ESPN today announced an expanded role for Hall of Famer Earvin “Magic” Johnson this season, along with the move of the Kia NBA Countdown pregame show to Los Angeles. Johnson will be an analyst on Kia NBA Countdown throughout the season on ABC and ESPN. The show will originate from the ESPN Los Angeles Production Center at L.A. Live – across the street from STAPLES Center, home of the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers – beginning Christmas Day, Sunday, Dec. 25, at 2 p.m. ET.
Johnson shared his thoughts on the upcoming NBA season during a media conference call this afternoon.
NATE SMELTZ (ESPN PR): Thank you to everyone for joining the call. I’d like to give a special welcome to Earvin “Magic” Johnson. Today we are announcing an expanded ESPN role for him this season. He will appear on the Kia NBA Countdown pregame show on ESPN and ABC throughout the entire NBA season. Magic will also continue to conduct one‑on‑one interviews with some of the NBA’s biggest news makers and provide analysis on SportsCenter and other news and information shows.
We’re also announcing the move of the Kia NBA Countdown pregame show to Los Angeles. The show will now originate from ESPN’s Los Angeles Production Center at L.A. Live across the street from STAPLES Center, beginning Christmas Day when it debuts at 2 p.m. ET. I’d like to turn the call over to Bob Rauscher, ESPN’s vice president of production, for some opening remarks.
BOB RAUSCHER: Thanks, Nate. First, we’re thrilled to have Earvin “Magic” Johnson in an expanded role this season, for all of our pregame shows on ABC and ESPN. His insight, analysis and perspectives he has on the game are going to be huge benefits to our program, and we’re thrilled to have him in an expanded role this season.
We’re also excited with the move to Los Angeles. We have a great facility, the Los Angeles Production Center out there. And we’re also excited about the new format which will be more dynamic and free flowing and will certainly be providing spirited debate throughout the season. So we’re looking forward to all of that, and at this point I want to get it started, so let’s go.
Q. I wanted to get your thoughts on how important it is for this season to start and just get back to games for the NBA after all of the ugliness in the off‑season, and the lockout? Then you had the Chris Paul and Dwight Howard talks and stuff. Just to kind of refocus the attention on the game and the players that are playing.
EARVIN MAGIC JOHNSON: Well, I think it’s very important. I’m excited that it’s going to happen on the best day of the year, really, Christmas Day. When you think about it, there’s going to be five exciting games starting with, of course, Boston and the Knicks.
You have a team in the Knicks now who are a lot better, especially with Tyson Chandler coming over. I think that once Baron Davis gets healthy they’re going to cause some real problems in the East. Then, when you think about the World Champion Dallas Mavericks playing Miami again, I think it’s going to be exciting, because Miami has got a lot to prove. I watched Miami and Orlando in their preseason game on Sunday, and I did see LeBron James going to the post a couple of times. So you can see he’s been working on his game.
They’ve got a lot to prove to themselves as well as to the league, and they’re an exciting team. So it’s going to be fun to see what Miami does in terms of coming back after a devastating loss in the championship to the Dallas Mavs. Then the Mavs, man, when you think about the world champions making so many big changes, I mean, Tyson Chandler was the anchor of their defense, and now he’s gone to the Knicks.
And J.J. Barea, he was the spark plug coming in off the bench, and now he’s moved on to Minnesota. So how will Lamar Odom fit in and Vince Carter fit in to the Dallas Mavs, and can they get that, no pun intended, that Magic back? Because in the playoffs they were magical. They had everything going. They had the defense going. They had Dirk, who was outstanding…they had the outside shooters…just bombs away. They were just hitting from everywhere. Jason, J.J. Barea, they did an outstanding job. So there are questions there.
In the next game, I think the team to beat is Oklahoma City. When you think about them, Russell Westbrook, I think, is going to be the key for this season. Can he understand how to do both, to be the play maker as well as being the scorer?
I think (Kendrick) Perkins is going to have to be a key as well. Perkins being traded from Boston, can he not only play great defense, which he’s probably the best defensive center in the game next to Dwight Howard. Of course, Dwight is number one, but Perkins is number two.
