Do LA Lakers Have the Right Buss Calling the Shots?

Bryan Toporek@@btoporekFeatured ColumnistJuly 26, 2013

Jim Buss has done little to inspire confidence in his leadership abilities since taking over for his late father.
Jim Buss has done little to inspire confidence in his leadership abilities since taking over for his late father.Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

If the Los Angeles Lakers get their way, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony will take their talents to Hollywood as free agents during the 2014 NBA offseason.

If the James-Anthony plan ends up coming to fruition, it'll likely be in spite of Jim Buss, the Lakers' executive vice president of player operations.

Since taking over the Lakers from his late father, Dr. Jerry Buss, in 2011, the younger Buss has done little to inspire confidence in the franchise or its fans in his leadership ability.

In fact, his continuous series of missteps have the team poised to miss the playoffs in 2013-14 for only the third time since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976.

Before considering how the Lakers can get themselves out of this mess, let's fall down the rabbit hole to understand Jim Buss' growing influence over the franchise.

The Grooming

Dr. Buss began grooming his son to take over for him back in 1998, when Jim joined the Lakers as an assistant general manager to Jerry West.

Even back then, the plan was for Jim to eventually take control of the team's player personnel, according to Sports Illustrated, while his younger sister, Jeanie, would maintain the Lakers' business operations.

Soon after joining the franchise, Jim uttered these infamous lines to SI in November 1998:

Evaluating basketball talent is not too difficult. If you grabbed 10 fans out of a bar and asked them to rate prospects, their opinions would be pretty much identical to those of the pro scouts.

In his defense, Buss told ESPNLosAngeles in 2012 that SI "cut off" the context of that quote, for what it's worth.

Fast forward to the summer of 2004, when the Lakers were coming off a stunning upset loss to the Detroit Pistons in the 2004 NBA Finals. Head coach Phil Jackson, who had nine NBA championships at that point in his coaching career, decided to part ways with the Lakers, leaving Jim to fill a massive void.

How did he fill that hole? By going over his sister's head, according to the New York Post, and hiring Rudy Tomjanovich, who lasted all of 43 games before resigning midseason.

The younger Buss begrudgingly welcomed Jackson back as head coach after the 2004-05 season, which resulted in two more championships for the Lakers (2009 and 2010). Jackson stepped down after the Lakers were swept by the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 playoffs, and at least partially due to his secret battle with prostate cancer.

During his 2011 exit interview, Jackson claimed that he hadn't spoken to Jim all season, a claim which Jim later refuted.

The Purge

Upon Jackson's retirement, Jim went on the warpath, seeking to make his own distinct imprint on the franchise.

A person with ties to the team's front office told CBSSports' Ken Berger that Jim was aiming to "wash off anything that had touched" Jackson. He sought to "purge the Laker organization," according to ESPN.com's J.A. Adande.

Thus, he opted against renewing the contract of longtime assistant GM Ronnie Lester, according to ESPNLosAngeles, the man personally responsible for scouting Andrew Bynum before the 2005 NBA draft. Convincing the Lakers to draft Bynum was one of the few feathers in Jim's cap, and yet he released the man partially responsible for that decision.

Simultaneously, instead of elevating assistant coach (and Jackson affiliate) Brian Shaw to fill the vacant head coaching spot, the Lakers opted to hire Mike Brown.

The move rankled many observers and players, including Kobe Bryant, who wasn't informed of the hiring beforehand. Bryant wouldn't offer a blessing nor a condemnation of Brown, Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski reported, because he didn't "have a strong sense of Brown."

The theme of Buss' frayed relationship with Jackson would continue to haunt the Lakers over the next few seasons.

In November of 2011, Shaw told Sports Illustrated that throughout his interview for the head coaching position, Jim repeatedly bashed Jackson. The Zen Master wasn't exactly surprised, according to Shaw:

Phil let me know going into the interview [with the Lakers] for me to almost disassociate myself from him, that anything that I said about him or the triangle system would hurt me because of his lack of relationship with Jimmy Buss.

Of course, the Brown-as-Lakers-coach experiment lasted all of 71 games. Once Brown got off to a 1-4 start during the 2012-13 season despite having Bryant, Pau Gasol, Steve Nash and Dwight Howard at his disposal, Jim pulled the plug.

Both Jerry Buss and general manager Mitch Kupchak sought to deflect criticism from Jim, saying that all three had a say in Brown's hire. Jim, however, did later admit to the Los Angeles Times that he should have consulted Bryant before hiring Brown.

The Failed Redemption

With Brown gone and his super-team flailing at that point, Jim had one last chance to swallow his pride.

The Lakers reached out to Jackson about a potential return within a day of Brown's firing, and negotiations quickly heated up. One source told the Los Angeles Times that there was a "95 percent chance" Jackson would soon be prowling the Staples Center sidelines once more.  

