As the Los Angeles Lakers continue to implode, everyone around Laker-land is playing the blame game. Is it an aging roster, poor coaching fit, Kobe Bryant taking too many shots or lack of a solid plan for the future?
No matter what the answer, it all seems to point to one man in the eyes of the basketball world and fans in Southern California -- Lakers Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations, Jim Buss.
Why is that? How has one person drawn so much ire from fans, the media and everyone in between with a stake in the Lakers' well-being (or demise, depending on whose side you're on)? To explore that, it's important to take a look at who the man behind it all is.
Who is Jim Buss?
Not many people can even imagine what it's like to be the son of the great Dr. Jerry Buss, who for all intents and purposes is a legend in his own regard since purchasing the team in 1979. As a businessman and a scientist, Buss took the franchise to greatness on the court and made it an institution on the world's stage, transcending basketball and entering pop culture.
He did it by surrounding himself with smart people and making calculated, sound personnel decisions.
The team was also graced with such outstanding personalities and talent such as Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jamaal Wilkes, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant during his incredible reign, and Buss ran the business with class, treating the players with dignity.
Ask Johnson about Dr. Buss, and he wouldn't have one bad thing to say about him.
But Jim Buss' name invokes a different response from the legend:
"I love Dr. Buss," Johnson said in November on ESPN's broadcast of "NBA Countdown. "I don't believe in Jim Buss."
What would possess Magic Johnson to say something so extreme about the Lakers' executive who comes from the same bloodline of a man he adores? Furthermore, what could anyone do to destroy faith in such a strong organization after building up goodwill among fans over 30 years of greatness?
It's not difficult to find those answers, and it only takes looking at the recent history of Jim Buss' reign as head of the Lakers' front office.
The evolution of a tyrant
It's hard to believe that the younger Buss ever saw things turning out this way, with the 2012-13 All-Star Lakers on the outside of the playoff picture looking in. Obviously, he wants to follow in his father's footsteps and build upon the prestige that's been established since the family took ownership. But at some point, whether it was lack of basketball acumen, a big ego or a little of both, something impeded the Lakers' progress toward greatness. And it was something truly awful.
Kevin Ding of the Orange County Register did an outstanding profile of the man that many around Los Angeles have come to despise for running their beloved franchise into the ground. In it, he explains that Buss is not like his father, but his own person with a unique set of principles and philosophies on management.
He also has autonomy, or something very close to it as his father ages and deals with growing health concerns.
Jim's finest hour came in playing a major role in drafting 17-year-old Andrew Bynum, who became an All-Star in Los Angeles and won two titles with L.A. in 2009 and 2010. If that sounds uninspiring in its own regard, wait until the exploration of the negatives.
That begins with the fallout of the beloved Phil Jackson, who is not only a legend around Hollywood, but in NBA circles everywhere. That's because the Zen Master was instrumental in orchestrating 11 championship runs, five of which came in Los Angeles.
After Jackson's departure following a second stint as the Lakers' coach in 2010-11, he had this to say:
"I haven't spoken to Jimmy Buss this year," Jackson said in his final session with reporters that season. "As far as management, if you want to call it that, there's really not a relationship with that aspect of it. So when I leave here, I don't anticipate they'll call me up and ask my advice."
That was the beginning of Buss' reign as the final decision-maker in L.A. The Jackson debacle resulted in a bridge burned with a coaching legend and no vote of confidence or blessing from him, either. In fact, he all but said a sarcastic "good luck" as a parting shot.
To be fair, Jackson can't be absolved of everything, especially having an ego of his own. When it comes down to it, though, he has more basketball credibility. That's what matters most to folks on the outside.
The bad hires begin
Next, Buss hired Mike Brown in a move that looked like a direct reaction to the fallout with Jackson. Brian Shaw, a man who won three titles with the Lakers as a player, was in line to take over and maintain the Lakers' continuity with the triangle offense. But it wasn't to be, and Buss gave the job to Brown instead of the person that even Kobe Bryant had advocated for.
About Bryant's suggestion -- players shouldn't normally be heavily involved in coaching hires, but that player in that scenario deserved management's ear.
What's worse is that the Lakers didn't even inform Shaw of the decision to hire Brown in person or on the phone after he interviewed. The current Indiana Pacers assistant coach found out he was not selected by watching the news, just like everyone else.
The autocratic rule began, and Buss was hinging his future as an executive on the coaching success of Brown and the ability of Bynum and his bad knees to become the heir apparent to Bryant. Sound like a good plan?
A general manager saves the day, or at least tries to
Mitch Kupchak is an outstanding general manager who orchestrated some of the most impactful transactions in Lakers' history. In addition to being a two-time NBA champion (one with the Lakers) as a player, he was the executive behind the team's last five titles after Jerry West laid a solid foundation.
Here are some highlights from his resume:
- Kupchak traded Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton, Marc Gasol and two future first-round picks to the Memphis Grizzlies for Pau Gasol and a second-round pick.
- The Lakers traded Vladimir Radmanovic to the Charlotte Bobcats for Shannon Brown and Adam Morrison.
- Los Angeles let Trevor Ariza leave via free agency and instead signed Metta World Peace.
- Kupchak traded Jason Kapono, Luke Walton and future considerations for a future first-round draft pick for Christian Eyenga and Ramon Sessions.
- That same month, he also traded an aging and ineffective Derek Fisher and a future first round pick for Jordan Hill.
- Acquired Dwight Howard in a four-team trade that cost the Lakers Andrew Bynum and two first-rounders, and netted them both Earl Clark and Dwight Howard
That sounds like a guy who should be trusted to make basketball decisions on his own merit and shouldn't be handcuffed to upper management's unconventional wisdom.
