There’s more to Lakers’ sad story than is being told

Jeanie and Jim Buss smile during Dwight Howard's introductory news conference in August 2012. Would the late Jerry Buss have put his daughter and son in charge of the Lakers' franchise if he thought they were incapable of carrying on the team's legacy of success?
(Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)

For much of our adult lives, the Lakers have been the toast of the town. That’s why the anguish is so understandable now that they are merely toast.

But in the midst of all the noise, have we not missed some of the more salient points? Are we so engrossed in our need for instant gratification that we cannot look beyond the most recent tweet? Even as we dissect everything about the Lakers as if they were biology-class frogs, aren’t we getting off track a bit?

There is no intention here of being an apologist. The Lakers are lousy. There is no hiding that. TV now runs graphics listing the handful of teams with the worst records in the NBA, and the Lakers are in there. It’s not a typo. Watching “Storage Wars” is more compelling.


But in the rush to place blame and demand immediate fixes, some logic and reason seem gone.

Talking point: The Lakers are in deep trouble because Jerry Buss, among the more revered sports owners of our time, has died and his children, mainly Jeanie and Jim, are in over their heads.

Discussion: If we revered Jerry Buss, if we watched for all those years in wonderment as he made one smart move after another, why can’t we accept that he knew what he was doing with his plan for the future?

One of the several Lakers sources interviewed for this column, all wishing anonymity, said, “If Jerry didn’t think his kids could do this, he wouldn’t have given it to them.”

Talking point: Jim Buss has blown it twice with coaching hires, first Mike Brown and then Mike D’Antoni.

Fact: Jerry Buss was thrilled with the hire of Brown. And when Jim Buss takes the rap for D’Antoni, a good coach who has persevered with his stars in rehab, it isn’t fair because he didn’t make the call. Jerry Buss did. He was ill, but he was still in charge. Jerry Buss loved the run-and-gun style that D’Antoni created with the Phoenix Suns and wanted that for the Lakers, kind of a back-to-Showtime thing.

Talking point: The Lakers blew it when they didn’t get Phil Jackson back, instead of hiring D’Antoni.

Discussion: They may have blown it, but it was never in the plan. The family was to take over. Jim and Jeanie were to be the leaders, but son Joey is also part of it and runs the Lakers’ Development League team, the D-Fenders. Son Jesse, in the team’s scouting department, and daughter Janie, who runs Lakers Charitable Services, also are involved. There are also other family members with a piece of the pie.

Phil wasn’t, and still isn’t, family. Blood runs thick. Nor did he want to coach again, as demonstrated by the job he just took with the Knicks.

Jim Buss is not Jerry West. Nor is he a newcomer. He has been in the Lakers front office for 16 years, nine as executive vice president for basketball operations. The current Buss family operational crew has regular meetings they have made mandatory for each other.

Talking point: Jim Buss likes a cocktail or two, enjoys placing a wager and doesn’t have the corporate persona of an NBA executive.

Fact: His father, the revered one, also liked the first two things, and didn’t have the last thing, either.

Talking point: Jim Buss is making decisions in a vacuum.

Fact: When Buss wants to do something and General Manager Mitch Kupchak, the veteran basketball mind — with 27 years as a Lakers executive and 14 as general manager — disagrees, Buss listens and has gone Kupchak’s way several times. They work together, not at odds.

Talking point: The future couldn’t look more bleak and the Lakers have never been at a lower ebb.

Fact: It’s pretty low, but the air has gone out of the balloon before. From the 1990-91 season, when the first of Mike Dunleavy’s teams went to the NBA Finals, until 1999-2000, when Jackson signed on and won his first of five NBA titles with the Lakers, the Lakers went without a championship, or a Finals appearance, or even a Pacific Division title. They won only 23 playoff games in those eight seasons. One of those seasons, they were 33-49 and missed the playoffs, just as they will this season.

Talking point: It looked like desperation, almost a plea to season ticket-holders, when Jeanie Buss went on radio and TV last week to put some Lakers spin on the controversy.

Fact: She did it only because the team’s broadcast partners, Time Warner Cable SportsNet and 710 ESPN, asked her to. They have paid handsomely for Lakers rights, so smart business dictated that she do the interviews. One perceptive radio caller asked why she was doing interviews now. That’s why.

Talking point: The $48.5-million contract given to Kobe Bryant for the next two seasons was stupid. He is injured and will be 36 when he starts his next season.

Fact: It may be stupid, but again, that’s a page from the Jerry Buss basketball handbook. Pay them lots. Be loyal to them. Remember Magic Johnson’s $1-million-a-year deal for 25 years? The Buss family is merely carrying on as they’ve been taught. And they’ve been taught by the master professor.

Talking point: How is it conceivable that the NBA is allowing Jackson to run the Knicks and Jeanie Buss to have a large role in running the Lakers even though they are engaged to be married?

Discussion: It isn’t conceivable. It is beyond comprehension. It gives new meaning to the term “conflict of interest.”

Will the Carmelo-for-Kobe deal be finalized by email or over dessert?

Get a big mirror, NBA, and look into it.