Can he also provide them with great defense and shutting down the middle because the problem with Oklahoma City is you can always drive on them, and that’s why they’ve been coming up short because of the defensive end. Can Perkins really solidify that defense and really shut the middle down?
Then you think about Orlando…Dwight decides to stay which now… puts a lot of pressure on everybody. Coach Stan Van Gundy, as well as the players. Do they have enough? Right now, with the way I see it, they don’t, because they don’t play defense like Miami and Chicago. They’re the two best teams in the East.
Now you have to look at the Knicks. Maybe slip into that third (position), because that might push Orlando back down to four now. So that’s going to be an outstanding game.
Wow, the Clippers are relevant, and they’re going to be amazing. They’re going to be fun to watch and they’re going up to Oakland to play against the Warriors who are always tough at home.
So we’ve got some incredible games on Christmas Day. I’m excited. I wish Christmas was today because I’m ready to get going. Yes, I’m glad that the focus will be back on the game, back on the teams, back on the superstars that we have in this league and they’re ready to go as well. The fans are back.
Look what happened last night. Sold out in L.A. for the Clipper and Laker game. Another sellout on Wednesday. And you’re talking about exhibition games. So you know the fans are happy. I saw 10,000 people show up for the practice in New York to watch the Knicks.
I mean, the fans are happy that the game is back, and they’ve been showing up at these scrimmages that are open to the public as well as these exhibition games.
Q. You mentioned the Clippers. I know you always like talking about the Lakers as well. What do they have to do to stay relevant, so to speak? What can Mike Brown do for them? There is a big coaching change out here in Los Angeles.
EARVIN MAGIC JOHNSON: First of all, Mike has got to emphasize defense. He’s got to get the Lakers to focus on that end of the court. The Lakers are going to be able to score. They have great scorers. When you think about Kobe Bryant and Gasol can score. Once they get (Andrew) Bynum back, he can score down low. So you have guys that can put the ball in the basket.
The problem with the Lakers is going to be on the defensive end. How will they be able to match up with quicker point guards? They have a big question mark at small forward. Who is going to start, who is going to shut down the small forwards now because the game has changed. The game is now quick point guards and also tough, small forwards, especially when you look in the West.
The Lakers are going to have to really concentrate on the defensive end and figure out how to get some easy baskets during the game, because as we watch the Lakers last year, everything was tough. It was hard. They always had to come up with hard baskets. They didn’t get any easy baskets.
It was always Kobe going one‑on‑one or Gasol taking a tough shot over somebody. So the Lakers are going to have to figure out, maybe to try to speed the tempo up a little bit, so they can get some easy baskets in transition.
What the Clippers did should – if you are a competitor – should make you really come out being really tough and strong, because it’s going to take a while for the Clippers to take away L.A. That’s not going to happen over a year or two. The Lakers have won too many championships. Laker fans will not just leave the Lakers. They’re very loyal.
So the Clippers got a lot to prove still. But at the same time, if I’m looking across town, I’m saying, hey, that’s got to be driving Kobe. That should drive Gasol and Bynum and those guys and Derek Fisher to say, hey, no way I’m going to let them take over Los Angeles.
From the Clippers side of it, yes, you can cause excitement because they’re going to be probably one – if not the most – exciting team. Between them and Miami, those two will be fighting for who is the most exciting team in the league because of the fact that Chris Paul makes everybody better. That’s why the Lakers wanted him.
Chris Paul is the leader. He can score. He can assist. He’s tough. He’s the ultimate competitor. That’s what Blake Griffin needed. He needed somebody to lead. He’s not a leader. He’s a guy who plays the game at a high level, but they needed a leader and they brought the best in.
When you think about (Chauncey) Billups joining them, they’re going to be really strong and a good team. And Caron Butler starting at small forward. So it’s an exciting time for the city.
Now what has to happen, people have to remember one thing. When it gets to the playoffs, one thing great about the Lakers, they’re battle tested. You know what you’re going to get. Unfortunately for the Clippers, you don’t know. See, they still have a lot to prove when it comes to that.
The Lakers know where they’re going to win the game at the end in the fourth quarter. The Clippers got to decide is it going to be Blake or is it going to be Chris who is going to close the show and win the game?
