To say the past 13 months have been a trying time for the Buss family would be an understatement. The children of late Los Angeles Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss have faced one test after another since the family patriarch passed on Feb. 18, 2013.
L.A.'s 2012-13 star-studded superteam broke down amid a rash of injuries and underachieving play, bowing out in the first round. Franchise cornerstone Kobe Bryant's knee injury led to a chain reaction that would cost him nearly all of 2013-14. And for the first time since the franchise moved to Los Angeles, the team lost a big-name free agent when center Dwight Howard opted for less money to sign with the Houston Rockets.
Buss' children suffered another massive public relations disaster this week when former head coach Phil Jackson took a job running the New York Knicks. Not only did Jackson helm L.A. to their last five championships, he is the fiancee of Lakers governor, Jeanie Buss.
But that does not mean Ms. Buss is going to concede that Jackson has any advantage in luring future free agents away from Los Angeles, as she said Thursday on ESPN 710 Radio (via the Los Angeles Times' Mike Bresnahan and Eric Pincus):
That's not true. I don't agree with that. I think the Lakers are a legacy franchise. Players know when they come here this is the ultimate platform…. I'm not worried about that in any way, shape or form. ...
I still don't understand why [Howard] left. He had his own reasons. People I guess maybe would be talking [angrily] about the billboard. That really seemed to rub people the wrong way. I thought it was a good idea. It obviously didn't mean anything to him.
"The billboard" was a reference to last summer's "STAY" campaign, which failed to entice Howard to re-sign with L.A.
Many would argue that Jackson's new team, the Knicks, are also a legacy franchise. While they may not have the championship pedigree, New York is one of two original NBA franchises still located in their birth city, along with the Boston Celtics.
The Knicks may also be the only team that can match L.A. in both a massive fanbase and courtside star power.
Jackson's Knicks also present potential free agents with a much lower bar to achieve "franchise legend" status. Imagine a star player coming to the Lakers and winning a single championship; he would be compared (and not very flatteringly) to the likes of Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal, Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Were that same player to claim one title with the Knicks, who have zero championships in the last four decades, he would essentially guarantee his jersey number would eventually be hoisted to the rafters of Madison Square Garden.
The Lakers do still have two advantages in the gorgeous L.A. climate and a front office that has proven they can build a consistent winner. But the franchise has looked haphazard and unprofessional under the stewardship of Jerry Buss' son, Jim, as Grantland's Charles P. Pierce pointed out during last season's coaching search fiasco:
Over the past year or so, as the Lakers began to slide into the opening penumbra of the post-Kobe era, the younger Buss began to make bad decisions followed by panicky ones. Mike Brown never was the right fit out there, and half the people in the Association knew it. So the Lakers start slowly this year and out the window goes Brown before Thanksgiving. There is a clumsy public flirtation with Phil Jackson that, remarkably, goes nowhere. Suddenly, and apparently to the surprise of the man himself, Mike D’Antoni gets the call. This is not the smooth, gilt-edged crystal way the Lakers do things. This is the way the Knicks do things.
And now the Knicks have a chance to turn around their own legacy of incompetence under Jackson.
Jeanie Buss may be right; the Lakers may still be the premier destination in the NBA. But the franchise is currently on precarious, unprecedented ground. The Lakers are not used to struggling, and the Buss family will face a great deal of pressure to make all the right moves and turn the team around, sooner rather than later.