The Los Angeles Lakers have spent the past two summers recruiting top tier free agents to come to one of the most gorgeous cities in the world and play for the most glamorous and successful franchise in the NBA. For there hard work they have absolutely nothing to show for it. It’s not so coincidental that the patriarch of the Los Angeles Lakers hasn’t been around for the past two summers. If he were around we wouldn’t be reading this current script, we would be reading his.
On February 18th, 2013 at the age of 80 we lost the greatest owner in the history of professional sports: Dr. Jerry Buss. Not only was Buss a wildly successful NBA owner, having won 10 Championships as owner of the Lakers, but he also changed the NBA forever. He was an absolute titan in the industry, he was at the forefront of the growth of the NBA, and he produced superstar after superstar in Los Angeles. He will forever be known as the greatest sports owner of all-time. It’s not up for debate.
But now, without their esteemed leader, the Lakers franchise rests in the hands of Jeanie and Jimmy Buss, the heirs to the good doctors throne. However, without the guidance of their father, the current Lakers owners have failed to deliver time and time again over the past 17 months. It’s not a coincidence at all. The Los Angeles Lakers are lost without Dr. Jerry Buss.
The question isn’t whether Jeanie and Jimmy Buss are lost. That much is fact based on results. The question really is why are the Lakers lost and how can they get back on track?
Could it be as simple as bad luck? The Lakers, for all of the magnificent moves of the past 34 years, have been an extremely lucky organization. In essence, the balls have bounced their way for the better part of four decades. They were awarded the number one pick in 1979, when Magic Johnson was available. They traded basically nothing for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. They won a title in 1982 with Kareem and Magic, yet somehow managed to wind up with the first pick in the 1982 draft. They chose James Worthy and the rest of the 1980’s are history.
Jerry West, GM of the Lakers at the time, managed to trade Vlade Divac for the 13th pick in the 1996 draft. The Lakers ended up with one Kobe Bean Bryant, but only because the New Jersey Nets decided to pass on Bryant with the 8th pick, instead drafting Kerry Kittles. Later that summer the Lakers convinced Shaquille O’Neal, the most dominant force in the NBA, to come to Hollywood. The Lakers won three more championships with that duo. Kobe went on to win two more titles in 2009 and 2010, but only after the Lakers were gift-wrapped Pau Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies. The Lakers, in short, have been the luckiest organization in the history of basketball.
However, the Lakers luck turned sour in 2011, when shortly after the NBA lockout the Lakers were unable to pull off an agreed upon trade with the New Orleans Hornets for PG Chris Paul. It will forever be known as “Basketball Reasons”. It will also be remember because it was the first time the Lakers had really ever experience a stroke of bad luck. Without going into great detail, the decision to nix the trade by the league office has resulted in a tectonic shift of the basketball landscape.
But was it really bad luck? Dr. Buss was ill at the time of the trade. Do you think David Stern would have nixed that trade if Jerry Buss had the last word?
The Lakers moved on and a year later acquired Dwight Howard, the most dominant big man of his era, and Steve Nash, a two-time NBA MVP. The luck was back! Well, so we thought. The Lakers could never get it together in 2012-13, Dr. Jerry Buss passed away, Nash broke down, and Howard decided to bolt town. Howard ended up being the first marquee free agent to ever leave the Lakers organization. It’s not a coincidence that Dr. Buss wasn’t around when Howard made his decision to flee to the Houston Rockets. If he had the last word, Howard would have been wearing the purple and gold.
Dr. Buss was a magician when it came to landing superstars via trade or through free agency. He was a listener, someone who would really take in the concerns of the players, but he would always have the final word. He was a wordsmith, a man who always knew what to say when it needed to be said. He sold Shaq on the potential of living in Hollywood and expanding his horizons beyond just basketball. He convinced Phil Jackson to come to the Lakers, a year after he had “retired” from coaching, luring him in with the possibility of another dynasty with Shaq and Kobe. He chose Kobe over Shaq in 2004, but only after convincing Kobe that the leading the Lakers was his destiny, not signing with the Los Angeles Clippers. He always had the last word and he always closed the deal.
