So Dwight Howard has skipped town, exited stage left, lured by Houston’s friendly tax laws and evening entertainment. And while some might be quick to chalk it up as another stain on Jim Buss’ record, this is much more a byproduct of the culture created by Buss’ missteps, than a misstep itself.
You can’t blame Dwight for choosing the better situation. Houston, with GM Daryl Morey’s intrepid wheeling and dealing, positioned themselves for this very moment, and at this point, James Harden and Kevin McHale are far stronger draws than Kobe Bryant and Mike D’Antoni. Howard gets to play with a young squad, learn tricks of the NBA big-man trade from McHale, and avoid the incessant pressure of Los Angeles.
The Laker mystique has been heavily damaged, if not broken. One does not simply spurn the Lakers, right? That Howard would leave the Lakers at the altar is indicative of how much the Laker brand has already been tainted. The need to resort to billboards and cheesy social media campaigns is just further proof.
That mystique did not, of course, evaporate overnight, but the workings of it span a decade and a half with Jim Buss’ 12-step program.
*** *** ***
Step 1: Announce Your Arrival with Your Ignorance – The Sports Illustrated Interview
Jim Buss, the son of longtime owner Jerry Buss, joined the Lakers in 1998 as an assistant general manager, working under NBA legend Jerry West. At the time, fans rightly wondered whether Jim had the chops, or if he was just the silver spooned son of Jerry Buss, born into basketball royalty. But, working under the logo man himself, easing his way into the franchise, things can’t go too badly, right?
Fans always think that they can do as good a job as front office personnel. Apparently Jim Buss thought so as well, telling Sports Illustrated, “Evaluating basketball talent is not too difficult. If you grabbed 10 fans out of a bar and asked them to rate prospects, their opinions would be pretty much identical to those of the pro scouts.”
Undermining the very profession of your subordinates is always a good first step. Also, it’s always a good idea for those born into royalty to assume readiness for the throne: “Right now my dad is Number 1 in the Lakers organization, and I’m Number 4. After another year of this apprenticeship, I’d feel comfortable going from 4 to 1. But you’d have to worry about the comfort level of the current 2 and 3.”
Step 2: Compensate for that Ignorance by Acting Like You Know Something Everybody Else Doesn’t – The Rudy Tomjanovich Hire
In 2004, after losing to the Detroit Pistons in the NBA Finals, the Lakers and Phil Jackson parted ways. The details of that separation are messy, something about a feud between Superman/Diesel/Big Aristotle and a kid named Kobe. Even if at that point Jim Buss had something to do with Jackson’s departure, we can’t really put that on him.
But, the subsequent hiring of Rudy Tomjanovich we can. In a reactionary move that came out of left field, Buss hired Rudy T to replace Jackson. In his own right, Rudy T is a fabulous coach, but many saw Buss’ hiring of Tomjanovich, a defensive-minded coach, as an overreaction to the Lakers’ Finals loss to the defensive Pistons. Midway through the 2004-05 season, Rudy resigned, citing mental and physical exhaustion.
Step 3: A Flash in the Pan – Drafting Andrew Bynum
In the 2005 NBA Draft, Jim Buss convinced Jerry West to draft a 17-year-old high schooler named Andrew Bynum. Many were left scratching their heads, but this actually turned out to be a good move. However, it also sets things up for long-term failure because it reinforced the notion in Jim Buss’ head that he has the Midas touch. Bynum became his gold star, and he refused to move him, standing by his prized prospect despite Bynum’s injuries and immaturity. And more significantly, Bryant’s demands to have Bynum shipped out. While it may look like Buss had impeccable timing, ridding himself of Bynum just as Bynum decided to take up bowling as rehab, holding onto Bynum raised the ire of Bryant, and dampened the Laker mystique through Bynum’s incredible immaturity, on and off the court. Bryant’s quota for tolerating immaturity was used up all too soon.
Step 4: Try Too Hard to Mark Your Territory – Doing Brian Shaw Wrong
Look, I get it. It’s instinctive. Natural. Canines have special ways of marking their territory. Humans do too. But when it’s overdone, it comes off as terribly insecure. And this is precisely what Jim Buss did when Phil Jackson retired in 2011 from his second stint with the Lakers. This was most obviously on display when Buss passed over longtime Laker assistant Brian Shaw in the coaching search. More egregious, though, was how he did it.
Despite being a longtime Laker (both as a player and a coach) and Bryant’s top choice, Shaw was not only passed over, but also found out only when the hiring of Mike Brown was reported on ESPN. Buss apparently never reached out to Shaw, a valuable member of the Laker franchise for many years. Buss’ treatment of Shaw can be attributed to an attempt to distinguish himself from any trace of Phil Jackson.
