MAGIC JOHNSON Q&A

Magic Johnson 568It’s Game 4 of the NBA Finals tonight (ESPN, 1.30am) and we got the thoughts of Hall of Famer Magic Johnson on the Miami Heat, the San Antonio Spurs and the fate of Dwight Howard.

Q.  With all LeBron’s accomplished the last few years, are you shocked at the way he’s playing and what must he do to fix it quickly?

JOHNSON:  I’m shocked by the way he played more in Game 3 than the first two games.

I think that when you come into a series, you’re going to feel a team out. You’re going to start understanding how they are playing you.  Then you also understand what you then need to beat that team – what you have to do first as an individual and second as a collective group because he’s the best player in the world, the best player on that team.

So by that second game after they won, he should know that when you come on the road, you can’t expect Chalmers to score 19 points.  You can’t expect Ray Allen or some of the other guys to score as many as they are going to score at home.

So he has to now be more aggressive, more assertive, take more of a role in terms of scoring, and especially in the first quarter and second quarter, because those role players will follow his lead.  Not just the role players, but everybody –  Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh – because they know he is the best player.  So when he’s aggressive and when he’s playing well, that will help them to play well.

Then you open it up in terms of if he’s aggressive and he’s scoring, then it opens it up for everybody else.  So that’s my disappointment – more in the third game than in the first two, because when you ‑‑ you split, okay.  Now you’ve figured it out.  You see what Coach Popovich is doing with his defence on you.  Tim, being not only a great basketball player in terms of talent but also he has a high basketball IQ, so now he knows where to get his shots.  He knows when he should drive.  He knows where his scoring spots are going to be on the floor.

And so now, I want him to be more like Kobe or Michael than like me (laughs) in order to win because he has to score points.  And this defence and this team ‑‑ this is the worst team that Miami could play because of the fact that San Antonio is going to stick to the game plan.  They have played so well together, they are so well coached.

So now it’s not just talent that you have to play with, but you have to play with your basketball IQ, with your mind, because they are not going to beat themselves.

So I think that I want to see a gallant effort from them; not just LeBron in Game 4, but from the entire Heat team.  They didn’t look like they were in it.  I don’t know what happened.  The body language was bad in Game 3.

Q.  On shots outside the paint, LeBron went 2‑or‑14 in Game 3, 7‑for‑30 in the series; should LeBron continue taking the shots there or try to drive more if the Spurs are packing the paint?  What’s the best approach?

JOHNSON:  You have to do a combination of the two.  What happens is he’s going to have to be aggressive on defence and try to get some boards and go coast-to-coast and then figure it out more in transition on the break in taking it to the basket.

On the half court side of it, on the offensive side, he already knows the guys that are coming over.  They are doing a wonderful job, Duncan, Splitter, of flying over and making sure, okay, he can’t get all the way to the basket.  But that’s okay.  He understands that.

So just pull up for the five‑, eight‑, 10‑footer, hit that mid‑range shot, then go under on the pick‑and‑rolls, so he knows that.  So he’s just got to get ready to knock them down.  Once you knock down a few, everything else will open up for him.  The drives will open up.  So he’s just got to knock down some shots first, and then everything else will come after you knock down a couple of those jumpers.

I remember Boston used to do the same thing to me. Go up under, so I had to start knocking down some shots.  Once I knocked down some shots, they had to say, uh‑oh, we have to do a little something different now.  But he’s got to look for it, because what he’s doing now, he’s still trying to get everybody involved.

But that can’t be the game plan, because Dwyane Wade is what he is now.  So you know he can’t give you 25 to 30 points.  Chris Bosh is not a dominant force, but he’s a great player, but he’s not a dominant force.  You’re the only dominant force, and then if you go well, then the other guys, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, will be able to play off of you.

Q.  I wanted to ask you about Tim Duncan, and I know the Spurs have a lot of work to do to get two more wins to pull this thing off, but can you talk about Tim, and that fifth championship? If they can get it, how much does that change his legacy?  You mentioned McHale before, he’s already going to go down as one of the greats, but that fifth title, how do you think that changes things, and in this generation with Kobe?