Given the Lakers' current situation, including the hiring of Brown, his subsequent firing five games into the 2012-13 season and the bizarre hiring of Mike D'Antoni, it's hard to imagine that Kupchak was the person pulling the trigger on all of these moves.
Even though he said so during the press conference, could Kupchak really believe that D'Antoni was a good fit for the 2012-13 Lakers roster?
That whole sequence had Jim Buss' name written all over it, and it was natural for the media and fans to draw that conclusion.
When businessmen stick their noses into X's and O's
Poor management from the top has happened elsewhere in sports.
For example, Jerry Jones is an owner and general manager of the Dallas Cowboys. His background isn't all football, though he knows more about the game than most people will forget as a former collegiate player and national champion at the University of Arkansas.
But he's a businessman first, and Jones' undoing came when he fired beloved head coach Tom Landry. Many fans still feel the franchise has not recovered. For Lakers' fans, there's an unsavory parallel to that set of circumstances.
Then, there's Dan Snyder, the owner of the Washington Redskins. Snyder has historically been a meddler. It wasn't until he gave up some control that they were able to assemble a quality team that resulted in the franchise seeing some success after a long drought.
Jim Buss fits that micro-manager mold, and no matter how much he knows, he's no Mitch Kupchak, Magic Johnson or any true basketball mind, for that matter.
The current state of the Lakers
These Lakers don't mesh well together, but it's not because they aren't talented. Mike D'Antoni's system calls for a high-octane, fast-paced style of play with knock down, perimeter players. The Lakers don't have that type of personnel. Their aging, physically limited yet smart roster is more suited for a half-court, inside out game focused on execution.
None of it adds up to anything good, and it's all reflected in their 17-24 record through 41 games. They need players who can get up and down the floor in order to run that system. Having already fired one coach and then subsequently hiring the wrong one, it's highly doubtful the front office admits its mistake and doubles back with a better choice.
D'Antoni has also shown that he won't adjust his system to fit the personnel, with his latest move being to bench a player that will likely go into the Hall of Fame one day in Gasol. At age 32, and still one of the best players in the world, it's a travesty that the system D'Antoni's running has rendered him expendable for no good reason.
It goes back to Buss, who hired him in the first place. How did his analytics tell him this would work?
The Lakers are broken, but why won't Buss admit it?
Buss laughably said that he still believes in this team as constructed, even going as far as suggesting that to not believe in them was somehow a silly notion.
As the third best team in California and with only a puncher's chance to make the postseason in the ultra-competitive Western Conference this season, it's hard not to imagine a spoiled kid being stubborn with his grossly misguided decisions.
Ding's piece paints a picture of a man buried in statistical analysis and being very detail-oriented when it comes to evaluating talent. But it's not just fans and the media looking at this team and seeing something wrong far beyond numbers, Johnson went even further with his comments on ESPN back in November:
"First, hiring Mike Brown -- he wasn't the right coach. He's a great coach but not the right coach for the Lakers. And I don't feel Mike D'Antoni is the right coach for the Lakers. Especially when you have Phil Jackson sitting out there, who wanted to be the Laker coach. Jim Buss decided he didn't want Phil Jackson, he wanted Mike D'Antoni. And that's OK, but why didn't you just say that? But the fans were cheering for Phil Jackson two nights in a row."
Numbers aside, it's the pieces that don't work with one another. That's what's most frustrating for people that care about the Lakers to observe. They're left wondering as the losses pile up why the decision-makers can't see what's right in front of them, and that's a coach and players that just don't fit. The worst part about it all is that no one is willing to admit any mistake has been made, and in turn, it's impossible to fix the broken team.
Maybe as a society we're predisposed to think a wealthy owner's son can only be a spoiled brat and is incapable of filling in a viable role in the organization, as unfair as that sounds to a student of the game like Buss. But unfortunately, the Lakers have been losing at an alarming rate, and now even the most ludicrous of statements from fans regarding an autocratic owner seem to have validity.
Jim Buss has destroyed The Lakers.....- Mike Hill (@MikeHillESPN) January 22, 2013
U got 2 of the biggest egos and selfish individuals in the NBA, D'antoni and Jim Buss.. How can we expect change anytime soon- D KeepsItReal (@diesal24) January 22, 2013
Dear Mike Antoni and Jim Buss, please leave the Lakers and disappear. Forever.- Kobe Bryant Fans (@teamKB24) January 22, 2013
It all sounds extreme, but how can anyone disagree with these thoughts?
The Lakers are indeed broken, and they've mortgaged their immediate future on a player who may or may not come back for more of the Hollywood circus in Howard. Money will likely keep him around as the Lakers can pay him more than any team, but what then, given the lack of draft picks and aging roster?
A bleak future
The Lakers are in luxury tax purgatory, as their salary cap of over $58 million is going to be subject to a hefty penalty in 2013-14. The NBA's new collective bargaining agreement that was approved prior to the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season has given the Lakers little room to manipulate their flawed roster.
With no stockpiled draft picks, aging personnel and a coach running the wrong system, it looks like the road ahead will be a treacherous one.
In the past, Lakers fans could take solace in the fact that the purple and gold always found a way to prevail, but as the franchise continues to be marred by these circumstances and a man at the top who hasn't made anyone feel good about the direction of the team, the burning question remains unanswered.
How can anyone believe in the Lakers?
Michael C. Jones covers the Los Angeles Lakers and the NBA. He writes regularly for SB Nation and Examiner.com and is the Editor of Sports Out West.
You can follow him on Twitter @MikeJonesTweets