Last April, Los Angeles Lakers part-owner and president of basketball operations Jim Buss revealed to the Los Angeles Times that he’d step down from the hoop personnel side of things if the Lakers weren’t contending for Conference and NBA championships in “three or four years.” Buss tossed in the caveat that he didn’t “know if you can fire yourself if you own the team,” but did commit to walking away from his current gig and finding another executive to run things if he “obviously couldn't do the job” within the stated timeframe.
In the time since those statements, the Lakers failed to sign a significant free agent despite gobs of cap space, they lost both veteran Steve Nash and intriguing rookie prospect Julius Randle to season-ending injuries, new coach Byron Scott has provided the media with a litany of laughable statements about what it means to coach a winner in the modern NBA, Kobe Bryant has put up some ridiculously ham-fisted evenings on the basketball court, obvious discord has been apparent literally on the court, Bryant has had to rest his 36-year old legs for extended stretches, and the team has lost 24 of its first 35 games.
On Tuesday, as one of a round of interviews provided to give a sort of state of the Lakers’ particular union, Lakers part-owner and president of business operations Jeanie Buss doubled-down on her brother’s promise. And she made a whole lot of sense in doing so. From the Los Angeles Times:
On Tuesday night, Lakers President and Governor Jeanie Buss said she'll hold him to that.
"Yeah, of course," Buss told The Times at the 11th annual Lakers All-Access event at Staples Center on Tuesday night. "But I don't see why -- given the resources, given our legacy, given who our head coach is, who our front office is -- [we'll have] any problem."
One might not agree with listing the team’s head coach among that run of assets, but the other marks are true. The team has resources – both in the business form of a profitable organization with money to spare and a clear salary cap picture even with Kobe Bryant’s league-highest contract still hanging around this summer. It certainly has a championship legacy, it has the waves of Malibu, and it has a general manager in Mitch Kupchak who has pulled off miracles in the past.
Of course, Jeanie’s further endorsement didn’t exactly do a whole lot for her brother’s credentials in this regard:
"My brother has skills that are better than me," continued Jeanie Buss. "He could always beat me in Monopoly. I respect that he knows what's going on."
(Couldn’t she have at least picked a basketball game? Especially when she’s on the business side of things? We kid, but still …)
The issue here, as it always is, is timing. The Lakers and the New York Knicks will head into the 2015 and 2016 offseason with heaps of cap space and the charms of their respective cities; with the Lakers ironically helmed by Jeanie’s fiancée Phil Jackson, working in Jim Buss’ comparable Laker position. Despite the teams’ recent pratfalls, it should remain an honor to play for (and make a lot of money from) the Lakers or Knicks, but it’s hard to pinpoint what superstar free agent would want to move in with either team during either offseason.
It’s still possible to nab a superstar with cap space and cap space alone. The upcoming crop of available stars – even if Kevin Durant (who would most assuredly go to Washington if anywhere), Kevin Love, Marc Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge or even LeBron James decided to shock us all and move away from their current teams – just wouldn’t seem like they’d one to start over in Los Angeles. Even if, in Jeanie Buss’ estimation, “as long as you have Kobe Bryant on your team, anything can happen in the playoffs.”
(It should be noted that Kobe Bryant’s teams have lost eight of his last nine playoff games, and his last postseason contest took place in the spring of 2012. That’s not all on Kobe, not by a long shot, but hero-ball at any age is tough, much less hero-ball pitched at age 37 or older. )
This is why the Lakers’ draft selection this year is so important, and this is why many have charged the Lakers with (understandably) tanking this season. Signing Carlos Boozer, force-feeding minutes and shots to Bryant, dealing for a guard in Jeremy Lin that clearly was never going to work well alongside Kobe, even hiring Byron Scott (who is in his fourth straight season of coaching a defense ranked among the dregs of the NBA) could all be seen as signs of such.
If the Lakers’ eventual lottery pick falls out of the top five it goes to the Phoenix Suns as a return in the Steve Nash deal, so the Lakers would seem to want to lose on purpose while entertaining (Kobe! Byron Scott!) fans. Jeanie Buss, however, dismisses that notion. From a talk on Sirius XM’s NBA channel via SB Nation:
"The draft pick to Phoenix, if we don't give it to them this year, we have to give it to them next year, so I don't really see what the logic would be," Buss said Tuesday during an interview with Jared Greenberg and former Laker Rick Fox on Sirius XM's "Off The Dribble."
The logic behind this isn’t really all that on it – the Lakers truly need this to be the year that they keep their pick, because they can’t waste all of what is on pace to be a 26-win year and not get some sort of compensation from the draft. Especially with Julius Randle now having undergone two significant surgeries. Especially with the party line that 2015-16 will be Kobe Bryant’s last season still partyin’ away. Especially when protection on the pick only extends to the top three selections in the 2016 and 2017 draft, and becomes fully unprotected beyond that.
This is what Jeanie Buss has to say, though, because unlike her brother’s rare visits with the media, she has to remain the face of a franchise that has been in absolute turmoil since the fall of 2012.
As for her brother? A lot would have to go right for the Lakers to spring from the muck and turn out to be Western or title contenders between now and his “three or four” (but probably “four”) window, and he may actually follow through on his promise if the Lakers are still middling or worse.
That said, as he said, he’s still a part-owner. Defining “contender” can be tough (“we never knew that [insert player here] would sprain his MCL and be out for a month, we could have made the playoffs with him!”), and Buss can exert all manner of basketball personnel control he wants from behind the scenes even while publicly falling on his sword.
In the meantime, we’ll just wait to see what that legacy can bring in.
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