Magic Johnson should steer clear of Paul George in search for next Lakers superstar

Yes, Magic Johnson does need a new Lakers star — he’s just not going to find the answer in Indianapolis.

It didn’t take long for Magic Johnson to come to the realization that what he’s got in Laker-land isn’t enough to challenge for an NBA title. Anybody can see what he’s up against.

D’Angelo Russell, Brandon Ingram and Julius Randle aren’t going to take the Lakers where Magic wants them to go. Who knows if any of the three will turn into so much as All-Stars, at this stage? What everyone can see, including the Lakers legend now running the show, is that none is going to be that transcendent superstar that can carry the franchise and turn it into a championship contender. There’s no Magic or Kobe in this group.

"The Lakers have always had a superstar," Johnson told AM 570 LA Sports with Roggin and Rodney. "That is what we are going to try to bring in here."

And who might that superstar be? Johnson pretty much admitted he'll be going after Paul George on "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" when he was asked what he would do if he saw George on vacation.

"No, we gonna say 'hi' because we know each other," Johnson said. "You just can’t say, 'Hey, I want you to come to the Lakers,' even though I’ll be wink winking like, 'you know what that means right?'"

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So Johnson knows what he needs. He’s got to import a special player. George checks a lot of boxes. The Pacers star is a top-10 player at peak performance. He has struggled with consistency in the playoffs, but has already played in 63 playoff games. And he doesn’t turn 27 until May 2. Still in his prime, he already has made two trips to the Eastern Conference finals, both times being denied a trip to the NBA Finals by the best player in the sport, LeBron James. A SoCal native, he’s been talking about playing for his hometown team, the Lakers, for a long time. He’s never made his long-term intentions a secret within the Pacers’ locker room, according to former teammates. He wants to wear the purple and gold.

There is little doubt that the Pacers are at a crossroads with their franchise player. In July, George could score a mega-extension in the form of a designated veteran exception — it could end up being a six year, $223 million deal — if he makes an All-NBA team. But in light of what has happened this entire season, right through their Game 3 debacle when they blew the biggest lead in playoff history, you really have to wonder if Indiana wants to go in all-in on George.

So it’s no surprise that Johnson will probably pursue George and set out to build a title team around him, according to multiple sources who have known Johnson over the years.

Johnson knows it’s rare when a player of George’s talents can be obtained, via a trade or through free agency. It’s not as if he’ll be able to get LeBron, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard or anyone else who’s rated ahead of George.

But Magic should steer clear of Paul George. That’s right, he needs to look elsewhere for someone to build around.

Johnson will be making a franchise-altering mistake for years to come if he goes all-in on George, who has shown he’s a poor leader who often alienates teammates.

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We’ll start off with a very big deal that Johnson needs to pay close attention to: George is the anti-Magic when it comes to dealing with teammates. We’ve seen that character flaw resurface in the Pacers’ first-round series against the Cavs. In Game 1, when the Pacers had a chance to steal a win in Cleveland, George was furious with C.J. Miles when his teammate didn’t pass him the ball in the final seconds to take the last shot.

"C.J. took it upon himself," George said following the game. "I'm confident in all my guys taking shots, that's not the issue. But in that situation like that, I've gotta get that."

In some quarters, George drew praise for wanting the last shot. But he was castigated elsewhere for hammering a teammate.

"He’s not a winner by saying that (stuff) in public," said one GM. "That’s no way to support a teammate, but that’s how Paul rolls."


He’s been erratic as a playoff performer, and has been called out for his lack of consistency by Indiana team president Larry Bird. But George is famously tougher on teammates than he is on himself, even when the team is winning a few rounds in the playoffs. When the Pacers competed against Miami for the top spot in the East in 2013 and 2014, they had strong veteran leaders like David West and George Hill. If Magic makes a deal for George or signs him as a free agent in 2018, he’ll need to import similar strong-willed vets, or else there is a good chance that George’s negativity will adversely impact younger teammates.

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From that standpoint, the Celtics could be a better landing place for George, if the Pacers decide decide to rebuild the team. One GM suggested that George would work very well with Isaiah Thomas and Al Horford if the Celtics go after George, as they did at the last trade deadline. Earlier in his career, Thomas had to put up with DeMarcus Cousins in Sacramento and was one of the few Kings who refused to back down from Cousins. Thomas was all-in on trading for Cousins, as he told Sporting News during training camp, only to see the Pelicans roll the dice on Cousins with a trade the night of the NBA All-Star Game. Horford is as solid as any veteran and would be a good influence on George.

The Lakers have the assets to make a run for George between their young talent and draft picks. They could part ways with Russell, who has yet to prove that he can do the two things every NBA GM wants in a playmaker: Shoot a high percentage and make players around him better. Randle would also be expendable in a George deal. Maybe not Ingram, because he’s still 19 and has the highest ceiling among the three.

They can also wait until 2018 when George is free on the market, but they might not want to risk waiting on George when the Pacers could be actively looking to move him. But again, Magic has to remember this: He’ll need to make sure he has strong veterans in place because George has always been rougher on teammates than on himself. That’s why some NBA executives actually like Gordon Hayward, who can turn free in July, over George, although none would rank Hayward as the better talent. Just the better team player without the baggage and maintenance issues that come with George.

Another bad "George moment" Johnson needs to take into account from this spring: The Pacers did George a major favor by bringing back Lance Stephenson at the end of the season. They know that George likes Lance and credited him for his strong play down the stretch because "he takes some of the burden off me."

But when Stephenson went off the reservation in Game 2 of the Cavs series with his emotional outbursts and undisciplined play, George publicly criticized him. He said Stephenson needs to "learn to control himself ... He's got to learn to just be in the moment. Lance is in our locker room, is looked upon as a leader — one of our leaders. His body language has to improve just for the team."

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Later, George accused the media of stirring up a controversy that wasn’t there, and he asserted that he’s not selfish. "I’m still very pleased with my teammates," he said. But his willingness to rip them to the media is a trait that rubs some the wrong way, although they know their place in the pecking order of the locker room and will not publicly go back at the Pacers’ No. 1 player.

It’s funny to hear George frame his comments with the team in mind. The Pacers rebuilt their team with the idea that he would play power forward, only to have him refuse to change positions. That annoyed Bird and coach Nate McMillan, as have George’s ill-timed comments.

Johnson might be of the belief, as several NBA executives are, that the Pacers’ failure to surround George with better teammates has accounted for his unhappiness and public flogging of teammates during tough times. The theory goes that George’s mood will be vastly improved if he finds himself playing with better players, or returns to his native California to star for the team he grew up rooting for. His father was a Lakers fan and remembers that Magic always had a winning way about him. He made it a point to get the ball to the Lakers’ shooters and scorers. He took care of them, smiling all the way to five titles, and they loved being on the same team with their Hall of Fame playmaker. But Johnson never encountered someone like George, who can make life difficult for point guards with such differing personalities as Hill or his current teammate, Jeff Teague.

If Johnson ends up going all-in on George, he’ll have to hope that his point guard is mentally strong enough to hear from George whenever he doesn’t touch the ball. He doesn’t have the championships or playoff resume that another demanding scorer, Kobe Bryant, had when he had to deal with Russell and the other Laker kids.

Yes, Magic Johnson does need a star — he’s just not going to find the answer in Indianapolis.


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