and they can win championships with him, as well."
Q: And how do you see (the) Coach (Mike) D'Antoni fit? Is he a good fit for this team?
JOHNSON: "You know, I don't like Coach D'Antoni's system in terms of him not coaching defense. I just think that he has to do a better job defensively because no matter what he says, his system is to try to outscore the team, and you can't outscore people.
"Both of these teams in the Finals have proven to us that you've got to be great defensively if you're going to win a championship. And the Spurs are doing a wonderful job of displaying that. And the Miami Heat, when they play great defense like they are capable of doing, they can beat anybody; and they are unbeatable when they turn their defense up.
"So Coach D'Antoni is going to have to change his approach, because he didn't win a championship in Phoenix; they were fun to watch, but he didn't get it done. He didn't get it done in New York and he didn't get it done there. And he sure didn't show us that he can get it done with the Lakers yet.
"So he has to concentrate on the defensive end, just as much as he emphasizes offense, and then if they sign Dwight Howard back, they are going to have to definitely get on the same page. If he's going to be the coach and he's going to be our star player, they have to get on the same page and last season they were not on the same page."
* As for Johnson's 5-11 coaching record with the Lakers in '93-94, Johnson addressed that on Tuesday's call too: "Well, first of all, I never wanted to be a coach, so we'd better get that clear (laughs). I did Jerry Buss a favor by taking that job."