Blueprint for Jim Buss to Get Los Angeles Lakers Back on Track
Whenever Phil Jackson's in the news, the Buss family drama is sure to follow.
Like clockwork, news of the Zen Master tending a new Garden in mid-town Manhattan brought with it renewed reports of infighting between Los Angeles Lakers owners/rival siblings Jim and Jeanie Buss (courtesy of Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding), along with plenty of (embarrassing) public proclamations on the subject from Kobe Bryant and Magic Johnson. And yet, even with the outcry from folks in, around and outside of the Lakers organization to bring Phil back into the fold, the powers that be didn't make any last-ditch attempts to keep Jackson in southern California, per ESPN's Ramona Shelburne and Chris Broussard.
Now that Jackson's all but signed, sealed and delivered to the New York Knicks' front office, the task for the Lakers' existing brain trust is the same as it's always been: figure out how best to restore the sheen and shine to the Purple and Gold.
Ironically, Jim's job won't be all that different from Phil's. As the case will likely be with Jackson, Buss will have to juggle matters from all angles, basketball and otherwise, to undo the damage wrought by a disastrous stretch and move the franchise forward with a unified front, just as the late Dr. Jerry Buss would've wanted.
With Jackson's to-do list already tackled, let's look at what lies ahead for Buss as he attempts to put his decade of experience as his father's understudy and Mitch Kupchak's cooperative to good use.
Mend Fences with Jeanie...
For every pro sports franchise, including those in the NBA, success starts at the top. Winning a championship takes much more than good, sound ownership, but without that all-important foundation, everything else crumbles.
To that end, Kobe Bryant didn't overstep his bounds entirely when, during a press conference to announce that he'd be shut down for the rest of the 2013-14 season, he implored the "Big Kahunas" of the Buss family to clear the air.
"You've got to start with Jim," Bryant said. "You've got to start with Jim and Jeanie (Buss), and how that relationship plays out. It starts there, and having clear direction and clear authority."
The Mamba's right: the team can't move forward unless/until its owners are on the same page.
Whether they'll ever get there depends on who you ask. To some, including B/R's Kevin Ding, the conflict between the most powerful of Dr. Buss' kin is nigh on intractable.
Make no mistake, they have regular meetings gathering all six Buss children for the family trust in charge of the Lakers, but Jeanie and Jim aren't much closer than when they weren't speaking before their father's death. Even though they're trying to work through it, the end game remains more likely to be one in and one out.
Truth be told, this isn't really about Jim Buss. It's about Dr. Buss giving Jim personnel power. Jim is doing what his dad wanted him to do. Jim Buss isn't going to give up control of the team a year after his dad died and trusted him to make personnel decisions moving forward. Dr. Buss groomed Jim to run personnel for 15 years & groomed Jeanie to run business longer than that. That was always his plan for the team.
If that is, indeed, the case, it'll be incumbent upon Jim to make nice with Jeanie, especially in light of his past conflicts with her fiancee (Phil Jackson), so that he can go about his business on the basketball side of the operation without concern that L.A.'s house of cards might come tumbling down from on high.
The fact Kobe Bryant felt the need to call out Jim so publicly doesn't bode well for the relationship between owner/executive and franchise face, either.
Bryant has expressed frustration with Buss' notoriously reclusive ways before. Most recently, he took to Twitter to vent about Steve Blake's departure just prior to the Feb. 20 trade deadline, in part because Bryant wasn't in the loop when the deal went down. "I just want to get a phone call before somebody gets traded," Bryant told the attendant media on Thursday (via ESPNLosAngeles.com's Dave McMenamin). "Let's start there first."
Which is what Jim should do—not because Bryant deserves any input in personnel decisions, but if a courtesy call is what (or all) it takes to placate the player who's most responsible for filling the seats at Staples Center every night, then that's what Buss should offer.
Simply put, the Lakers will have a tough time turning things around on the court if their resident superstar isn't happy off of it. Buss must be sure that Bryant is committed to the cause, whether he's completely on board with every move the front office makes.
Otherwise, the Lakers will risk a dissolution of their locker room. After all, if Bryant isn't buying what management is selling (the coach included, per The Sporting News' Sean Deveney), why should anyone else?
Step out in Public from Time to Time
Nobody should expect Jim to establish such a clear and open line of communication with the public. He's never been as comfortable with the spotlight as his father once was, and even the late Dr. Buss wasn't prone to chatting up fans and media folks like some of today's younger, more vocal owners (see: Cuban, Mark).
But that doesn't mean Jim should hide in the shadows, protected by his own cone of silence, like he usually is. In years past, Buss' reluctance to confront issues, both rumored and true, has left him behind the proverbial eight-ball, with an even bigger PR mess to clean up than he otherwise would've had.