But you’re talking about excitement for the city, wow. I was there. I mean, since that trade everybody’s talking about both teams. That’s all the conversation. So I think you’re going to see sellouts on both sides. It’s a great time to be in the city of Los Angeles because the great thing is they play opposite days in terms of home games. So you’re going to be able to go see a great Laker team and then a great Clipper game as well.
I’m excited. For the first time I’m going to be watching Clipper games, too, so this is going to be great for the city.
Q. Question with moving the show to Los Angeles. Is part of the thinking there that maybe you can get players or maybe even people from the entertainment world dropping by the studio?
BOB RAUSCHER: Sure, that was not the impetus for it, but certainly a benefit of the move there. We have a vibrant location there at L.A. Live. Certainly, with both the Lakers and the Clippers playing right across the street, there is much more of an opportunity for guests and players, that is, as well as in the entertainment field. So, yes, it was not the primary driver of why we’re in Los Angeles, but it is certainly one of the benefits of being there.
Q. With Kobe being in his 16th season this year, you mentioned how defense will be a challenge. Is it realistic to have these expectations as a first‑team defender and a 25‑point per game scorer moving forward especially this season?
EARVIN MAGIC JOHNSON: Well, I think Kobe can still score the basketball….what Kobe has to look to do now is really look to get Gasol and Bynum going and then pick and choose when he should dominate.
He’s going to need help, especially more this season than any other season for them to be really one of the best teams and win a championship. Because without those two, those two guys got to have banner years, Gasol and Bynum, because Kobe can’t carry the load. And you’re right, at 16 years now, you can’t expect him to be carrying the load night‑in and night‑out.
So they’re going to look for those two big men to control the paint, give Kobe a break, and then what about the other guys? What about World Peace? What about Matt Barnes, who we thought was going to be a great Laker and then hasn’t really panned out that way yet. He can turn that around this season. What about Steve Blake coming in off the bench?
Some of the other guys got to have their best seasons for the Lakers to really be that championship team. And, no, we can’t expect Kobe to carry the load the way he used to because the older you get, unfortunately, you’ve got to say, okay. Look, maybe my offense is still great, but my defense may suffer. Night‑in and night‑out, he can’t play the best player on the other team and then expect to go out and still get 25 to 30 points. You’re asking a lot of a guy. But if one guy can do it, it’s Kobe Bryant.
I think he’s going to have to be an emotional leader, not just a game-time leader in terms of scoring points and playing defense. But he’s going to have to be a locker room leader and really pick guys up and do something he’s probably never done before. And that’s really in practice, get these guys going. In the locker room, get these guys going. Because the one guy that did that is now gone and that’s Lamar Odom.
Lamar was valuable both on the court and off the court. You’re going to miss him in the practice and in the locker room and on the airplane and on the buses. Who is going to replace him being that leader? I think that the way I see it, it has to be Kobe Bryant.
Q. I think you alluded to some of this. But who do you see as the biggest winners in the free agent scramble right now?
EARVIN MAGIC JOHNSON: I would say that trade with Tyson Chandler going to the Knicks really made them an outstanding winner, and I think they’re tied with the Clippers. The Clippers and the Knicks really won because two things happen for both. They made great trades with Tyson Chandler going to the Knicks. Then you look at Chris Paul coming to the Clippers.
But then they picked up two guys off the waivers…that was outstanding when you think about a Baron Davis can go to the Knicks and then you think about Chauncey Billups, who has won a championship, who understands how to hit the big shots when the game is on the line.
When you think about what the Clippers were able to do, and then you add a Caron Butler, so I think the Clippers probably came out 1A for the Clippers being the best. Then 1B being the New York Knicks. Those two teams really helped themselves and did an outstanding job.
I would say that three would probably be the Mavs, when you can get probably the most versatile guy and I think one of the best all‑around players in the league with Lamar Odom. I think that’s just outstanding what they were able to do. Then we don’t know what Vince Carter has left, but we’ll be able to see here shortly.