Step 5: Try Too Hard To Mark Your Territory Part II – The Scouting Department
With the departure of Jackson, Buss continued cleaning house, firing much of the Laker scouting department, including beloved assistant GM Ronnie Lester, who is often credited with the scouting of Andrew Bynum — yes, the same Bynum Buss hung his hat on.
Step 6: Playing Games with Pau’s Heart
In the wake of the failed Chris Paul deal (which can’t be put on Buss), there was some mending to be done between Gasol and the Laker organization. Gasol has continued to be the subject of trade rumors, and has had trouble finding his fit with the Lakers as far as playing closer to or farther away from the basket. Mixed messages continue to come from the front office, clearly having an effect on Gasol in the last two years. In effect, the Lakers have sabotaged the performance of their own player.
Step 7: Lamar Odom
Another party involved in the failed Chris Paul deal, Lamar Odom was incredibly valuable to the Lakers as a do-it-all player off the bench. Odom found out that he was a piece in the Paul deal from… wait for it… ESPN (what we’ve got here is a failure to communicate). Odom was moved shortly thereafter to Dallas. Buss didn’t put in the work to mend that broken relationship, and as a result, the Lakers bench was left in tatters. The Lakers got virtually nothing in return (although this deal did eventually help L.A. snag Steve Nash).
Step 8: The Mike Brown Saga
As previously mentioned, Brian Shaw was passed over for the coaching gig. Well, not only did Buss pass over Brian Shaw, he didn’t even give a good run at Jeff Van Gundy, Rick Adelman and Mike Dunleavy, the top coaching candidates available. Instead, he hired Mike Brown, who tried to install the Princeton Offense, a complete misfit with the Lakers personnel. But hey, at least Buss owned up to his mistake… by firing Brown five games into his second season. Also, note that Buss hired Brown because he was impressed with his “defense-minded style.” Keep that in mind as we go on.
Step 9: Indecisiveness with Ramon Sessions
In the 2011-12 season, the Lakers made a midseason trade to acquire the Cavaliers backup point guard Ramon Sessions, managing to dump Luke Walton and Jason Kapono’s contracts in the process. They needed a quick, young point guard to keep them competitive in a league full of emerging quick point guards. The Lakers overpaid for Sessions, giving up a first-round draft pick in the process (and another in the Jordan Hill trade), but one can argue that they had to overpay. Regardless, Buss allowed his fear of the luxury tax to keep him from re-signing Sessions (who wasn’t asking for all that much), and instead put all their chips in with an almost 40-year-old Steve Nash. Overpaying for someone is usually forgivable, as long as you get him for more than half a season.
Step 10: Ultra Nostalgia – Signing Steve Nash
Steve Nash is a guy you want on your team, in most cases, but when he’s pushing 40 and the price is four draft picks and $27 million over three years, well, that’s a different story. Thirty-eight is an age that you don’t want when it comes to paying that much for a basketball player. Yes, it’s harsh to evaluate human beings that way, but in a business predicated upon pushing the human body beyond normal boundaries, that evaluation is the norm.
Step 11: Hiring Mike D’Antoni
Buss hired Mike Brown in part because he was impressed with his emphasis on defense. Yet when they fired Brown, they promptly replaced him with Mike D’Antoni, a coach notoriously lazy when it comes to defense. But at least D’Antoni has a reputation for handling petulant superstars, so they could count on him to make Dwight and Kobe work (that’s sarcasm, in case you didn’t notice).
D’Antoni has gone on to mismanage the minutes of aging stars Nash and Bryant, compounding Buss’ errors. Nash ended up playing in only 50 regular season games for the Lakers, and Bryant went down with the most troubling injury of his career. As of this writing, Mike D’Antoni is still the Lakers’ head coach.
Step 12: Phil Jackson
When Mike Brown was fired, the Lakers had the opportunity to entice Jackson to come back for a third stint. It’s not clear if Buss ever had the intention of swallowing his pride and hiring Phil Jackson, or if Jackson’s demands were as ludicrous as Buss made them out to be. Either way, when it comes to a figure like the Zen Master himself, you pretty much have to go all in. Had he not previously engaged Jackson in the power struggle, Buss would have been in a better position to get Jackson back to right the Laker ship.
All told the Jim Buss reign has been directionless, void of long-term vision, and lacking cohesion, making for an undesirable environment for Howard to return to. Now that Howard is officially gone, Buss will have to decide if he’s going to maintain an illusion of competitiveness, or if he’s willing to bite the bullet and go back to the drawing board… because in Los Angeles, with the Lakers’ mystique, however damaged it is right now, it’s championship or bust. Middle of the pack simply will not do.