In a Feb. 2012 expose of the Lakers' front-office dysfunction, CBS Sports' Ken Berger introduced the world to Charles "Chaz" Osbourne, a member of the team's pared-down scouting department who was supposedly better known for being a "nice guy" and a solid mixologist than for anything he'd done in the basketball world. Veteran scribe Roland Lazenby subsequently attempted to set the record straight on Chaz in a piece for HoopsHype, albeit with plenty more jabs at Buss mixed in.
Not until he sat down for a two-part Q & A with ESPNLosAngeles.com's Dave McMenamin two months later did Buss finally speak to that less-than-flattering innuendo, along with a host of other topics. This isn't to suggest that Buss should address every last morsel that runs through the Lakers' rumor mill; if that were the case, Buss would hardly have time to fulfill his duties as one half of the team's basketball brain trust.
Still, as part owner of the NBA's glamour franchise, Buss can't afford to let everyone else do the talking for him. As savvy as Lakers fans may be, they won't settle for their team struggling for an extended period of time without an explanation of some sort from the head honchos.
And if Jim doesn't step up in that regard, he'd essentially be allowing Jeanie and Mitch to set the agenda—and giving the fans further freedom to blame him for the team's miscues, fairly or unfairly.
Figure out the Coaching Situation
Speaking of which, Jim has long insisted that the Lakers' recent coaching decisions, good and bad, haven't all been solely his handiwork.
Two years ago, he claimed Rudy Tomjanovich and Mike Brown were brought in to succeed Phil Jackson—in 2004 and 2011, respectively—not because Jim wanted them (which he might've), but rather because those were the consensus choices at which he, Kupchak and the late Dr. Buss arrived.
As Buss told ESPNLosAngeles.com's Ramona Shelburne last September, Mike D'Antoni's arrival came about in similar fashion, with Jerry ultimately choosing the Lakers' current coach over a third stint for Phil Jackson.
"We did the coaching search and interviews and fed him all the information," Buss recounted. "And he said, 'This is who I want. D'Antoni's the man.' Knowing that in the future we had to rebuild, he felt that Phil was not a guy to rebuild. It's not fair to him. It was actually more of a respectful thought towards Phil."
Phil's not around anymore, and neither is Dr. Buss, who succumbed to cancer in Jan. of 2013. From now on, Jim will be no less than 50-percent responsible/at fault for any major changes made to the coaching staff.
And, really, as the owner, that choice will ultimately be Buss' to make.
He may have one on his hands after this season if D'Antoni's future with the team is, indeed, in doubt. According to The Sporting News' Sean Deveney, Bryant has "no interest" in playing for D'Antoni next season. It's safe to assume that Pau Gasol doesn't, either, given his near-constant clashes with the coach since he came to L.A. in Nov. of 2012.
It'll be up to Buss, though, to decide whether the Lakers go about their rebuild with a coach in D'Antoni who, for all of his offensive expertise and ability to empower role players, is infamous for his inability to teach defense and manage egos. Even if Buss determines that D'Antoni isn't the best fit for the future, he may be hesitant to fire him, what with D'Antoni's contract guaranteed for 2014-15 and the remainder of Mike Brown's deal still siphoning off money from the Buss family bank account.
Either way, the call will be Jim's to make, albeit with plenty of input from other members of the organization.
Nail L.A.'s First-Round Pick in the 2014 NBA Draft
If there's any area in which Jim's track record is no worse than respectable, it's in making picks in the NBA draft. Buss famously lobbied for the Lakers to add a 17-year-old Andrew Bynum with the 10th pick in the 2005 draft.
Say what you will about Bynum's injury history, his attitude or his subsequent letdowns in Philadelphia and Cleveland, but the mercurial big man played a pivotal part on two title-winners. At the very least, Bynum's had a bigger impact on the league than anyone taken after him that year, including Danny Granger (17th) and David Lee (30th).
That was the last time the Lakers landed in the lottery, as they will this year. At this point, L.A.'s pick in 2014 should be much juicier than the one it spent nearly a decade ago, "thanks" to a season record that ranks among the five worst in the NBA.
Likewise, this pick will be far more important to the Lakers' long-term future than that one was. Whereas Bynum became merely the biggest (and most perplexing) member of Kobe Bryant's supporting cast, whoever the front office adds this June will be tasked with not only maximizing the Mamba's twilight years, but carrying the purple-and-gold mantle once Bryant calls it quits, whenever that may be.
Will that responsibility fall to a wing, like Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins? Will Jim once again opt for a relatively unknown teenager in Australian sensation Dante Exum, who's preparing for the draft in L.A. and has enlisted the services of Kobe's agent? Might Buss lean toward another big man with tremendous upside should the Lakers be in position to pick Joel Embiid?
