OKLAHOMA CITY -- There he sat on the aisle, halfway up Section 114, maybe 15 rows directly behind the Los Angeles Lakers bench, beside the offspring of the owner who drafted him.
From his perch next to Lakers executives Joey and Jesse Buss, Magic Johnson munched on popcorn Friday and surveyed his young, rebuilding squad play its first game since he ascended from a nebulous advisory position to president of basketball operations in a dramatic in-house bloodletting earlier this week that shook the franchise's foundation and the NBA landscape.
And the Lakers can feel his presence.
“Everybody has to look over their shoulders once again. It’s like coming to a new team. You try to impress the GMs and the guys in the front office with your play and off the court, the way you handle yourself. It’s just all different.”
Midway through the second quarter, Johnson joined the in-game broadcast on Spectrum SportsNet, and after preaching patience with repairing a team that has the NBA’s third-worst record and has missed the playoffs for three consecutive seasons, he headed toward a nearby tunnel.
But star power of his caliber doesn’t visit Oklahoma on just any day, so nearby fans zeroed in with smartphones and snapped away, screaming, “Magic!” He offered his classic smile in return.
“There’s a reason he’s as successful as he is, because he has a way with people,” Lakers coach Luke Walton said before his team fell to 19-40 on the season.
Johnson oozes charisma, not to mention the legendary clout that comes with being one of the most exciting athletes in history -- winning five championships, achieving Basketball Hall of Fame status and putting together one of the most successful nonsports résumés of any player ever.
But the task ahead of him is staggering -- a yearslong venture, at least -- and his lack of front-office experience justifiably gives many pause as to whether he is fully equipped to make the Lakers great again, no matter his other credentials or what he tweets or boasts during national media tours.
Still, Johnson is the first to admit that he is up against a monumental feat, that there will need to be baby steps before giant leaps. On Thursday night, Johnson took several members of the team’s coaching staff and front office to dinner at Mahogany Prime Steakhouse, a few blocks from their downtown Oklahoma City hotel, to lay out his vision and discuss ideas.
“He’s been awesome,” Walton said. “There’s been a lot of really healthy dialogue going on.”
Walton said the Lakers would love to have Johnson around as much as possible, and so far, Johnson has attended practices and even worked with players on individual moves. But Johnson likely won’t attend many road games beyond Friday, which was a statement appearance, given the team’s massive shakeup.
He did tell the players that the door to his office is always open, and Russell said he and his teammates are expected to have one-on-one sessions with Johnson over the next few days.
But from now until their regular-season finale April 12, the Lakers’ goal is twofold, yet should unfold without much effort: to develop their young players and to lose.
As for losing, the Lakers won’t have to try much, because they simply aren’t talented or experienced enough to even be competitive most nights, especially in the Western Conference. In other words, no "tanking" is necessary. But all those defeats will come in handy during the NBA draft lottery on May 16, as the Lakers are praying they’ll be able to keep a top-three protected first-round draft pick.
The outcome of that crucial draft lottery will help shape the Lakers’ immediate future, though their next 23 games are key for their young core to gain valuable experience and chemistry and to develop what Johnson hopes, as he said on Friday's broadcast, is an identity.
During that time, it will also be key for Johnson to gain more understanding of the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement, as well as the ins and outs of running a modern NBA front office.
Yet his presence alone is already changing the atmosphere around the team.
“He’s Magic Johnson," Lakers guard Nick Young said. "Change is happening. It makes you stay on your toes, stay focused.”
Right now, the Lakers will appreciate every positive step forward, no matter how small, as they know full well it will take many such steps -- along with dramatic changes -- for them to emerge from the lowest era in franchise history.
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Russell Westbrook scored 17 points in his 28th triple-double of the season, and his new teammates fit in seamlessly as the Oklahoma City Thunder defeated the Los Angeles Lakers 110-93 on Friday night.
Westbrook also had 18 rebounds and 17 assists for the 65th triple-double of his career.
It was the first game for new Thunder players Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott, acquired Thursday in a trade with the Chicago Bulls. Gibson scored 12 points and McDermott added eight, even though they arrived Thursday night and weren't even available for shootaround on Friday.
D'Angelo Russell scored 29 for the Lakers.
The Lakers can win by continuing to lose -- honestly, of course: The NBA trade deadline passed Thursday with one notably loud and wonderful grinding of gears. The team that took the biggest step forward was the one that threw itself in reverse. The big winners were the Lakers, because they set themselves up to be losers. -- Los Angeles Times
Magic takes in Lakers; begins to leave his mark: Weeks ago now-Lakers President of Basketball Operations Magic Johnson told Coach Luke Walton he was ready to grind. On Thursday morning, Johnson stood on a blue swath of Oklahoma City’s court wearing black warmup pants and a black Lakers sweatshirt, reviewing practice with Walton. -- Los Angeles Times
Lakers don't make a big move at NBA trade deadline as Paul George remains with Pacers: As the NBA’s trade deadline passed Thursday, president of basketball operations Magic Johnson sat in the Lakers team plane, flying to Oklahoma City, where they’ll play Friday. -- Los Angeles Times
Lakers acquire point guard Tyler Ennis from Rockets for Marcelo Huertas as NBA trade deadline passes: Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson has fielded phone calls from numerous executives in his new job. While none of those conversations yielded a blockbuster move, they still resulted in roster changes. The Lakers acquired 22-year-old guard Tyler Ennis from the Houston Rockets for veteran guard Marcelo Huertas on Thursday. -- The Orange County Register
Lakers' Magic Johnson showing patience on all fronts: Magic Johnson is diving headfirst into his new role with the Lakers, starting Thursday on the team plane to Oklahoma, pulling off a minor trade before the midday deadline then grabbing rookie forward Brandon Ingram aside for some one-on-one tutoring during practice. -- The Orange County Register
One source close to the process told ESPN's Marc Stein that Indiana Pacers ownership, in the wake of George's recent comments to ESPN Radio about wanting to play on a team that contends for championships, felt compelled to hear out interested teams this week to see what suitors were prepared to offer.
But the source said Pacers president Larry Bird -- who has made no secret of his desire to persuade George to stay for the long term -- was determined to swat away all interest Thursday, hearing nothing from any team that moved him to seriously consider parting with George.
One of the teams interested was Denver. League sources told ESPN's Chris Haynes and Stein that the Nuggets made an aggressive pitch for George before Thursday's 3 p.m. ET deadline, but the talks never got serious, partly because of George's reluctance to commit to Denver. He can opt out of his current deal after next season.
The Nuggets were not prepared to include star big man Nikola Jokic in any talks, sources said, but Denver had hoped its array of draft picks and young players would appeal to the Pacers.
Speaking to reporters later Thursday, George called the process frustrating.
"I was kind of on the ropes just like you guys were on what was about to happen,'' George said. "It's kind of a dark moment, a lot of uncertainty. That was the frustrating part. You want me to be your guy here -- I thought I'd be in the loop a little more on that.''
Sources told ESPN earlier Thursday that George, at this point, is not prepared to commit his long-term future to any team other than the Pacers or his hometown Los Angeles Lakers
The trades will give the Rockets $3.5 million in cap space, which a source said they will use in an attempt to sign players who have been bought out.
The Nets also waived guard Marcus Thornton, acquired Wednesday in their trade with Washington.
McDaniels, who's 6-foot-6, 205 pounds, just couldn't get into coach Mike D'Antoni's rotation and played 212 minutes in 29 games. At the start of the season, D'Antoni wanted McDaniels to become a wing defender, but he struggled and fell behind Corey Brewer and Sam Dekker at small forward off the bench.