When the Los Angeles Lakers fall to their worst loss record in franchise history, it’s inevitable that fans ask questions.
Actually, in the land of purple and gold, fans ask questions when their team fails to win a championship, or doesn’t make the Finals, or sputters out too early during the playoffs.
This season has been ridiculous and more than a little embarrassing. Yes, fans have every right to be concerned about the team and most certainly about the front office.
After all, doesn’t culpability start at the top?
That puts the team right in the middle of the pack—actually just a bit below the median.
When it came to writing specifically about the Lakers’ ownership ranking, ESPN.com’s Kevin Arnovitz had this to offer:
For years, Dr. Jerry Buss was regarded as the gold standard of NBA owners. But since his death in February 2013, the team has teetered under the direction of his children.
Voters on our panel now rank the Lakers an unexceptional 14th. Given the turmoil surrounding the organization, the team’s performance on the floor and the enormous contract granted to Kobe Bryant this past fall, it’s fair to ask if that ranking is generous, imbued by the halo effect of history.
The criticism of Bryant’s contract is debatable and carries the gift of hindsight. If not for a freak injury resulting in a fractured knee in December, the five-time NBA champion may well have had a season deemed typical of his long and successful career, rather than an abnormality.
Also, Bryant’s presence on the roster more than makes up for his salary when it comes to ticket sales and various ancillary revenues, such as those brought in from the team’s Time Warner Cable relationship.
As for the Lakers’ top executives, the ESPN panel awarded a 5.79 rating, which translates to No. 16—also the team’s overall front-office ranking.
Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
Mitch Kupchak has long been viewed as one the league’s most competent managers. A three-time NBA champion as a player, he segued into an assistant general manager role in 1986, assuming the full GM reins of leadership after Jerry West exited in 2000.
During his time as a front office exec, the Lakers have won seven NBA titles—two under coach Pat Riley and five more under Phil Jackson.
The Lakers GM recently signed a multiyear contract extension, according to an Associated Press report (via Sports Illustrated). On the one hand, it should be heartening to Lakers fans that there is at least some stability during a time that has seemed so tenuous.
However, despite his longevity, Kupchak doesn’t appear to have the same firm grasp on power that he once enjoyed. Jim Buss, son of the late legendary owner, has steadily advanced his own cause in recent years and is now executive vice president in charge of basketball operations.
Jim’s sister Jeanie, on the other hand, is both president and governor of the team but has normally confined her activism to the business side.
Here is where things start to get murky and where fans increasingly question the team’s direction.
Jim, a notoriously reclusive sort, is often blamed for key decisions that have not panned out—such as the hiring of Mike Brown after Jackson’s most recent retirement from coaching and the subsequent hiring of Mike D’Antoni when Jackson expressed a willingness to return.
Perhaps that blame shouldn’t be put squarely on the exec veep’s shoulders. In fact, during an interview with Sam Amick of USA Today, Jackson himself expressed his belief that the late Dr. Buss had the final say on the hiring of the Lakers’ current head coach.
Regardless, perception does matter when it comes to decision-making, and it matters a lot.
In January, Magic Johnson, one of the Lakers’ most visible alumni, had this to say about the organization’s front-office woes, per Mike James of The Los Angeles Times:
“You’ve got to have someone helping Jim. He’s got to quit trying to prove a point to everybody that he can do it on his own, get his ego out of it, and just say, ‘Let me get someone beside me to help achieve the goals I want.’”
The outcry from Lakers fans was both predicted and warranted.
Seeking to clarify the situation during an interview with Bill Macdonald on TWC SportsNet, Jeanie said: “There is no role in the front office for him, for what he can contribute.”
This of course, begs the most obvious of questions—why wasn’t there a role? The simplest answer is that it would have meant Brother Buss relinquishing the majority of his operational duties.
It’s a shame he didn’t choose to do so. By concentrating on team ownership, he could have donned his late father’s leadership hat, leaving the nuts and bolts of running the team to lifetime basketball pros while still wielding the hammer on big-picture decisions.
Of course, that didn’t happen, and the team is still trying to sort out a convoluted hierarchy. Sister Buss again sought to clarify the situation recently but may have instead poured more gasoline on the flames.
As relayed by Ramona Shelburne of ESPN Los Angeles, Jeanie Buss, during an interview on the “Mason and Ireland” show on ESPNLA 710 radio, said: “I’m the boss. I am responsible ultimately for anything with the team and decisions that are made.”
Does it seem as if there is a never-ending circle of confusion here?
The plain truth is this: Jim Buss is the head of basketball operations, but when it comes to accepting responsibility for poor decision-making, he shrinks back into the shadows, leaving others to clean up after him.
If we take Jeanie at her word of ultimate responsibility, then we have to assign her final blame for recent team failures.
Except that while it’s noble for her to fall on the sword, it doesn’t paint an accurate portrait.
What we do see is one person walking an awkward tightrope—avoiding decisions that could upset her brother’s apple cart while also avoiding an enhanced role that could conflict with her relationship with Jackson. And still, at the end of the day, she is found offering up a mea culpa to the press.
Whether she will find a new balance and perhaps a new emphasis is a matter of much discussion these days among longtime Lakers observers.
With the end of the season in plain sight, the Lakers have a 25-54 record with just three games left on their schedule.
And if you believe in unhappy coincidences, the front-office dysfunction is happening during the worst loss record in the Buss siblings’ lives.
Meanwhile, Lakers GM Kupchak continues to preach a slow and steady path, telling Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News that the return back to a championship luster will take some time:
“We have a plan. I can’t guarantee you can execute a plan in six months, 12 months or 18 months.”
Hopefully not more than 18 months given that Bryant is due to retire in two years?
How concerned should Lakers fans be?
Very concerned. And it is their right to voice that concern and criticism plainly and loudly until somebody not only listens, but also acts in a responsible manner.
It’s time for the Buss kids and Kupchak to get on the same page and find the kind of solutions that will result in bringing the family business back to its rightful place of prominence.
Because being ranked No. 16 by ESPN is nothing to be proud of.
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