JOHNSON:  With a fifth, he’s the best power forward that’s ever played in my book because he passes McHale to me.  His legacy will enhance and increase.  We’ve already got him in the Top‑10.  You can slide him up there anywhere you want to put him, because it’s not just how ‑‑ it’s not just him winning five, but it’s how he won five.  It’s the way he played the game, how he approached the game.

And you know, I told him the other day, I said, ‘you know, you’re one of my favourite players of all time, because it’s always been about winning and about the team.’  And you know me, I’m the same way, so that’s why I love Tim Duncan.

With this fifth one, he dominates his generation.  He and Kobe would be the greatest winners during this time.  And domination‑wise, he’ll be just as dominant as any big man that’s ever played, and also be a great winner as well.  So it would just increase.  He’s made his teammates better, too.  That’s what I like about him.  He’s in that Bill Russell mould in terms of making their teammates better – doing all the little things.

If you want to compare him, he’s like a Bill Russell in terms of just the sense of being so smart.  He’s so intelligent and I just love him, I love everything about him.

And the Spurs and the NBA, we are all so happy that we have a guy like Tim Duncan, especially in this generation where everything is about me, me, me and about I, and he’s about we and he’s about the team.  He’s not about making sure he gets on SportsCenter, you know (chuckling).  I think that all he does is be a professional.  He’s first‑class and he wins.  That’s all he does is win.

Q.  You’ve won a few championships in your career, five, and you lost a few others.  If LeBron loses this and he’s still two losses way from that happening, how much would it impact his legacy?  He would then be 1‑3 in the NBA Finals.

JOHNSON:  You know, it’s hard to say, because you think about a championship and not getting it done, it may take a little hit but I don’t think overall it’s going to affect him.

I think he has – what, his fourth MVP I think – and I think he still is learning and getting better and better.  I think LeBron, it may take a little hit but I don’t think much.  He can’t do it by himself; everybody else has to carry their weight, too, you know.

And so of course guys like us, we are going to say we expect them to win a championship every single time, but I don’t think you can put all the blame on just LeBron, because Chris has to step up, Dwyane has to step up.

I think what we may see is the end of this big three.  I think that things will change, no matter what happens, things have to change with that team, because everybody has caught up to them now.

So I think that that’s what I see more than his legacy taking a hit.  I just think that teams are not afraid of them.  They have adjusted to the big three. Give credit to the league because now there’s more balance, but very few teams have guys like Kawhi Leonard that can be 6’8’’ just like LeBron, and not too many teams can do what Coach Popovich is doing as well, sending their big man in his path so he can’t get to the basket.  I mean, how many teams can do what San Antonio is doing to not only LeBron, but to the Heat?  Not that many.

Q.  Miami has 48 hours to come back … not to bring up an unpleasant subject, you went through something in ’85 where you had a shocking defeat and only a couple of days to come back against Boston.  How were you guys able to rebound the way you did?

JOHNSON:  First of all, you’re disappointed in the way we performed and we thought our effort wasn’t there.  And then we watched a lot of film and watched how they dominated us, both inside and from the outside.  We just didn’t ‑‑ on defence, we just didn’t guard anybody and we let them do anything they wanted to do.

And so once we came out of those couple days of film sessions and every man had to look themselves in the mirror and say, ‘hey, I didn’t play the way I’m capable of playing and I didn’t bring my best effort – it’s not going to be because of the effort we get beat in the next game.’

So I think Miami has to do the same thing.  Every guy has to look in the mirror and say, ‘hey, I didn’t come and bring the top effort I’m used to bringing and I wasn’t physical enough; I wasn’t aggressive enough’ and so, then make sure that I hone in on the game plan and be sharp, mentally and physically sharp.  That’s all you can do.

Q.  Earlier you mentioned the phrase, the end of the big three, referring to Miami.  Any guess on what Miami might look like next year, how they might shape up?

