The following is Part I of a three-part series on the future of the Los Angeles Lakers, written by Kevin Ding, who has covered the team since 1999. Part II is on the team's roster, Part III on the upcoming draft.
LOS ANGELES — Mitch Kupchak's decision to extend his contract as general manager is an indication that the Los Angeles Lakers' threat level of dysfunction since owner Jerry Buss' death is not at Code Red.
Perhaps even stronger than Kupchak's actions are his words here.
"It's unfortunate the way the organization, since Dr. Buss has passed, at times has been portrayed, because that's not the case at all," Kupchak said. "Everybody in there is working hard, responsible, showing up on time, staying late. We're all on the same page. Really, nothing's changed except the perception—which I understand.
"We lost an icon of an owner, and it's going to take some time for everybody to have that trust now that he's gone. But we'll earn it. I'm not worried about it."
Having Kupchak to attend to all the Lakers' day-to-day business operations absolutely helps stabilize the franchise. He is and has been the director of this show.
Where all the fascination, uncertainty and criticism lies is with Jim Buss, Jerry's handpicked successor as the team's ultimate basketball decision-maker. Where few have been fair to Jim is in crediting him with his role in the Lakers being so great in previous years that being awful now feels stunning.
It actually was Jim making the calls with Kupchak (and encouraging Kupchak to spend even more money than Jim's father did) in recent years, with Jerry hardly ever weighing in—partly because of deteriorating health and partly to let Jim ease his way into power.
In an extended interview before last season, Jim explained how he and Kupchak work together: Kupchak leads the process, especially in terms of team-building, and Buss offers valuation through his personally developed numbers system.
Even though Jerry was still alive at the time, the Lakers had moved well into the new era. When referencing Jim back in October 2012, Kupchak said: "He has gradually taken the place of his dad. It's almost been a complete transition, really."
Jim, 54, isn't altogether comfortable in the public eye, and he is reluctant to do interviews that likely won't do him much good until his team wins enough to shift some public opinion. Even though Lakers fans were enthused before last season about the prospects of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash arriving, Jim was still well aware of his negative image.
"It comes with not knowing me—and the uncertainty," Buss said then. "Laker fans are passionate about the game. They want to know who's going to help lead this team to championships. And that's what I do: I help lead the team to championships."
I'll pause here briefly for the critics to make their jokes about that last line.
Here are the facts, though: Jim is the one who consulted with Jerry every day, even before the Lakers built themselves back into a title team with Pau Gasol's help. Jim didn't just drop in at the very top of the Lakers' basketball decisions pyramid a couple years ago.
Jerry Buss had told Jim that there would come a time when he'd need to get serious about the family business, and when the father designated that time, the son ended his nine years of training thoroughbred racehorses.
Jim joined the front office as an assistant general manager in 1998. That's a not-so-heralded title—one shared by Ronnie Lester and Kurt Rambis in the past and currently held by Glenn Carraro, whom you might never have heard of but is a trusted Kupchak adviser and get-things-done guy for the Lakers.
Jerry wanted Jim to be involved and to learn from Jerry West, who was running the show then. Yes, Jim did need some getting serious at the time and in later years. So Jerry Buss waited.
It was seven years later, in 2005—after Jim contributed to the draft selection of Andrew Bynum and the same year Phil Jackson returned to coach the team—that Jim was promoted to vice president of player personnel. Jim's title improved four years later to executive vice president of player personnel.
Upon his father's death, Jim officially vaulted over Kupchak in the Lakers' club directory, becoming executive vice president of basketball operations this season.
This season happens to be the worst in L.A. Lakers history.
|Non-playoff years since Jerry Buss bought the Lakers in 1979|
|Note: 2013-14 record through Sunday. Source: basketball-reference.com|
Rat-a-tat-tat! That's the sound of all the gunfire directed by Lakers fans at Jim Buss and Mike D'Antoni.
Here's the differentiation: Only one of those presently guilty parties didn't contribute to previous Lakers success. Buss hasn't built up much goodwill from it like his sister and father, but it's the truth.
He might be kind of awkward and unproven as a leader—and he is certainly not his father—but Jim Buss isn't an idiot. Even if he becomes one, Kupchak is there to help protect him from showing it.
Together, they absolutely will have to prove their competence moving forward—sister Jeanie made clear, yet again, in her latest interview for Jim Rome on Showtime that she empowers them in basketball operations—or there should be changes.
For now, with an infusion of high-end talent unlikely to arrive until 2015 or later, some patience is required. But very little has actually changed from the people who brought in Gasol to great success but Nash to utter disaster.
Jim will continue to offer his analytical input, while Kupchak runs the front office, which he notes is "a very good environment"—even though Jim Buss does not have a space at the Lakers' facility, so he's not one of the folks Kupchak cites for showing up on time and staying late.
Then again, Jerry Buss was rarely there either.
All that really matters are the results, which need to be like they were before.
"You're basically judged on production, which is fair," Kupchak said. "Wins and losses. It's fair. Nobody really cares how well you work together, how organized the office is. When you're not winning, and an icon like Dr. Buss passes away, then they're going to say things must be amiss—which couldn't be further from the truth."
Kevin Ding covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.