The Los Angeles Lakers’ doomed season is almost over, and it’s a cautionary tale that didn’t happen overnight. The warning signs have been in plain sight for the past few years.
Now, however, they’re flashing a brilliant red with accompanying sirens. Lakers management cannot afford to let recent history repeat itself.
Recently, Rob Asghar for Forbes wrote about the decline of the Lakers organization, noting that this season’s sudden collapse followed years of inner deterioration, as well as management’s neglect of an aging roster. Asghar also pointed the finger at nepotism:
Lakers owner Jerry Buss, who died in 2013, was the most successful owner in pro sports history, with 10 NBA championship rings and another six appearances in the finals. But he botched his most important move: the team’s succession plan. He gave effective control to his enigmatic and unproven son, Jim. Elite organizations don’t do that; so the minute the elder Buss did this, the Lakers effectively renounced their status as an elite organization.
The Lakers’ view from the top isn’t apt to change any time soon. Dr. Buss left his children in charge through a complicated family trust that essentially binds them together. It was noble in its intent—that a family business would indeed remain that way, something of a rarity during an era in which vertical integration and the consolidation of corporate parent companies has become the norm.
These are not easy times for sports franchises in general. As for the NBA, the collective bargaining agreement negotiations of 2011 revealed profound differences between the various owners, with small-market teams managing to influence a stricter salary cap, while also obtaining larger slices of the revenue-sharing pie.
Meanwhile, the mega-market Lakers with their rich Time Warner Cable deal, are free falling into irrelevance. They’ll end their season Wednesday night with a visit to the San Antonio Spurs, who, win or lose, will move on to the playoffs with the best record in the Western Conference.
The Spurs are proof positive that successful team management isn’t predicated on market shares.
This quintessential under-the-radar organization operates within the confines of one of the more meager television markets in the country (No. 36 in the most recent Nielsen estimates), yet it consistently offers up an overachieving team under the guidance of owner Peter Holt, general manager R.C. Buford and head coach Gregg Popovich.
And they do it the old-fashioned way—hard work, dedicated players, a forward-thinking international scouting program, austere budgets, strong cross-promotion through regional giants like the HEB supermarket chain and most of all, the longevity of one of the all-time coaching greats—Pop is now in his 18th season.
Back in Laker Land, the coaching wheel of fortune seems likely to get another spin, and a team roster will be built from the rubble of the worst loss record in franchise history.
Plus there’s the question of sibling rivalry.
Jim Buss is the one who’s been calling the basketball shots, but his sister Jeanie, the team president and head of business operations, recently went on the Mason and Ireland show on ESPNLA 710 radio and said (h/t Ramona Shelburne of ESPN Los Angeles): “Ultimately I am the one voice. I am that person. I'm at the top of the food chain.”
It’s easy to parse interviews and pick out singular lines. But the larger picture does seem to reveal an odd and unseemly snarl of family dynamics, while at the same time, team progress backs up like a SIG alert during rush-hour traffic.
In February, Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak spoke to Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News, making the case for patience with the team’s rebuild, saying: “We have a plan. I can’t guarantee you can execute a plan in six months, 12 months or 18 months.”
That kind of measured response is typical of Kupchak, one of the leagues’ longest-tenured and most successful managers. But it’s missing a part. It’s like the straight man who delivers a setup and waits for his comic genius partner to bring it home.
It’s like a lob pass waiting to be dunked. But there’s no one there to finish it off.
The success of the Lakers franchise was built on bold strokes by the guy at the top for so many years. Dr. Buss had no problem leaving the nuts and bolts to others, but it was his signature splashy moves that shaped the larger picture—that of a winning culture.
Buss was the vision behind Showtime and the one who signed off on later pivotal moves, like spending big on Shaquille O’Neal and hiring Phil Jackson. There’s a void in leadership now that he’s gone, even if some of that is simply appearances. Because, perception matters. Splashy moves matter. Big statements matter. Not only to the fans, but to free agents.
That larger-than-life panache seems to have fled the building. The good doctor was a Barnum & Bailey showman, a real estate tycoon, a poker player who knew when to up the ante and go for the jugular.
He talked softly but people listened. He had a purple Rolls Royce and a bevy of girlfriends that were ridiculously young. He knew how to swing hard and he swung for the fences.
Jerry’s kids will never be him and perhaps it’s unfair to expect that they would. They may not all get along but they do, after all, seem to love the game.
There is hope for the organization—the gutting of a roster and the failed Mike D’Antoni experiment gives an opportunity for renewal. It’s also time for damage control and some positive marketing.
We get that Kupchak puts forth a careful face. But there has to be a yin to the yang in Hollywood. The GM talks about assets and patience, but where’s the counterpoint that boosts public confidence?
At a media session in early March, a frustrated Kobe Bryant addressed being ruled out for the remainder of the season due to the slow healing process for his fractured knee. Per Lakers.com, he didn’t hold back when asked if he had the patience to wait another year to improve the roster:
No, nope, not one lick. Let’s just play next year and suck again. No, absolutely not, absolutely not. It’s my job to go out there on the court and perform. No excuses for it. You have to get things done. Same thing with the front office. The same expectations they have of me when I perform on the court, the same expectations I have for them up there. You have to be able to figure out a way to do both.
Bryant shouldn’t have to be the one to make motivational speeches to management. It shouldn’t take him calling out the Buss siblings in order to get a sit-down with Jim.
Yes, perception matters. Yes, big statements matter. And as Dr. Jerry Buss showed, you don’t have to have the gift of powerful oratory to get your point across.
His son—the one chosen to run basketball operations—avoids the white-hot spotlight of the media like a vampire about to sizzle and melt. But every once in a while, leadership means having to step forward and deliver the news.
And sometimes take the blows.
The sun hasn’t yet set. Players will still gravitate west in search of big dreams and banners. But Lakers management cannot afford to be seen as complacent and they can’t let the team’s most recent history repeat itself.
Because another season like this one would be unforgivable.
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