JOHNSON:  No, not really, I don’t have any guess.  I just think that you can just see the handwriting on the wall.  You’ve got to make some changes with that team.  And you have to realize Derrick Rose is coming back for Chicago and they have cap space and they are probably going to make a move to get better.  Indiana will try to get better, the Knicks will try to get better, because they are not ‑‑ they are right there, they are a player away.  The Nets will try to get better.

So you have teams right on their heels and I think that Miami understands that once they get out of this series, whichever way it goes for them.  And they just have to get better.  Pat Riley is the best in the business and he’ll make changes. I don’t know what they will be, but I’m sure that he will decide what happens.

Q.  If Tim wins another championship and has five, what do you see from Tim Duncan on the court that’s allowed him to be special over the past 16 years, and what about his game would translate back to your era?

JOHNSON:  Well, first, he’s one of the smartest players that have ever played basketball – that’s ever laced them up.  He’s also one of the most competitive guys that have ever played basketball.  And then he has so many offensive moves.  You know, the 15‑foot bank shot, he can go into the middle in the lane with either hand.  He has a nice hook shot.  He can go to the line and knock it down from the free throw line.  He can pass.  He’s one of the best big men in terms of passes that we’ve seen.

I think that Kareem was a great passer and we had the privilege of playing with him.  But he reminds me probably more like Bill Walton when it comes to passing.  So, you know, he stays within himself.  He never gets outside of himself and you never see him off balance; he’s always on balance.

And then just like this year, what I love about Tim, he said, ‘okay, I want to get lighter; I’m getting older. ‘ So he lost, what, I think 30 to 40 pounds, came in lighter this season because he wanted to make sure he was ready personally and he wanted to show the team that he was going to do, what he had to do to prepare himself for a championship run.

So he could play in this era, in my era, because the man is just ‑‑ he’s just a dominant force, and so that’s why he’s my favourite player today, him and LeBron are my two favourites.  But he’s my all‑time favourite, Tim Duncan, because he’s about winning and he’s about making his teammates better.

And he joins that group of guys like Larry and like Michael who would do anything to win; to me, he’s just unbelievable when it comes to winning and the things that he can do to affect the game.

Q.  The state of the Lakers, where you see them now and a year from now?

JOHNSON:  The state now is really just making a decision on Dwight Howard.  I know that the Buss family, Jim Buss, are interested in sitting down and trying to strategize to find out, what do they want to do.  And once they make that decision, then the next thing is Kobe Bryant, his return.  Hopefully he can come back strong and healthy.  And then they have to decide if they want to add somebody or not.

But a year from now, with all the cap space that they will have, I think the Lakers will be able to sign two or three players and I think it puts them right in position to be a great franchise for the next five years if they make the right decisions and the right moves.

So I’m excited about next summer for the Lakers.  I think it’s going to be tremendous.  The Lakers just can’t make dumb decisions right now to mess up that cap space.

Q.  With Dwight Howard moving forward, do you think they are a better team with him involved?

JOHNSON:  I don’t know, it just depends on who you put around him if they decide to sign him.  You have to have some great players around him and then Dwight Howard has to get better.  I’m not happy with this Dwight Howard, but if he gets into the gym and really works on his game and gets some go‑to moves, I think that it will be a wise decision to sign him.

But he has a lot of work to do this summer on his offensive skills.  He’s always been dominant and a great rebounder as well as shot‑blocker.  But he needs to definitely work on his offense.

And we have to remember, the game has changed a lot.  You don’t see too many Dwight Howards anymore.  Now it’s about if you have a good point guard, 2‑guard, a 3‑guard or a power forward like a Gasol and or Chris Bosh who could go inside, outside.

So, the game has changed.  The Lakers just have to make a decision on whether they feel Dwight can be the face of this franchise for the next, what, ten years or so, and they can win championships with him, as well.

