Jim Buss started in the employ of the Los Angeles Lakers 16 years ago, shortly before Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal and Phil Jackson teamed up to trample over the NBA at large. Dr. Jerry Buss's second eldest child was instantly hired as an assistant general manager to then-Lakers decision maker Jerry West, a basketball great whose legend had been burned into the NBA like a silhouette after a nuclear detonation.
There was no doubt that Jim's stint in the Lakers's front office was borne of anything besides nepotism. After all, the younger Buss had shown virtually no interest in the basketball business throughout his youth--in fact, he seemed to revel in taking part of every part of his father's businesses except for the Lakers. Jimmy's previous work history includes stints with the Los Angeles Lazers (seriously) of the Major Indoor Soccer League, as well as a trainer for a half dozen of his father's thoroughbred horses. Of course it's not fair to limit his work history to sporting ventures--these jobs came in the midst of several other failed businesses.
After the good doctor asked him to join the Lakers, Jimmy soon found himself under the tutelage of some of the finest basketball minds the game had ever seen: the legendary West, responsible for several title teams in the 80s and a few more two decades later; the brilliant Dr. Buss, the man who made the Lakers into one of the most prominent professional sports organization in the world; and the ascendant Mitch Kupchak, the former two-time champion with the Lakers who would soon become the brilliant general manager over the next decade and a half. He had every advantage an interested but inexperienced front office executive could ever want--capable veteran basketball men who were encouraged to share everything they could with the owner's son. This open door access to literally decades of NBA knowledge was an opportunity that men and women would kill for.
Right off the bat in his NBA career, Jimmy Buss looks completely unlikeable.
Still, one could hardly fault the elder Buss for wanting one of his sons to become involved in the operations side of his organization. His daughter Jeanie was deeply embedded in the Lakers, but on the business side, a post that she' holds to this day. Throughout his tenure owning his team, Dr. Buss had been actively involved with basketball decisions, rather than an absentee owner who left the bulk of the on-court decisions to his lieutenants. At the time, Jerry was creeping into his 70s and bringing one of his other children into his most significant business venture seems like a very understandable, human reaction.
Over time, Jimmy became more and more ensconced into the fabric of the Lakers' front office. West retired from his duties as the Lakers' Head of Basketball Operations shortly after the team won their first post-Magic Johnson championship in 2000, leaving Kupchak to take the reins. As is the case in many American companies, Jimmy benefited from West's departure as well. He eventually ascended to VP of Player Personnel in 2005, with the decision-making powers equal to--if not greater than--Kupchak's. From the middle of the last decade, the Lakers front office was described as a sort of three-headed monster, with Kupchak and the younger Buss discussing and deciding on personnel maneuvers, while leaving the ultimate decision to the elder Buss. And it worked. It worked really, really well.
The proof is in the product, after all. Ten years ago, the Lakers were about to embark on a massive rebuilding project. O'Neal would soon be traded to the Miami Heat, triggering one of the worst seasons in franchise history in 2004-2005. From there, Mitch, Jimmy and Jerry rebuilt the team brick by brick, bringing in players like Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol, Shannon Brown and Trevor Ariza via trade and drafting youngsters like Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic and of course, Andrew Bynum. These players, in addition to the incumbent superstar Kobe Bryant and free agent additions like Derek Fisher and Ron Artest, led the Lakers to three Western Conference championships and two NBA titles. These monumental accomplishments overshadow the fact that following those three Finals runs, the Lakers still won a fantastic 57 games in the two subsequent seasons. The post-West era has been staggeringly successful.
Any way you cut it, Jim Buss has been a part of that success. He was in those rooms when the team committed basketball larceny against the Memphis Grizzlies, took a skinny Slovenian kid with the 27th pick and made the calculated gamble in signing a slightly unhinged defensive ace from the Queensbridge Projects. Jimmy was a part of the brain trust that his father, the smartest mind in professional sports history, relied on to run his multi-billion dollar business.
Still, if there is a Jimmy Buss pinata located somewhere on Fairfax, I bet we'll see people lining up like they're giving away free cronuts by the baker's dozen. Moreso than any Lakers figure in recent memory, Buss is reviled by the fan base at large. Some of it is completely reasonable. After all, we're talking about the boss's son who decided around his 40th birthday that he suddenly wanted to become a basketball executive. Regardless of whether he excels at his job--or even moving further down the baseline, is qualified for the job--the debate is a non-issue: with Dr. Buss owning the team, Jimmy's job security was as sturdy as those statues outside of STAPLES Center. Other than being tutored in the business of basketball by some the greatest teachers the game has ever known (which, admittedly, is nothing to ignore), I do not know what type of inherent qualifications Jimmy has for his job.
But even more to the point, Jimmy just looks unlikeable. Between his strange choices in attire (why is it that the richest guys always dress the worst?) to a speaking voice that inspires little authority, he's just a guy who you're aesthetically turned off to. He doesn't make many public appearances, nor does he interview often. He's the mysterious member of the Lakers organization, the hands and mind but without a face. Jim almost never sticks up for himself amidst tidal waves of scrutiny, which very often gives off the air that either he doesn't care about public perception or perhaps he can't handle the criticism. Whatever it is, it seems that his silence only exacerbates the feelings of the team's gigantic fan base. The reasons behinds Jimmy's rock bottom Q ratings seem to run pretty deep.