Instead, three days after Brown was fired, the Lakers hired Mike D'Antoni, not Jackson, as their replacement head coach.

A source told ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne and Chris Broussard that Jackson was "stunned" by the team's about-face. According to Shelburne, Jackson intended to accept the job before having it ripped out from under him.

As with Brown's hiring, Dr. Buss took ultimate responsibility for choosing D'Antoni over Jackson, saying the final decision rested with him and him alone.

The move reportedly frayed whatever relationship Jim and Jeanie still had, according to Kevin Ding of the Orange County Register. The two siblings didn't speak for months after the aborted Jackson hire, Ding reported.

All Jackson could do, meanwhile, was laugh.

The Lakers eventually rebounded to make the playoffs, but Bryant famously tore his Achilles' tendon in the final few games of the season. The San Antonio Spurs mercifully swept Los Angeles in the first round of the 2013 playoffs, causing an earlier-than-expected start to the Dwight Howard free-agency bonanza.

As we know now, instead of re-signing with the Lakers, Howard decided to join the Houston Rockets as a free agent instead. Howard's departure marked the first time in franchise history that the Lakers lost out on retaining an All-Star free agent whom they wanted to keep around.

Where Do the Lakers Stand?

With Howard gone and Bryant recovering from Achilles surgery, the Lakers have little going for them in the 2013-14 season ahead.

Best case scenario, Bryant returns by opening night, remains healthy and keeps the Lakers competitive within the Western Conference. Even still, barring an absolute miracle, the Lakers won't finish as a top-four team in the West, meaning they're likely bound for a first-round knockout in the playoffs—if they get that far.

Plain and simple, the once-proud Lakers are now flailing for their lives. The Lakers brand retains considerable weight around the NBA, but Jim's management of the team continues to erode that as time goes on.

Dr. Buss personified the hands-off approach with his basketball personnel. Kupchak told the Los Angeles Times in March 2012 that the elder Buss "always deferred basketball decisions at some level to his basketball people," although he held the final decision-making power.

He was also "the master at taking you to lunch or taking you to dinner and going over what he was thinking and what he wanted to do with the team," Lakers legend Magic Johnson told the Los Angeles Times in February 2012.  

Jim, on the other hand, clearly plans on placing his own imprint on the team, based on his actions from the past few seasons.

For a team like the Charlotte Bobcats, which clearly lacks any sort of long-term direction, Jim's plan would be well and good. But when he's replacing someone who won 10 NBA championships in 34 years as the owner, diverging from the path his father established appears to be a losing strategy.

During a mid-November 2012 edition of ESPN's NBA Countdown, Magic expressed his dismay in regard to the younger Buss.

"I love Dr. (Jerry) Buss," Magic said. "I don't believe in Jim Buss."

He's not the only one. At a Playboy event during the 2013 offseason, the artist formerly known as Snoop Dogg made his feelings clear toward Jim, according to Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News.

Should Jeanie Take Over?

When one of the most prominent sports columnists in the country labels you as an "atrocity" and compares you to the title character in Tommy Boy, there's cause for concern.

With the passing of Dr. Buss in February 2013, Jim is officially in charge of the Lakers' player personnel, while Jeanie handles the business side for the franchise.

Would Jeanie be more well equipped to run both the basketball and business operations of the franchise? There's an argument to be made in her behalf, at the very least.

Kupchak swears that he and Jim collaborate on all major basketball decisions, according to the Los Angeles Times. However, Magic swears that "Mitch isn't running the team. Jim Buss is running the team. Mitch has to follow the direction of Jim Buss and what he wants."

Jeanie, meanwhile, has the confidence of departing NBA commissioner David Stern and her own younger sister, Janie.

"Jimmy doesn't have the backbone to negotiate or the confidence to succeed," Janie told Sports Illustrated in 1998.  "Only Jeanie has the brains and the desire. She's a great negotiator and a great numbers cruncher, and she knows how to say no. At some level, Johnny and Jimmy must understand that."

In that same SI article, Stern said, "If [Jeanie] took over the Lakers from her father, I don't think anything would be lost in the transition."

Ultimately, it boils down to ego. As Sports on Earth's Shaun Powell noted in March 2013:

Jim is already carving an identity as the spoiled son who has too much sway in basketball decisions, doesn't take advice very well and doesn't know what he doesn't know. Jerry Buss avoided that disaster by realizing [Jerry] West knew more about basketball than he ever did.

Jeanie, unlike Jim, appears to be much more amenable to others' opinions.

If Jim can begin putting aside his pride, his stint as executive vice president of player personnel isn't necessarily doomed to fail.

If not, Lakers fans can only pray that Jim soon becomes an absentee owner and cedes control of basketball operations to Jeanie.


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