LA Lakers' Biggest Obstacle in Uncertain Season Is Bringing Buss Family Together
Success starts at the top.
That holds true for most, if not all, enterprises in life, particularly those at the intersection between business and sports. To be successful, an organization must have competent, visionary leadership at the helm that can set a tone for everyone else in the chain of command to follow.
That's what the late Dr. Jerry Buss did as owner of the Los Angeles Lakers for more than three decades. He didn't handle all of the logistics on his own, be they on the business side or the basketball side, but his confidence making the final decision reassured and reinforced those whose hard work had led to that pivot point.
With Dr. Buss gone, the Lakers remain in search of someone (or someones) to serve as that rock, that backstop to protect the franchise and embolden everyone within it to go about the work of winning.
The sooner, the better. The 2013-14 NBA season has "potential disaster" written all over it for the Purple and Gold.
Between Kobe Bryant's recovery from a torn Achilles, the aged fragility of Pau Gasol and Steve Nash, the "replacement" of Dwight Howard with Chris Kaman and of Metta World Peace with Wesley Johnson and Nick Young, and Mike D'Antoni's derriere dangling near the hot seat, this year's Lakers squad could very well devolve into a powder keg of chaos and futility by season's end.
That makes the task of settling and solidifying the team's new hierarchy in a timely manner all the more pressing. In theory, Jeanie and Jim Buss are supposed to split those duties. Jeanie is in charge of the business side of things, while Jim oversees the team's basketball operations.
As Jeanie recounts in an excerpt from the re-release of her book Laker Girl (via The Los Angeles Times):
My dad made it clear to the entire family that he put me in charge of the team's business operations and my brother was in charge of the basketball decisions. He wanted that structure in place to carry us forward when he was no longer running the show.
But when your business is basketball, divvying up responsibilities this way isn't quite so simple. Jeanie has to prepare for the off-court repercussions of Jim's decisions. Likewise, Jim has to ensure that his choices make "dollars and sense" to Jeanie.
Moreover, stepping in for someone as irreplaceable as Dr. Buss, with his impeccable charm and legendary leadership, is no easy task, even (and especially) if it's one shared by his own kin. As Kobe Bryant told Ric Bucher for a piece in The Hollywood Reporter:
The shoes they're stepping into are so huge and epic. It's on the next generation in line to figure out what their leadership style is going to be and to do it their own way.
So far, settling on that style has been anything but simple. Communication, as is so often said, is the key to any successful relationship, but it hasn't been so clear between the Buss siblings thus far. To hear Jeanie put it, the problem lies closer to her brother's side of the ledger:
I would be more comfortable if I understood what the decision process was, and I'm not always involved in it. To be held accountable by the league and not have a seat at the table when decisions are made is hard.
This isn't a new state of affairs, though. Jeanie and Jim's communication issues evidently predate their father's death. In the updated version of Laker Girl, Jeanie recalls how the nixing of the Chris Paul trade happened and what could've been done to ensure that the deal went through. As she writes (via ESPN):
While this meeting was going on, negotiations of a different sort were also nearing completion. After several days of talks, the Lakers were close to consummating a trade with the Hornets. I wasn't part of that negotiation.
I had not even heard about it. I was locked in this meeting with the season hanging in the balance...
The Lakers and the Hornets, the two main teams in the deal, were the only organizations that could have made a trade at that moment. On all the other teams, the owners -- those who had to sign off on any deal -- were in the same room, zeroed in on ratifying the new labor agreement. Because of that, everything else was frozen...
Perhaps the league should have put a moratorium on trades during those crucial hours.
While I was in that meeting, neither my father nor my brother was present. They were back in L.A., free to deal with New Orleans...
...I believe that if we could have delayed the trade for 24 or 48 hours, perhaps (the other owners') heads wouldn't have exploded. It was just that they felt no other teams had a fair chance to acquire Paul.
Jim seemed to learn his lesson (somewhat) by the time the team decided to move Lamar Odom to the Dallas Mavericks. Odom was distraught by the thought of having nearly been traded to the New Orleans Hornets as part of the CP3 transaction, so much so that he asked out. The Lakers obliged, though Jim did little to keep Jeanie in the loop:
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
I found out when my brother sent me the following text: "Traded Odom to Dallas for first-round pick. I think it might make it easier to make a big trade. Will keep you posted. Have a good night."
As Jeanie notes, this courtesy was more than anything afforded Mike Brown, who was the coach of the frickin' team at the time and only found out about Odom's departure at practice the next day.