Q.  And how do you see Coach D’Antoni fit?  Is he a good fit for this team?

JOHNSON:  You know, I don’t like Coach D’Antoni’s system in terms of him not coaching defence.  I just think that he has to do a better job defensively because no matter what he says, his system is to try to outscore the team, and you can’t outscore people.

Both of these teams in The Finals have proven to us that you’ve got to be great defensively if you’re going to win a championship.  And the Spurs are doing a wonderful job of displaying that.  And the Miami Heat, when they play great defence like they are capable of doing, they can beat anybody; and they are unbeatable when they turn their defence up.

So Coach D’Antoni is going to have to change his approach, because he didn’t win a championship in Phoenix; they were fun to watch, but he didn’t get it done.  He didn’t get it done in New York and he didn’t get it done there.  And he sure didn’t show us that he can get it done with the Lakers yet.

So he has to concentrate on the defensive end, just as much as he emphasizes offense, and then if they sign Dwight Howard back, they are going to have to definitely get on the same page. If he’s going to be the coach and he’s going to be our star player, they have to get on the same page and last season they were not on the same page.

Q.  What do you think of Dwight Howard, what is best for him?

JOHNSON:  I can’t tell you what’s best for him – for Dwight Howard.  I think that he’ll probably make the best decision possible for him.

I would say that he will probably enjoy playing for Kevin McHale, because Coach McHale, not only was he a Hall of Fame player – and I feel with Tim Duncan, the best power forwards that have ever played the game – but you have an emerging superstar and a guy that you can definitely play with James Harden.

And I think that the other young players that they have, Asik and Lin, Parsons, those guys are right there too, with Dwight Howard, will take the next step as being one of the elite teams – one of the best four or five teams in the league and definitely will give themselves a chance to win a championship.

So that’s really where it is.  The Lakers have to decide what they want to do.  Dwight has to decide what he wants to do.

I don’t think you’re going to have enough money for Chris and Dwight.  I think you’re going to have to concentrate on one or the other probably, and I don’t know if they want to play together; if one will decide to take lesser money.  Now, one might decide to take lesser money and join forces there.  But if they both command top dollar, that’s going to be hard for Houston to pull off.

Q.  If you were putting a coach into place and you were trying to talk about team chemistry, keeping Chris Paul happy and Blake Griffin and those guys, who do you see out there that’s the best?  You mentioned Brian Shaw is a great fit for some teams; do you like him or Byron Scott?  How do you see the Clippers?

JOHNSON:  I think that I like both of them.  You know, Brian Shaw is ready to be a head coach in the NBA.  He’s coached under some incredible coaches.  When you think about being under Phil Jackson; you think about, also, Larry Brown and some of the guys ‑‑ and Vogel just recently; that means he’s been with coaches who have won championships and teams that have taken their teams to the playoffs.

Byron has taken the Nets to two back‑to‑back Finals, so you know he can coach and also, he’s from L.A.  He’s worked with Chris Paul already.  So I think you’ve got two great coaches, and Lionel Hollins is unbelievable, too.

So you have some guys out here that would represent L.A., that would represent the Clippers well, and also would have respect in the locker room, and those three guys will have respect of the players.  And also they have won; they have been in big games.  They have been in playoff games, so that’s what you need.

Q.  You mentioned Brian Shaw and Lionel Hollins.  Can you describe what you see in each as a successful head coach, just beyond the fact that they have experience, the things you might know about their strategies and personalities?

JOHNSON:  Well, I think that, you know, Lionel’s personality is that he’s tough. As a player, he’s tough – he was disciplined.  He was a hard‑nosed guy, and he coaches the same way.  And then he understands how to get the best out of each individual player that he coaches but he’s a no‑nonsense guy, and he coaches like that.

So that’s why you have been able to see Memphis be so disciplined; they were physical, so they took on his personality.

And then you’ve got Brian who was totally different from Lionel’s personality.  Brian Shaw’s personality, he’s tough but I think he took on Phil Jackson’s personality where, you know, we’re going to prepare and practice. We are going to get everybody ready.