So I would say those three helped themselves, and I think the Miami Heat helped themselves with Shane Battier too…Shane, this guy is tough. Now LeBron doesn’t have to take the best player on the opposite team anymore because Shane can just take those guys and shut them down. Also, he can play two or three positions too.
Q. If you look historically whether it’s Kareem or you or Pau Gasol or Shaq, everything seems to work out for the Lakers. It always has. Are you surprised to see them coming into this year without Chris Paul, without Dwight Howard, a lot of the guys that they had targeted?
EARVIN MAGIC JOHNSON: Well, first of all, let’s give the Lakers credit. I think they did pull off a trade, but it just didn’t happen. The league said no. It wasn’t like they didn’t go to work. So I have to give Jim Buss a lot of credit, as well as Mitch Kupchak, because they did make a trade that was rescinded. So you still have to give them a “B” for effort. “A” would have been great because they would have ended up with a guy. So I’ll give them a solid “B” for making a trade that was rescinded by the league.
Now the other part of your question, no. We’ve never had a season where we didn’t get the guy that we wanted to play for the Lakers. They’ve always come through. They targeted Chris Paul. They targeted Dwight Howard and made the trade happen for them. So they have to wait to see what happens at the trade deadline. Then they have to wait to see what happens after the season.
But they did put their best foot forward to make that trade for Chris Paul. I think the fans would have been upset or I would have been upset if they hadn’t tried to trade for one of the superstars that were available, but they did try. Then give Donald Sterling a lot of credit. He stepped up after that trade fell through.
But the Lakers, they now have to figure out how do they win with the guys that they have? And I just said it earlier, if Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol don’t have their best seasons, it’s going to be a tough season for the Lakers. If they do have banner seasons, then I think they’ll be right there playing for the Western Conference championship. They can do it.
Those two guys got to dominate inside. They have to dominate because without them, if they don’t dominate, the Lakers are going to have…it’s going to be a long season for not only the Lakers, but Laker fans as well.
Q. What do you think the keys are for the Knicks to – they’ve got a lot of potential to have it all work out for them this year.
EARVIN MAGIC JOHNSON: I think number one, the biggest challenge for the Knicks is how do they come together? How do they really come together and really play well as a team? We saw what happened to the Heat early on last season. Remember, they were not playing well together. Then they finally caught fire mid‑season and then on to the playoffs.
But if you’re not in sync with one another, they’re going to struggle early on. So I think the fans have to be patient. Because when you think about bringing in a key player like Tyson Chandler, you’re going to now have to…first of all, you have two superstars who are not used to working with each other already, and that’s Carmelo and Stoudemire.
So Amare and Carmelo, they’re not even used to working with each other. Now you throw in Tyson, and it’s going to take a while for them to understand how to play with each other. Where does that guy like to shoot from? Where am I supposed to be on the offense and what am I supposed to do?
Fans got to be patient, the coaches got to be patient, and number one, the players got to be patient. If they don’t get off to an early good start, they can’t worry about it. Just stick with it. Stick with the game plan. Stick with understanding how are we going to work with one another?
I believe once they get that down, they’re going to be battling right there with Chicago and Miami for the Eastern Conference Championship. They can really cause a lot of problems because their length, oh, my goodness. They’re long. Tyson can block shots. He can run on the break. He causes so many problems for opponents because he plays hard on both ends of the court, and that’s going to really free up Carmelo and Amare a lot more. Because Amare, remember last year, he was trying to play center or the best forward, and that’s really not his forte.
But that is definitely Tyson Chandler’s forte…the defensive end. So now that can relieve Amare. He doesn’t have to play that best player or that post player, and he can conserve some of that energy on the defensive end and let Tyson take that.
But to me, it’s all about how will they play together. If they get that down and then Baron (Davis) comes in in a month or so or two months, whatever it’s going to be, and if Baron is in shape…the one thing that their trainer and their medical staff’s got to do is get him in top shape and get him back to being the Baron Davis we saw with the Golden State Warriors.
If he can return to 80 or 90 percent of that Baron Davis, wow. That team can cause so many problems. Then they’ve got to get Landry Field’s confidence back. He lost his confidence in the playoffs, and he’s got to get that back because he could be a great player for them.
