Is Jim Buss the Los Angeles Lakers' Biggest Problem?

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Is Jim Buss the Los Angeles Lakers' Biggest Problem?
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

On all counts of not being Dr. Jerry Buss, Jim Buss is unequivocally guilty.

As for everything else, well, is there anything else?

Blame is being freely dispersed amid one of the worst seasons in Los Angeles Lakers history. Head coach Mike D'Antoni is upbraided daily and the team's roster is a walking punchline, oft-criticized for fits of selfish, me-first, I'm-playing-for-my-next-contract basketball.

Perched above players and coaches on the culpability plinth is executive vice president of player personnel Jim Buss. More than anyone else, he's held responsible for turning his father's beloved organization into a dysfunctional snake pit.

None of what is happening now would have transpired under Los Angeles' erstwhile patriarch. Los Angeles wouldn't be wallowing near the bottom of the standings, contending for a top-five lottery pick if Dr. Buss were still alive. He wouldn't have allowed Phil Jackson to be whisked away by the New York Knicks. Things would be different if he were in charge or even involved.

This is all Jim Buss' fault.

Even Kobe Bryant, the injured 35-year-old slated to earn nearly $50 million over the next two seasons, has been quick to point fingers at Buss.

"You got to start with Jim," Bryant told reporters, via NBA.com's Jeff Caplan. "You got to start with Jim and Jeanie [Buss] and how that relationship plays out. It starts there and having a clear direction and clear authority."

Although Jeanie—Jackson's fiancee and Jim's sister—crept her way into Bryant's hawkish rant, it started with Jim. He was mentioned first. He is the problem.

Unless he isn't.

Harry How/Getty Images
Jim Buss is not his father.

Desperate times call for a number of things. Chief among them all is a scapegoat, someone to hold directly accountable for everything that's wrong. In Lakerland, where championship climates are common practice and the direction has been fleckless for decades, the need to cast blame is dire, more so than it is anywhere else.

There's nothing wrong with that thinking. The Lakers are held to a different standard because they're supposed to be. The expectations are by design, deliberately crafted through 11 NBA championships in the last four decades and change.

In the face of this season, those expectations have been used as an ax to chop down Buss, who is viewed more like someone who was born on third base and thought he hit a triple than he is a protege of his father.

But that perception isn't fair. The Lakers are not where they are because of Buss alone. If anything, they're enduring today and tomorrow because of an unlucky yesterday.

It wasn't long ago that the Lakers were being blissfully trumpeted for their acquisitions of the superhuman Dwight Howard and timeless Steve Nash. Did people have a problem with the Lakers' business model then, when they were shamelessly wondering if Los Angeles could crack 70 victories?

Those additions proved to be detrimental. Howard is now contending for a championship with the Houston Rockets and Steve Nash is fighting for his career. But no one—not general manager Mitch Kupchak, not Buss, not the most accurate crystal-ball gazer—could have seen the ensuing events coming. Not to this degree.

Ron Turenne/Getty Images

Condemning Buss for D'Antoni's hire is equally silly. Passing on the great Phil Jackson seems insane—especially now—but the Zen Master himself indicated it was the late Dr. Buss who made the final decision.

"When I left (the interview), Jimmy was pretty happy about it and Mitch was still saying, 'We're going to keep interviewing people,'" Jackson explained to USA Today's Sam Amick, "and I think the ultimate (decision) kind of rested with Dr. Buss and he made the decision in the hospital the day after."

"What's Jim's excuse now?" you may ask. "Why is Jackson in New York and not involved with the Lakers' front office?"

Well, according to ESPN's Ramona Shelburne, Dr. Buss could be behind that, too:

It meant something to him that he'd made his children earn the roles he left to them. It meant something to him to leave the Lakers to them. All six of them.

If he'd wanted to involve Johnson or West or Jackson, he would've. Which is why down to the very last moment, even as influential courtesans and fans lobbied her to stage a coup, Jeanie Buss stayed silent and remained loyal to her father's wishes. She believes that's what he wanted. And she believes in supporting her brother Jim and general manager Mitch Kupchak no matter what, even if it means her fiancée is destined to leave and live in another city.

Jackson isn't in Los Angeles coaching or consulting for reasons that go beyond whatever petty beef he may or may not have with Buss. His absence goes beyond whatever ego Buss may or may not have, as well.

And so do Los Angeles' struggles.

Too many things have gone wrong for blame to be placed upon one man, for it all to fall on Buss. The Lakers' demise is the culmination of natural regression, bad luck and yes, poor business decisions.

One of those decision's includes Bryant's latest contract extension, which was willingly handed to him without any significant back and forth.

"This wasn't a negotiation," Bryant told Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski in November. "The Lakers made their offer with cap and building a great team in mind while still taking care of me as a player. I simply agreed to the offer."

Handing almost $50 million to a 35-year-old shooting guard who had yet to return from a ruptured Achilles was risky. Now, after Bryant's latest bout with mortality, it seems stupid. And to an extent, it is Buss' fault.

But it's not only his fault. This is on everyone.

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Fingers can be pointed at any number of people in Los Angeles.

If Bryant wants to play with more superstars, it's his fault for not offering to take less. If high-ranking officials, including Dr. Buss, wanted Jackson to be part of the organization in some capacity, it's their fault for not making it happen before it was too late. Collectively, it's the Lakers' fault for trying to cheat rebuilding in hopes of prying their championship window open for just a little while longer.

Is Jim Buss the Lakers' biggest problem?

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The Lakers know this. They have to. The fans must understand it, as well. Buss may be a problem, but he's not the only problem.

Looking ahead, the Lakers need everyone to solve the problems time created. Kupchak and Buss need to find the right pieces to place around Bryant. Savvy financial and draft decisions must be made. Future players must perform up to snuff. The right coach, whether it's D'Antoni or not, must be put in place. 

Things need to change, Buss included, though he can only change so much.

"If he [Dr. Buss] didn't think I was capable of doing this, I guarantee he wouldn't have put me here," Jim Buss told ESPN last summer, per Shelburne. "He would have arranged something else."

Yet he didn't. And so, the Lakers are here, losing in excess, powered by Buss, who is guilty of not being his father more than he is anything else.

 

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