While there are rumors as to what decisions were championed hardest by Jimmy, they're still just that: rumors. The Lakers run a notoriously tight ship in their front office, devoid of information leaks and shrouded in secrecy. Look no further than the team's last few gigantic deals: the trades for Steve Nash, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul (well, almost) and Pau Gasol sprouted seemingly out of thin air. This is all to say that there is just scant anecdotal evidence on what decisions Jim is most strongly attached to regarding the team.
However, when they're out there, the fan base has no qualms about jumping on them. Some of them are well-deserved, some are not: Mike Brown's hire, Mike D'Antoni's hire and selecting Andrew Bynum. His part in the midnight call to his future brother-in-law, telling him that the team hired someone else was a serious lapse in judgment. His championing of Mike Brown was misguided. It's not so farfetched to suspect that Buss may be incompetent, with his job being much more a coincidence of birth than actual achievement. Some of the accusations I've heard thrown at Jim is that he simply does not have the basketball instincts that his father did. But on the flip side, there's nothing to suggest that under the guidance of Dr. Buss, Jerry West and Mitch Kupchak, he hasn't been given the greatest basketball education the league has to offer.
Regardless of his pedigree, Lakers fans everywhere have made his name "Dr. Buss's Idiot Son" more than what his mother gave him in the first place. He's lambasted on talk radio, destroyed in the comment section of almost any post we write here on Silver Screen & Roll and eviscerated in 140 characters or less. Perhaps part of this is his decision-making, but perhaps part of this is the fact that no matter how bad the team gets...he's still going to be there. As part-owner of the team, Buss will kick around in that front office until he no longer wants to. That, more than anything, draws a fan's ire. There is no doubt that Jim Buss faces more scorn than any figure perhaps in franchise history.
However, I didn't write this post to evaluate Jim Buss, his job performance or even, contrary to what I just wrote, his physical appearance. For the most part, I try to stay out of the "Jimmy Buss Digital Effigy" party. This is in part because at SS&R, we strive to stay above the emotional fray and give you as much content devoid of "ra-ra" fanship fluff as humanly possible.
And then there's also this fact: we don't know much of anything, really.
For the most part, we have no idea how the conversations go in that front office war room before a trade deadline or during the NBA Draft. We don't know who leads the conversation, how much either man takes into account the other's opinions and just how much Buss trusts his General Manager. We don't know who first spouted out Mike D'Antoni's name as a replacement or if the reference was a passing suggestion or if it as an assistant general manager. We just don't know.
Most of what we know about Jim Buss's decision-making is through hushed sources and emotional hearsay from employees that were just fired from the greatest organization in the NBA. We hear it from Magic Johnson, whose opinions have their own caveats and biases. As previously stated, this is one of the most tight-lipped franchises in professional sports, who take that very descriptive adjective--professional--very, very seriously. It just seems that no matter what decisions the Lakers front office makes, any ramifications that become public just serve as more fuel to the fire burning up Jimmy Buss's name.
And that's what's most troubling--a seemingly endless amount of hate streamed at Buss without very much thought to the contrary. Where's Jimmy's credit when it came to trading for Pau Gasol? And almost trading for Chris Paul? Bringing in key cogs like Trevor Ariza, Ron Artest Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown, without which Kobe Bryant may have been stuck on three rings? Was it Jimmy who dumped Caron Butler for Kwame Brown? Or gave Vladimir Radmanovic $31 million?
It seems that no victory belongs to Buss, and yet, all the missteps are his alone. He is the reason the team fails and in fact, the franchise has gone onto tremendous success in the past decade in spite of him being one of the chief decision-makers. Lakers fans have a habit of picking and choosing when Jim Buss exists and when he's nothing more than a mindless owner. It's a callous double-standard that preys on a man who refuses, for better or for worse, to defend himself in public.
The Lakers fan base has every right to criticize the front office for their blunders, even throughout a period laden with gold trophies and silk banners. Trading four draft picks for $30 million dollars of Steve Nash was, in hindsight, a horrible move. Not dumping Pau Gasol over the summer might have been a grievous mistake. Giving a still recovering Kobe Bryant $45 million more dollars looks like a...dubious decision, to say the least. Hiring any man with the first name of "Mike" did not bring the team titles.
But what the Lakers fan base is wrong about is choosing when to denigrate Jimmy Buss, and at the same time choosing to ignore his involvement in what's been several championship contending teams. There's no doubt in my mind that there's a lot to criticize Buss about, but there's also much to laud him for, especially given his presence in the face of five championships. The final decisions stop with Jim, as he has the final say as the owner of the team. Perhaps now, more than ever, we can assign Jimmy the blame, just like any other owner of the league. That also means, however, that the victories are ultimately his to be credited for. But none of this explains the last decade of harsh criticism lain at his feet.
Basketball is a team game, a complicated tapestry weaved together by five players on each side that makes it extremely difficult to quantify just how much one man is making a difference. With a 15 year stretch with so many people involved, how fair has it been to pick and choose when Jim Buss is Dr. Buss's idiot son?
It hasn't been. Maybe it's time to start.
--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino