Amid the Los Angeles Lakers' struggles in the 2021-22 NBA season, fans and analysts would regularly look back at that fateful offseason when the team boasted of its Hall-of-Fame haul. There was already a good amount of resentment of their massive roster tweak, not necessarily because the team turned into a retiring home. It was mainly because DeMar DeRozan — the mid-range assassin who has been making his mark in Chicago — was a few conversations away from going home. Instead, the Lakers got Russell Westbrook, whose fit with LeBron James was immediately doubted. Magic Johnson walked through his involvement (or lack thereof) in the deal and how James should be blamed for the fallout between DeRozan and the Lakers.
LeBron is to blame
Though Johnson isn't formally part of the Lakers front office, the man has quite a bit of influence on the executives. Lakers controlling owner and president admitted that she consults Johnson from time to time on what he sees on the basketball court and what should be done.
Johnson recalled that he was actually in touch with DeRozan's agent, who noted that the five-time All-Star wanted to finally don the legendary Purple and Gold jerseys. The Compton native had been in the rumor mill for quite some time amid several heartbreaking seasons with the Toronto Raptors. After his subpar stint with the San Antonio Spurs, it seemed like the perfect time to finally go home.
"The blame that he's got to take is the fact that DeRozan ended up in Chicago and not with the Lakers. DeRozan wanted to play for the Lakers and when I got the call from his agent, [Aaron Goodwin], I called the Lakers, said, 'Hey [DeRozan] wants to come home,'" Johnson said, per Get Up.
As we all know, this deal didn't push through. Instead, the Lakers turned their eyes to the Washington Wizards to arrange a massive transaction. It's a mystery as to why Pelinka made a sudden left turn. According to Johnson, the DeRozan deal fell apart when LeBron James started walking with Westbrook. This created a trail of botched transactions that could've made for a better roster than the current one.
"We could've made that deal. But when Russell and LeBron started talking, that's when they nixed that deal and went with Westbrook… If you signed DeRozan and you only trade [Kyle] Kuzma for Buddy Hield, we would be playing in the Western Conference championship this year with those two guys."I called [Lakers general manager] Rob [Pelinka] and said, 'DeRozan wants to come play.' So I got out of the way… I went on vacation and the next thing I hear is we're not gonna sign DeRozan but trade for Westbrook," Johnson added.
DeRozan himself has shared his side of the story. Like most NBA players, DeRozan places a lot of premium on getting a chance to play for their hometown. Apart from this, he also wanted to get a chance to play with James, arguably one of the greatest of all time. The USC product admitted that he almost took a "realistic" pay cut to join the Lakers.
Keeping the core
Johnson shared that 3-point assassin Buddy Hield was also on the verge of heading to Tinseltown, but the front office suddenly backed out. If Hield and DeRozan were in the fold, Johnson knew exactly what he would've done: keep the core intact.
"They had the Buddy Hield trade already done and then backed out of it. You have DeRozan and Hield, then you could've kept [Alex] Caruso and KCP [Kentavious Caldwell-Pope]. Those guys are defenders. They're on-ball defenders… We'd be competing for the Western Conference Finals," Johnson said.
A handful of fans have echoed Johnson's sentiments. Part of the Lakers' struggles this season is their lack of chemistry. Only James, Anthony Davis, Talen Horton-Tucker, Dwight Howard, and Avery Bradley are from the 2020 title team. Note that THT was a mere rookie during that year and wasn't in the rotation.
Johnson's revelation reveals that the Lakers front office did make a slew of mistakes in the offseason. They literally had DeRozan and Hield locked in but chose to move in another direction. One can't help but imagine if Johnson stayed in the front office and called the shots. Today, the Lakers would be at least a championship-contending team and not a tired, old bottom-feeding squad.