The occasion of Brown's firing, just five games into the 2012-13 season, brought the discord among familial management back to the fore. For Jeanie, her brother's decision to hire Mike D'Antoni over Phil Jackson was intensely personal. After all, Phil was (and still is) Jeanie's fiance. As such, Jeanie didn't take kindly to the notion of her future hubby getting jerked around by her own blood (via The LA Times):
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?
When asked publicly about choosing D'Antoni over Phil, Jim has taken to passing the buck onto his late father, as he did while speaking with The Hollywood Reporter:
Mitch and I interviewed Phil together and then reported back to my dad at the hospital for hours upon hours. He gave the final hammer; we just enforced it.
Not everyone saw the events as having unfolded that way. As one source told Ric Bucher:
The Lakers went into that week prepared to offer the job to Phil. Dr. Buss may have rubber-stamped [the D'Antoni hiring], but he clearly wasn't at the helm. If he had been healthy and involved, that never would've happened."
More importantly, Jeanie didn't buy what Jim was selling (via The LA Times):
The story going around is that my dad pushed for D'Antoni because he wanted to go back to playing Showtime basketball. But there was only one Showtime, never to be replicated. My dad knew that.
I know my father would back my brother in whatever decision Jim wanted to make. That was exactly how my dad was with the decisions I had to make in regard to business matters.
Clearly, there's something amiss between the two Busses-in-charge, though the fact that they've had (and continue to have) their druthers isn't surprising. Simply put, they're very different people who go about their business in different ways.
Jim works from home, while Jeanie prefers to operate from her dad's old office at the Lakers' practice facility in El Segundo. Jim dresses like his dad once did, while Jeanie shows up to work in a suit.
Perhaps it's only natural then that they'd have trouble getting on the same page and staying there. What's important now is that the Busses find a way to counteract this quandary, for their own sake as siblings as well as for the sake of the franchise that they own together.
A unity of vision is absolutely crucial for moving forward, according to Pat Riley, the Miami Heat's current mastermind and a legend as the Lakers coach during the Showtime era (via The Hollywood Reporter):
The one thing we had when I was there was one singular voice. We had Dr. Buss, [GM] Jerry West and Pat Riley parroting the same thing. When you have three men on the same page talking to Kareem or Magic Johnson, that's powerful. The single voice is so important.
The Busses had better find that single voice as soon as possible. They could, among other things, have the mess of a subpar season to explain to a fanbase that's not accustomed to losing.
Once the campaign has come and gone, the Lakers brass will need to present an airtight front to the rest of the league in time for the opening of free agency on July 1, 2014. That period could be a pivotal one for the franchise, should a number of the NBA's biggest stars (i.e. LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Zach Randolph, Rudy Gay) opt to enter the market.
If the Lakers don't have their act together by then, they may well miss out on landing a superstar to both sop up their gobs of cap space and lead the franchise into the future once Kobe calls it quits. And if that falls through, it'll be up to Jim and Jeanie to devise an alternative plan with which everyone in the organization can and will get on board.
At the very least, it's imperative that the Busses settle their sibling rivalry in order to bring back an aging Bryant, whose contract expires at the end of this season, at a significant discount.
Which Buss-in-charge do you trust more?
Whatever the Busses decide to do, they must do it together. There can be no more sniping, no more discussions held in secret, no more of this scarce correspondence between the two leaders of the NBA's most glamorous clan.
The Lakers' margin for error grows thinner and thinner with each passing year. In a league that's increasingly governed by savvy owners and whip-smart management under a financial framework intended to level the playing field between the haves and have-nots, the Lakers cannot afford to fall further behind the field, lest they lapse into mediocrity for the foreseeable future.
Hence, now more than ever, the Lakers' hopes are riding not on advanced analytics, careful coaching strategy or the health of their star players (though these factors are all of vital importance in the immediate future), but rather on a single relationship, the nature of which is as old as time itself.
As Jeanie adds in the latest version of her memoir (via The LA Times):
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Despite my brother's desire to open up the channels of communication between us, we still rarely if ever discuss basketball. That should be okay because my dad was confident the franchise could be run that way. But I want my brother to realize that I'm not the enemy.
That's all going to have to change (and soon) if the Lakers are to re-establish a steady chain of command at the top and enjoy anew the fruits borne of the sort of success with which this franchise and its stewards are intimately familiar.
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