Brian Shaw, he’s going to befriend the guys, and he’s going to be their friends and he’s going to know what buttons to push with every guy because you can’t coach Chris Paul the same way you coach Blake Griffin.  What I mean by that is you’re going to coach them the same but you’re going to coach to their personality and know who they are and know what buttons you can push with each and every guy because it’s a different button that you have to push with each of the 12 guys and Brian Shaw knows that.

And then I think that the Clippers right now, they need somebody who can push them, and be tough on them and teach them how to be a championship team. I think both guys can do that but they do it in different ways.  And then both of them are always prepared.  I think that’s what you have to be if you’re going to be an NBA coach.

You have to be a coach that’s going to be very prepared each and every night, have the game plan set on offense and defence, and so you can’t go wrong with Brian and you can’t go wrong with Lionel, and Byron Scott is the same way.

Byron reminds me a lot more of Lionel.  Byron is no nonsense, but he really cares about the guys.  Him and Chris Paul had like a big brother/little brother relationship when they were in New Orleans, because Byron takes on Pat Riley’s personality; and it’s always a family atmosphere, but Byron is tough, just like Pat was tough on us, and he’ll bring out the best in every player.  And you can bet he’s going to be prepared.  That’s one thing Byron Scott has always been, as a player and as a coach, he’s always been prepared.

Q.  With players getting old, when do you know it’s time to rebuild the organisation or your game is changing?  How tough is that?  Seeing guys aging and having to change the complexion of the game maybe what Dwyane Wade is going through now, can’t do the things you used to do; how tough is that to deal with?

JOHNSON:  It’s very tough. You’re still thinking you’re the same player and that you can do the same things.  But your body will tell you something’s different.

Danny Ainge has got to make a big decision about what’s going to happen now and also what’s going to happen in the future.  And then the Lakers have got to make decisions, too.

One of the most storied franchises in the NBA and they are at a crossroads of making a decision:  Do you pay Dwight Howard $117 million for the Lakers.  And then for the Celtics, do you bring [Pierce] back and try to make this last run with him and Kevin Garnett.

So I think that with Paul, he’s going into the Hall of Fame, he’s been a great face of the franchise, him and Kevin Garnett together.  I think Danny has got to sit down with them and they have to decide:  Do we make a last stand or do we try to rebuild this thing and get ready for the next five years.

And then also we need to make a decision on Doc Rivers or Doc Rivers has to make a decision, one or the other.  I remember when Pat Riley had to make that same decision a time ago and he decided to go, and I think Doc Rivers is almost in a similar situation.

I remember Coach Riley came to my house and told me he was leaving.  We talked for three hours and that was the toughest moment of my life.  And it will be the same thing if Doc Rivers leaves, it’s the same thing for Kevin Garnett and Paul and all those guys.

Wow, those are three major decisions that Danny Ainge has to make.  I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes right now.

Q.  I was curious about your take with regards to the coaches in the league and obviously I think something like six out of 16 coaches have made it to the postseason are already out, looking for work or have been hired on those other teams; when folks look at teams that have had success and made a change anyway at the coaching position, people look at that one Lakers team.  When you look back at that issue and that time in your career and you see stuff like what you’re hearing and seeing with Chris Paul and the rumours, what is your impression on those things where people look at a player versus a coach or if that’s a fair perception that’s out there?  And also, what do you think about the fact that so many teams are having so much success today but not making it all the way to a title or to The Finals, do you feel like teams are making decisions too quickly on some of these coaches that are having a franchise‑best season with their organisation?

JOHNSON:  He was a college coach – our coach got hurt and he assumed a role as our coach, but unfortunately he wasn’t ready for the job, because he was just out of college and he just wasn’t ready.  He just didn’t know how to coach. So we can’t compare that with what has happened today.

Today, it’s disappointing that Lionel Hollins takes his team to the Western Conference Finals and they are going to go in another direction.  You can’t get better than Lionel Hollins, and you can’t get better with what you have; just a tremendous season.  Do I like what’s going on today?  No.

