Last week, Jeanie Buss appeared on ESPNLA 710, sitting in studio for an hour and covering a ton of ground, including Dwight Howard, her relationship with Jim Buss, and how Phil Jackson impacts the franchise.
My big takeaway: The Lakers have a serious adjustment period coming, not just in the roster but in the way the front office operates as they attempt to fill the massive hole created by the death of Dr. Buss. It’s analogous to what Apple faced when Steve Jobs died. Dr. Buss was that level figure, and while alive, even if in a diminished capacity, the franchise had its anchor. Now they don’t, and the resulting power structure is far less stable. That the NBA world in which Jim and Jeanie operate is far more hostile to the Lakers than the one Dr. Buss bought into only makes things tougher.
That’s the dominant theme of this week’s piece on the state of the Lakers from Ric Bucher in the Hollywood Reporter.
Those following the day-to-day ebb and flow of the Lakers front office over the last few seasons will find Bucher’s story familiar, but there are still some interesting nuggets:
- On the power-sharing: “My brother ultimately makes the [basketball] decisions,” says Jeanie. “I defer and will continue to defer because that’s what my dad believed would be successful.” Deferring, though, clearly is different from agreeing, and while Jeanie is supportive of her brother, she barely hides her frustration at not being included in major team moves. “I would be more comfortable if I understood what the decision process was, and I’m not always involved in it,” she says. “To be held accountable by the league and not have a seat at the table when decisions are made is hard.”Jim concedes that Jeanie is not consulted on basketball decisions but denies he wields unilateral authority. He insists the Lakers are a democracy that includes GM Mitch Kupchak, to whom Jim says he often defers. “I don’t run the franchise,” he says. “We run it as a family. I’m just a figurehead. I like it collective. Now I might have to put my name on a [decision], but I can’t have the ego to make those calls alone.”
I’m very familiar with the idea of working with family. The most frequent question I get about working with my brother is some variation of “How do you guys do that? My (brother/sister) and I don’t get along nearly well enough. Don’t you want to kill each other?” That Andy and I do have a great personal relationship is extremely helpful, but more important in this context are the mechanics of our working relationship. When people talk about the relationship between Jim and Jeanie, they tend to focus on how they get along. Literally, do they like each other. Important, yes, but not everything. I’m sure Jim and Jeanie love each other, and believe both have the best interests of the team at heart. But clearly there are still key issues yet to be hammered out in how they operate without Dr. Buss atop the totem pole. If the Lakers are really going to operate in a power-share, those powers can’t live in silos.
Aspects of their personal relationship might make improving that process more difficult, but from a fan’s perspective whether they have awesome holiday dinners stuffed like a turkey with tender moments is less important than fixing these types of professional communication problems.
- On Jim’s acumen as a personnel guy, and intelligence, generally: ”The L.A. sports media sometimes portrays Jim as a slacker who inherited his father’s tastes but not his business savvy, but he says those characterizations are outdated. “That playboy image is from 30 years ago, when Dad was out and I was hanging with him,” says Jim, who lives with his ex-wife Tish and helps raise her two teen daughters. “As far as socializing, I hate to bore people, but I’m a stay-at-home guy. That’s where I like to work. Have someone find out the last time I went to a club; the owners are probably all dead.”Still, while Dr. Buss often would attend predraft workouts and study the action (albeit with young women at his side), Jim, says one assistant GM, once was spotted streaming a horse race on his computer while scouting. Jim also once told Sports Illustrated that “if you grabbed 10 fans out of a bar,” they could assess NBA talent as well as pro scouts do.”But one league executive who has worked with the Lakers says Jim is underestimated. “Jim is an easy target,” he says. “But he’s smart, no question about it. He’s smarter than Jeanie.”
The last line will get plenty of attention, but the stuff above is interesting, too. I’ll cut Jim some slack on the Sports Illustrated line — it was from a story in 1998, not a quote from last Tuesday — and I’ve heard people tell similar stories about his scouting missions. But those stories, too, may be getting outdated. Still, the question for Lakers fans isn’t whether or not Jim Buss is a playboy, as he seems to think based on his response, but whether he’s competent as a player personnel guy. Can he identify talent? Can he pick the right coach? Talking about the Bucher feature with Andy earlier today, he made a great point about Jeanie: It’s so much easier for fans to like her, because what she does and how well she does it has a far less tangible impact on wins and losses. It matters a great deal if she’s good, but drawing a straight line to her success and championships isn’t nearly as easy as it is on Jim’s half of the operation.
Fair or not, every game has become a mini-referendum on his skill set.
People assume, I think correctly, that were Jeanie in charge of the basketball operation, she’d hire people to run it and stay out of the way. Jim, meanwhile, is seen by many as interfering with Mitch Kupchak, micro-managing and meddling in important decisions of the basketball people. But he’s not. Jim is one of the basketball people. He’s doing his job, as any personnel types would around the league. The question is whether he’s good at it, and how well he’ll perform in a world where he, not Dr. Buss, is the final authority. This gets to my major problem with Jim, and it has less to do with his thought process in any particular trades, signings or coaching hires: Fundamentally, it’s a mistake for the same person to be responsible both for signing checks and determining who gets them. Even if said guy is bright and capable, that model has been a bad one in professional sports.
Over the last few seasons, Jim has consistently combated assertions he was Godzilla let loose on Tokyo by noting how all big decisions still ran through his father. Now, though, there’s no question he’s the one with the final say on basketball matters. The owner and player personnel hats are very different. Wearing both at the same time is a bad idea.
- On the balance between the past and the future: “… But the Lakers need to acquire more than salary-cap room if they want to be in play for the league’s biggest superstars. “They’re living on the History channel,” says one free agent, meaning the team remains convinced that the attraction of playing for the Lakers in L.A. is enough. As one NBA agent notes: “The Lakers were built for a different era. Their personnel has been depleted and [research] infrastructure is outdated. It’s important to be in a major market, but not as important anymore. And they were always able to spend more than other teams. Now they can’t.” A longtime opposing assistant coach adds that free agents feel the Lakers’ track record is impressive but the team is not on the cutting edge when it comes to marketing, physical therapy or analytics. The sense is that institutional arrogance has caused a slow but evident decay. “It hurts to hear that,” says Jeanie, without contesting it.”
This is a huge one. Like many, I’ve hammered at a construction of Lakers Exceptionalism built around notions of market strength and historic success, affording a gravitas and appeal irresistible to all but the most small-minded players (like, apparently, Dwight Howard). There’s something in the water down in El Segundo, basically, and some sort of Perpetual Triumph Inertia sewed into the uniforms. Which is silly. The Lakers have been successful because of great, forward-thinking leadership and outstanding talent both in the front office and on the floor. Those qualities require consistent cultivation.
Overall, I think Jim Buss takes too much flak. The standard to which he’s going to be held going forward is one I doubt even his father could meet in today’s NBA. The narrative of Bad Jim/Good Jeanie is simplistic and unfair. (Not because Jeanie isn’t good — she is — but the notion simply placing her in charge of the whole operation instantly solves all problems is naive.) But Bucher’s story emphasizes very well the need for the Lakers to develop a more cogent, workable system of power sharing.
The process of doing so will almost surely contain some inelegant moments.