Now, in the post-Dr.Buss era, who do the Lakers have closing the deal? Is it Jeanie Buss, the hyper intelligent President of Basketball Operations? Is it Mitch Kupchak, the acclaimed GM who has brought together five championship teams in LA? Or is it Jimmy Buss, the true, and perhaps undeserving, heir to his fathers throne? Or is it some sort of combination of the three? From the outside looking in, it doesn’t seem that there is anybody who has the last word. There isn’t a captain of the ship. The Lakers have failed over and over again to close the deal with marquee players over the last 17 months. From Carmelo Anthony, to LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Dirk Nowitzki, or even their own talent like Dwight Howard and now Pau Gasol. It’s not a coincident. The Lakers are lost without their heart and soul, their leader, their captain.
From Bill Simmons:
He didn’t want Carmelo Anthony??? On the Lakers??? I surfed a few Lakers blogs and message boards and found similar ambivalence. Some fans wanted him, others didn’t understand the point. Many felt like the rationally irrational Lewis — they wanted the Lakers to land a top-five lottery pick (if it’s lower than that, it goes to Phoenix), wipe Nash’s expiring contract off their cap, then make a run at the Kevins (Love in 2015, Durant in 2016). That’s a smart plan, except (a) they could easily stink and STILL lose that 2015 lottery pick, (b) Love will probably get traded this season (and might like his new team), (c) nobody knows what Durant wants to do, and (d) nobody knows if the post–Dr. Buss Lakers are still a destination franchise.
It’s that last sentence that has been stuck in my mind for the past couple of seasons: Are the Lakers still a destination franchise in the post-Dr. Buss era?
It has come to the surface of my brain on numerous occasions, mostly whenever the Lakers can’t close the deal and/or pick a direction in which to move. Mostly, it comes bubbling up whenever I hear the name “Jimmy Buss”.
The short answer to the question is yes; the Lakers are still a destination franchise. They have to be. The Lakers have won 16 championships, 11 in Los Angeles, play in the second biggest market in the country, and they play in one of the best cities in the world. There are endless marketing opportunities for superstars, they’re treated like kings, and the fans are some of the best and most loyal across any sport in the entire world. Who wouldn’t want to play in LA?
However, the Lakers, as currently constructed, are an organization without a heartbeat. They don’t have that special something that always put them over the top. Yup, it’s the lack of Dr. Buss. The Lakers are missing their puppeteer.
When it comes to making the right moves at the right time, and convincing superstars that Los Angeles is the place to be, the soft spoken gentleman in the corner with his Playboy bunnies isn’t there to say the perfect phrase at the right moment. The Lakers no longer have their closer. They’re an organization drifting in the wind. Their puppet master is gone.
In order for the Lakers to once again lure superstars and make Los Angeles a destination for the best and brightest, they’re going to need to find a leader. They’re going to need to find the man, or woman, who can string together that perfect phrase at the exact moment it’s needed. I can tell you one thing for certain: it’s not Jimmy Buss, nor is it Mitch Kupchak. Is it Jeanie Buss? Was it Phil Jackson, a man whom the Lakers couldn’t find a spot for? These are questions I can’t answer. But until the Lakers find a true leader, one with a bold vision and the determination and balls to execute it, without fear of failure, they’re going to be stuck in their current holding pattern.
No one wanted to step into the void Dr. Buss left. It was to big, it was too bright, they had too much respect for the man. However, Dr. Buss expected it to be filled. He left his son in charge; he groomed him to be a leader. He left Mitch Kupchak in charge to hold the young prince’s hand until he was ready to fly alone. He left Jeanie in charge of the business, if only to lessen the burden on his son. But Jimmy Buss never had the vision, never had the internal fortitude, never had the guts to pick a direction and sell it. He may be the heir to his father’s kingdom, but he’s not the man for the job. If the Lakers are to succeed in this new NBA landscape, they must follow another leader who’s ready to pick a lane and stay in it. Without a vision and without the courageousness to believe in it, the Lakers name and panache means nothing. Dr. Buss knew this better than anyone.
There is no way around it: The Lakers are an organization without a vision. Dr. Buss, you are sorely missed. The Lakers are at a loss without you.