Magic Johnson is bracing himself for a rough season. He might be part owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who just went to the National League Championship Series, but he'll always be a Lakers fan, and their prospects don't look as rosy.
"Laker fans are spoiled. I don't know how they're going to react now, because this is going to be a tough season," Johnson said Tuesday afternoon during an hourlong interview on the "Max and Marcellus Show" on ESPNLA 710 radio. "This is going to be one of the roughest seasons that the Lakers have ever faced. You're waiting on Kobe [Bryant] to see if he can get healthy. Nobody knows if he can be what he was. Then you've got [Pau] Gasol -- who I think is a premier big man -- but he plays better when he has talent around him.
"You've got guys who are all on one-year contracts, and all were journeymen on other teams. Laker fans are not used to that. I don't know if they're going to buy into that. We're going to see. If you want the Laker fans to really buy in and be involved, you're going to have to win right away. I don't see that happening. The West is tough this year."
What does Johnson see?
"I'm hoping that they at least make the playoffs," Johnson said. "But that's going to be tough, especially without Kobe. We have to see what Kobe we're going to get. Is he going to be that same Kobe or is he going to be hurt a little bit?"
Johnson said he thought Bryant could still come back from his ruptured Achilles tendon and be a "dominant player" but might need to "give up some of those shots" to his teammates to get them going.
"Kobe can get 30 or 40," Johnson said. "But you have to remember, you need at least three guys who can score. Right now I'm looking at that roster and going, 'Who else is going to get you 15-20 a night besides Gasol and Kobe?' "
When asked if he would be willing to be part of the Lakers' recruiting pitch to potential free agents next summer, Johnson said he would always help the Lakers if they should ever call upon him. Johnson sold his ownership stake in the Lakers in 2010 and is no longer officially affiliated with the team.
"This summer is going to be a crucial summer for the Lakers," Johnson said. "They have all that cap space. Hopefully [Lakers executive Jim Buss] has a plan. His dad [the late Dr. Jerry Buss] would've had a plan two years ago."
Buss has publicly stated in the past that the Lakers had been targeting the free agent class of 2014 for several years, lining up the contracts on their current roster so they'd have the maximum amount of space under the league's salary cap.
"We purposely ended all contracts that year," Buss told the Orange County Register last year. "I can't talk about Kobe, but this is what he signed [until]. So basically we put everything to that, and we want to make a big splash in the free-agent market if we get to that spot. So we designed the contracts and the players and our future all around that."
Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak has alluded to the Lakers' designs on 2014 free agents as well, saying in a recent news conference: "Certainly we're going to be active, and if we can get what we want to get done, then great. If not, then we'll move to the next offseason and then we'll move to the next offseason. I know at some time we'll be able to put together a very competitive and attractive team here."
Johnson said he was more concerned with how the Lakers -- and particularly Jim Buss -- would pitch up against rivals like Miami Heat president Pat Riley.
"If it's Jim Buss going up against Pat Riley, he's going to lose that battle. He needs help," Johnson said. "You have to have a recruiter. Jim needs a recruiter with him."
Johnson didn't offer any predictions on whether the Lakers would land any of the 2014 free agents, but he did make a compelling case about why free agents would still see the Lakers as a destination.
"The thing that separates LA from Miami or New York or any other place is that you can make so much money off the court," Johnson said. "You become a celebrity. Not a sports star. Kobe is a celebrity. That's why he owns China, Japan ... because he plays for the Lakers and wins championships for the Lakers. Nobody else has that cache.
"This town loves winners. When those billionaires come out [to the games], they want a piece of that guy who is leading the Lakers. That's the thing that L.A. can offer."
That wasn't enough to keep the last big free agent, as Dwight Howard spurned the Lakers this summer to play for less money with the Houston Rockets. Johnson said he wasn't a fan of the way the Lakers put up billboards around town to convince Howard to stay, but otherwise thinks it was the right thing for Howard to leave.
"I was mad at the Lakers for recruiting him to stay. I'm not begging anybody to play for the Lakers," Johnson said. "You always have a plan B if he doesn't sign, so don't be rolling out the red carpet, begging this dude. This dude hasn't won a championship yet.
"I don't think Dwight could stomach L.A. It was too much pressure. There's pressure being a Laker. There's pressure in this town."
Johnson said he didn't think there was much, outside of hiring Phil Jackson instead of Mike D'Antoni, the Lakers could have done to retain Howard.
"It played out the right way. This is Kobe's team. It's still his team," Johnson said of the friction between the two stars. "When I came in this was Kareem's team and I didn't even worry about it. I said, 'Man, this is your team.' It wasn't until Pat Riley came to me seven or eight years in and said, 'Man, this has now got to be your team.'
"Sometimes, Dwight, you have to defer. Just like now. Houston is not his team. That's James Harden's team. That's why I was saying, 'I don't think he could stomach L.A.' "
Johnson said it still troubles him that the Lakers had a shot to bring back Jackson, who led them to five NBA titles, and didn't.
"It blows me away that we could've had Phil Jackson," Johnson said. "As much as we all would like to see Phil a part of it, he understands it can't happen."
When asked why he felt that way, Johnson said he felt that Jim Buss was making decisions "based on trying to prove everybody wrong that [he] can do this job." The decision to interview Jackson, but not hire him was in Johnson's words "a sucker punch" that was, "more against the sister, like, 'Hey Jeanie, I'm running this.' "
Jackson's fiancée, Jeanie Buss, is the Lakers' president. In an interview with ESPNLosAngeles.com over the summer, Jim Buss said that it was his father who made the final decision to hire D'Antoni.
"We did the coaching search and interviews and fed [Dr. Buss] all the information," Buss said. "And he said, 'This is who I want. D'Antoni's the man.' Knowing that in the future we had to rebuild, he felt that Phil was not a guy to rebuild. It's not fair to him. It was actually more of a respectful thought towards Phil."
Buss also said he felt badly that the decision to hire D'Antoni over Jackson had hurt his sister.
"Jeanie being my sister, I felt compassion for her," he said in the September interview. "I felt compassionate. I wish I could do something about that, but on a business level, this was a business decision made by our father."
"I consider Phil family. That's how I look at him," he added. "If he wants to work with me on a consultant basis, I'm all for it."
Whomever it is, Johnson said he simply wants to see the younger Buss listen to more people in his decision making process.
"I don't think Jim's a bad guy," Johnson said. "He needs to surround himself with people who can help him make good decisions for the Lakers. Right now he's not doing that. I really hope that Jim will work even more closely with Mitch, and take advice from Mitch."