Those two, Amare and Carmelo have to really get back in. They’ve got to get in sync…they were never in sync last season. So Coach D’Antoni’s got to figure out how to get them in sync, playing with each other and playing off of each other as well.
Q. Wanted to get your thoughts on the direction the Golden State Warriors are going, and if you think there is any credence, any hopes for their playoff promises they’re making?
EARVIN MAGIC JOHNSON: Yeah, I like the Golden State Warriors. I think that Mark Jackson knows the game and he’s going to make an outstanding coach. He loves the game of basketball. He still plays almost every day and he can relate to the guys.
Now what Golden State’s got to do is they’ve got to figure out how can they defend teams? Because the one thing that Golden State can do probably almost as good as anybody, especially in the West, is they can score. You have a hard time matching up against their guards, those two guards are just fabulous. When you think about what both of them are able to do and the type of pressure that they’re able to put on people, and then when you add Michael Thompson’s son ‑‑ I think it’s Klay Thompson, I believe…I know that he can play basketball. He’s long, he can shoot it, he can pass it, so I think he’s a great addition to Golden State.
But I think it’s more for them if they can defend on the defensive end because we saw a lot of times even when they played the Lakers and watched them play, a lot of times they’d be right there, especially right there in the fourth quarter. But they lost a lot of games.
I’m sure you can say this too. They never got that big stop. They never got those consecutive stops to close the game out. When you’re at home, you’ve got to make those defensive stops. If they can get to a defensive mindset, and I’m sure Mark knows that, they should be okay.
Now I watched them play against Sacramento the other night, and they were moving that ball up‑and‑down the court. I know they’re going to run more with Mark coaching. So I think they’re going to just be one of those teams battling for that seventh and eighth spot, and watch out.
When you have Jerry West as a consultant and a guy who knows players, Jerry West is one of the greatest minds and one of the greatest executives to ever be a part of any organization. When you think about what he did for the Lakers, what he did for Memphis, and now what he’s doing for Golden State, they hired the right guy. So everything’s looking up when you think about Golden State.
I think how many points are they going to get from the four and five positions? That’s going to be the key for them. Because, unfortunately for them, when those guards are not shooting well, they didn’t get enough points from the four and five position. If they can get some points from the four and five position, they’re going to be right in the mix, like I said, for that battling for that playoff spot. But to me it’s still all about the four and five. They’re great one through three. But what are they going to do in the four and five spot?
NATE SMELTZ (ESPN PR): I would like to share, unrelated to the ESPN news today, Magic is also part of an announcement with actor Kevin Daniels being named to portray him in the Magic‑Bird broadway play. For more information please visit MagicBirdBroadway.com.
Thank you, everyone, for your participation. Congratulations to Earvin. We hope you all enjoy the Christmas Day games on ABC and ESPN. Happy Holidays.
EARVIN MAGIC JOHNSON: I look forward to seeing everybody. That is going to be an exciting day. What a lineup. Also, what a lineup of evenly matched teams. That thing is going to be great.
Watch out for the Bulls. If Richard Hamilton can perform at that two‑guard position, everybody better watch out for the Bulls, because that’s all they needed was somebody at the two spot. And Richard Hamilton, if he still can perform at a high level and he can get them probably 15 to 18 points a game, the Bulls could go to the championship.
It’s not going to be a shoe‑in for Miami if Richard Hamilton still can score, like I said, between 15 and 18 points a game for the Bulls.
So I think that we have a lot of great storylines right now in basketball. Oklahoma City, to me, is No. 1. I think that the Lakers and Dallas come in 2 and 3, the Clippers 4 to me. And it’s going to be a battle. When you think about the East, I think Miami, Chicago, the Knicks 3, Orlando 4.
Then watch out for the Pacers. I think Larry Bird did an outstanding job. George Hill is going to be really significant for the Pacers. Now, with him signing (David) West as well from New Orleans…watch out for the Pacers. They gave the Bulls all they wanted.
So this season’s going to be fun. Man, Bob, can we start today? I’m too excited about this season. God bless everybody, Happy Holidays. I’ll see you on Christmas Day, yeah!