It'll be up to Jim—and Mitch—to answer those and other questions in the lead-up to June 26.
Who Stays? Who Goes?
Less than a week later, the Lakers will be faced with an unusually busy free-agent season. Only three current Lakers—Kobe, Steve Nash and Robert Sacre—are guaranteed to be on the roster in 2014-15, with Nick Young, Kent Bazemore, Kendall Marshall and rookie Ryan Kelly all eligible for various options and offers.
But before Buss and Kupchak go out hunting for new players, they'll have to determine which of their current ones they want to keep around. Bazemore has made it known he wants to be a Laker next season. So, too, has Wesley Johnson. As Bleacher Report's Ric Bucher recently noted, Gasol could return, despite the apparent friction between the slender Spaniard and the franchise for which he's suited up since Feb. of 2008.
The question is, do the Lakers want to build around any of these guys? Do they want to use their cap space on players who were complicit in what figures to finish up as the team's worst season since leaving Minneapolis in 1960?
And, if so, which ones? Gasol could serve as a placeholder until 2015. Jordan Farmar has shown flashes of being a far more complete player now than he was during his first stint as a Laker, albeit between hamstring injuries. Marshall has been surprisingly productive as both a passer (9.4 assists) and a shooter (.431 from three). Bazemore, Young, Johnson and Xavier Henry could all be worthwhile wing scorers off the bench. Kelly, with his size and shooting ability, could develop into a destitute man's Dirk Nowitzki.
These guys might all need changes of scenery if they've been too deeply tainted by this season's losing and the poor habits that've attended it. Then again, they could all return on the cheap and take part in a quick turnaround, depending on whether Buss wants them back.
Explore Free Agency This Summer
Who Buss and Kupchak decide to retain may well determine their outlook on free agency, and vice versa.
The Lakers could go after Carmelo Anthony—for the purpose of whose retention the Knicks hired Jackson, by the way—if the superstar scorer opts out of the final year of his deal this summer. Anthony and Bryant have been known to be buddy-buddy, and if Kobe has pull enough within the organization to demand another elite talent in support of a quick return to contention, the Lakers could, with some clever cap management, clear the way for 'Melo.
That doesn't figure to be the road down which the Lakers will travel—not yet, anyway. As Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding recently noted, the Lakers aren't likely to splurge on big-time free agents in July.
Unless, of course, LeBron James decides to take his talents elsewhere once again.
Barring that, the Lakers will likely look to once again fill their roster with cheap, short-term signees, just as they did last summer and the Dallas Mavericks did before that, in anticipation of a more substantial foray into free agency in 2015. If the front office is compelled to add a player of greater consequence, it'll have the flexibility to bid for some mid-tier options, both restricted (Eric Bledsoe, Gordon Hayward, Greg Monroe) and unrestricted (Luol Deng, Lance Stephenson), who could be key cogs on a championship-caliber club to be assembled later.
Save Room for 2015...and Beyond
If the Lakers don't put all their eggs in this summer's free-agent basket, they should have cap space enough to have their pick of a loaded litter in 2015—one that's likely to feature Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, Rajon Rondo and Marc Gasol, among others, and could include the Miami Heat's Big 3. That way, L.A. could approach the 2015-16 season with a championship-caliber core comprised of a soon-to-retire Bryant, a developing youngster plucked out of this year's draft and a star in his prime to be named later.
Such an approach will require a measure of patience up with which certain members of the organization won't put.
And by "certain members," I'm referring, of course, to Kobe. "Oh yeah, let's just play next year and let's just suck again," Bryant quipped sarcastically on Thursday (via ESPNLosAngeles.com's Dave McMenamin). "No. Absolutely not. Absolutely not. It's my job to go out there on the court and perform. No excuses for it. Right? You got to get things done. It's the same thing with the front office. The same expectations they have of me when I perform on the court is the same expectations I have for them up there. You got to be able to figure out a way to do both."
The Lakers might be able to do just that if they play their cards wisely—maybe not compete for a title right away, but at least return to the playoffs in 2015 and compete for a championship shortly thereafter.
Patience, though, isn't exactly a purple-and-gold specialty. The Lakers had only missed the playoffs five times in their entire existence prior to this season. Competing for championships is simply what they do.
Will the upper management kowtow to pressure from constituents both within and outside of the organization and go all-in on a more substantial bounceback in 2014-15? Or will the team bide its time a bit in order to build up a sturdier foundation that can challenge for titles as frequently as it did for most of Bryant's tenure?
That, like every other basketball decision to be made by the Lakers from here on out, will depend on Jim Buss.
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