Infighting has always been a part of the Los Angeles Lakers' makeup. But while Dr. Jerry Buss was around, everyone knew that the internal strife would never represent more than a speed bump on the road to perennial championship contention.
Even when things got particularly bad—like they did when the rift between Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal forced a franchise reconfiguration a decade ago—Buss steered the Lakers through a couple of stormy years and back onto a title track.
Now, Dr. Buss is gone. And the Lakers' stability went with him.
In its place, Jim and Jeanie Buss—the two heirs to the Laker throne with the most control over the team's day-to-day affairs—are acting like, well...a pair of bickering siblings.
Signs of organizational fracture started last year, when the Lakers fired Mike Brown just five games into the season. Under the late Dr. Buss, L.A. had always made bold decisions, but they were rarely so rash as the one that resulted in a pink slip for Brown.
The knee-jerk move belied a sense of panic in the front office, proving once and for all that the steady hand was no longer on the wheel.
As we learned soon afterward, there were actually multiple hands vying for control of that wheel. The result has been a back-and-forth tug-of-war that has the Lakers swerving all over the place.
Most attribute Brown's firing to Jim Buss, who took control of player personnel when his father became too ill to oversee that aspect of the franchise. It's hard to know if there was much disagreement on that move; the mechanics of Brown's firing have been one of the few topics on which the Lakers have remained relatively silent.
But evidence of the team's wayward leadership became obvious from the moment L.A. began its search for Brown's replacement.
"We want Phil" chants rained down from the Staples Center rafters as L.A. hunted for a new head coach. Instead of quashing rumors that Phil Jackson would return to save the day, the Lakers allowed hope to blossom. That turned out to be a massive tactical mistake when Mike D'Antoni won the job in a surprising turnabout that left Laker Nation disappointed, confused and, for the first time in a long while, legitimately unsure about the team's direction.
Dwight Howard was supposed to be the cornerstone of the Lakers' future. D'Antoni had never shown any aptitude or desire for coaching conventional big men like D12, so where was the logic in hiring him?
The decision to install D'Antoni wasn't just problematic from a basketball standpoint, either. It also wound up being the best example of the ongoing power struggle between Jim and Jeanie Buss.
According to an updated version of Jeanie's book, Laker Girl, excerpted by the Los Angeles Times, the way Jim dangled the job in front of Jackson only to pull it away at—almost literally—the 11th hour was difficult for her to handle:
The sequence of events—Phil almost coming back and then being told someone else was better for the job—practically destroyed me. It almost took away my passion for this job and this game. It felt like I had been stabbed in the back. It was a betrayal. I was devastated.
I felt that I got played. Why did they have to do that? Why did Jim pull Phil back into the mix if he wasn't sincere about it? . . .
Phil wasn't looking for the job, and then he wasted 36 hours of his life preparing for it when they were never in a million years going to hire him anyway.
How do you do that to your sister? How do you do that to Phil Jackson?
Jim's take on the Jackson fiasco is decidedly different, at least in terms of motivation. He described the process of hiring D'Antoni to ESPN's Ramona Shelburne as follows:
"My dad said, 'You know what? D'Antoni's the guy. I've always liked him. Showtime. I think it will be fun basketball as we make the transition [from the Kobe Bryant era],' " Jim said.
He said his father also told them to hire D'Antoni quickly.
"He said, 'Do it by Sunday night,' " Buss said. "He wanted to get it done before the weekend was over."
It's impossible to know which Buss offspring to believe in this scenario. Maybe Jim really did run the decision up the ladder to his father. Or perhaps he's hiding behind his dad as a way to avoid criticism for his mishandling of the Jackson situation.
But here's the thing: It' doesn't matter who's right.
The point is that the Lakers are suffering from a crisis of leadership brought about by two rival siblings who can't figure out how to keep their departed father's empire running.
I've been using a steering wheel as a metaphor for the situation so far, but perhaps Bill Reiter of Fox Sports has a better way to describe it. He talked about Dr. Buss' singular aptitude for building a winner, then wondered whether that special skill made it down the genetic line:
But none of that guarantees that what he poured into his franchise he would ever be able to force into his descendants, a cold and hard fact of American society that has always been true: The Great Ones can change the world and impose their will on their own walk of life and, sometimes, history, but almost never on their own families.
That, in the end, comes only after they are gone.
History is littered with monarchies that faced this very fact.
The Lakers are a fallen monarchy. Once sustained by a capable, benevolent leader, they're now subject to warring factions led by power-hungry heirs.
Both are battling it out publicly, sniping back and forth while simultaneously acting like victims. Jeanie has unabashedly played that ugly card with the latest snippets from her book. It's hard to believe she's so concerned with the future of the Lakers when she's willing to exacerbate the front office's internal struggles by airing them publicly.
In some sense, she shouldn't have the right to complain about the divided state of the franchise when she's partially responsible for the public knowledge that there's a division in the first place.
Worst of all, the discord at the top is emblematic of the uncertainty surrounding the roster.
The Lakers are in limbo, faced with the unenviable task of staying loyal to Kobe Bryant while simultaneously trying to position themselves to rebuild the team through the 2014 free-agent market. The front-office mess not only complicates an already difficult situation with the roster right now, it might also make it hard to lure big names in the future.
Marquee free agents might be wary of signing on with a Lakers franchise that doesn't seem to have a clear leader. And with the Los Angeles Clippers suddenly becoming a real destination for high-end free agents (coaches included), players who merely want to get into the L.A. market now have an alternative.
For what it's worth, the Buss siblings are at least trying to present a united front in the aftermath of Jeanie's book excerpts making the media rounds.
According to Mark Medina of InsideSoCal.com, both Jeanie and Jim have released statements saying they're on the same page and that the year-old division described in the book no longer exists today.
Maybe that's true. Maybe they've discussed their differences and arrived on some common ground. Or, maybe they're just trying to control the damage as best they can, and we'll see continued disputes as L.A. embarks on what's sure to be an extremely difficult 2013-14 season.
It's hard to avoid the feeling that the Lakers would be in a much different position if Dr. Buss were still around. And even if he were still alive to preside over the current state of things, there would be confidence among fans that the good doctor would lead the franchise out of this mess just like he always did.
There would be a sense that things would somehow work out for the best, that there was a coherent plan.
Torn up by sibling rivalry and facing a rash of impossible decisions, the Lakers' current "plan" is impossible to decipher. This organization needs a doctor in more ways than one.
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