Q.  So if you’re the Denver Nuggets with a young point guard, a really young roster, who is your coach?

JOHNSON:  Wow, if I’m Denver ‑‑ I think Denver has to go with a guy, to me, that’s won.  Because I think that Byron Scott goes well with them.  He’s won a championship and he’s already had Jason Kidd and he’s already had Chris Paul.

So he knows how to coach point guards, and you have Ty Lawson sitting there, and he knows how to deal with that.  I think you have to go with guys who have won championships and that can command respect of not just the players –

but also the fans will say, that’s a good move, because those guys have won, especially when you come and follow a guy like George Karl. That’s a big personality, so you have to bring in a winner to me.

Q.  Wanted to ask you about the Knicks.  Just like every other team that’s sitting at home, they want to be playing right now.  Given the way their roster is constructed, how close or how far off do you think they are from reaching The Finals and what do you think they need to do to get there?

JOHNSON:  Well, you know, it’s funny how you can be oh, so, close but yet so far.  I think that the two teams that they can’t beat are still going to be good again next year, and that’s Miami and Indiana.  Then Derrick Rose comes back for the Bulls.  So I see those three teams better than the Knicks.  So right now, they are sitting No. 4, to me, if Derrick Rose comes back as Derrick Rose.

So defensively, I think, you know, they are there.  They are sound, even though they can get better.  Offensively, they are a challenged basketball team when it comes to beating those three teams, because you’re asking one guy to do too much and then you have another guy in J.R. who is too inconsistent, so you don’t know what you’re going to get game‑to‑game.

I think that you have to add another guy that can score, because you’re sitting there saying, okay, Melo carried us, but in a seven‑games series, he’s going to probably have two or three bad games, so what’s going to happen when that happens?  You need another guy that you can count on that can get you points and then you can live with J.R. being inconsistent, because you know you are going to get scoring from other guys.

Q.  Do you think Amar’e Stoudemire could be that guy or is he too far gone?

JOHNSON:  No, no, his health won’t allow him to play.  We’ve already seen – Amar’e can’t play.  He hasn’t played, in, what, two seasons, a regular, long, 82‑game season and then into the playoffs, so you can’t count on Amar’e.

And as much as he says he’s going to be there and as much as he wants to be there ‑‑ because I know he wants to contribute and that’s his mind‑set – no, he can’t physically do it.  It’s not about skill‑set, it’s about physically, he can’t do it.

So you have to look for somebody else to do that.  And unfortunately for Steve Novak, those two teams are not going to leave him open.  The other teams will (chuckling) but those three teams that I’m talking about, they won’t allow him to be open, so he can’t beat you unless he’s wide open.  Shumpert, who I really love, you need his defensive presence and his athletic ability – don’t trade him, he’s a stud.  Because you’re going to have to see LeBron, you’re going to have to see Rose and you’re going to have to see guys who are tough – the Pacers, Paul George – to go against all these incredible great twos and threes at point guards that we have in the league today.  So you’ve got to keep him.

And I think who has to improve, too – Tyson – is going to have to give you a little bit more offense.  He gives you everything else, but he might have to go into the gym this summer and work some more. Say ‘what can I do offensively to help our team out?’

But you have experience, and you have savvy veterans, but now you have to improve the bench, too.  You have to really improve the bench.  If Copeland is your guy, pay him and bring him back, but also, too, now you might have to get a little younger [rather] than getting a little older (laughs) at some of those key role spots on the bench, if you can make those type of moves.  So probably that draft pick is going to be somebody hopefully that can come in and play for you.

But I would say they are, oh, so close, but, oh, so far. Do they have enough cap space to make a move; or is there a trade there that they can make? But I like what I see in the Knicks and I like that the fans are back and they have New York excited about NBA basketball and about the Knicks once again, and so just build on that.

Catch Game 4 of the NBA Finals tonight from 1.30am on ESPN.

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