clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

With one offseason without Dr. Buss over, believing blindly in the future of the Lakers proves foolish

If this offseason taught us anything, it's done is confirmed our worst fears: perhaps the Lakers are no longer the great franchise we've come to know and love.

Stephen Dunn

"They would've probably had a better relationship if my dad hadn't been sick," Jeanie Buss said in a wide-ranging interview with hosts Mark Willard and Mychal Thompson on ESPNLA 710 Thursday. "When it came time to try to convince Dwight to stay, we lost the best closer in the business in Dr. Buss.

"Putting up the billboard maybe wasn't the right thing. But we maybe have to learn to do things differently because Dr. Buss isn't here anymore. People said [of the billboards], 'Oh, that's not the Laker way.' Well, the Laker way isn't the same, because Dr. Buss isn't here."


For most Lakers fans, the key discussion point this summer was billboards. In many ways, these gigantic advertisements have become a dinosaur of the marketing hemisphere. As the world moves deeper into an interactive age, billboards have become digitized, randomized and monetized for maximum possible consumer interface and of course, maximum possible profit. The peel and paste posters of yesterday are increasingly becoming relics of a technological age we no longer live in. In this way, it's fitting that the Lakers fans would be so up in arms about something with an ideology that's no longer relevant.

Still, the debate in LA raged on. How could the Lakers--the Lakers--be reduced to begging a superstar player to stay in Los Angeles? For decades, men have sold out on entire cities, walked out on friends and left behind millions of dollars to play for teams much worse than this current incarnation of the Lakers. This franchise typically doesn't have to go to any tremendous lengths to try and sign (or re-sign) any player, regardless of his skill level. It's been the place where NBAers have longed to land, in pursuit of wealth, fame and of course, championships.

And for the rest of the summer, Lakers fans everywhere have raged about how the organization could seemingly have forgotten who they were. Even before their former All-Star center left to join the Houston Rockets, the fan base lamented how their favorite team seemingly threw itself at the foot of a singular player. The whole episode seemed to betray the notion of who the Lakers had been for the past 33 years under stewardship of the Buss family. But rather than turn their confusion upon the team, a curious thing happened: the Lakers fans turned their resentment towards the free agent.

As the outcome of re-signing him became more dim by the day, fans directed their ire towards the player, as if it were his fault that the Lakers were put into a position where it even appeared as if they were begging. They felt as if the soon-to-be Rocket's decision--or as it was dubbed, The Indecision--was the primary reason Los Angeles had to resort to such foreign tactics. For once, Lakers fans became the have-nots, shuddering at the notion of their beloved team having to employ such small market tactics. The notion switched to "if he doesn't want us, then we don't even want him".

What was most strange was that throughout this whole nightmare wasn't the idea that the Lakers were not acting in a manner usually befitting them. Or perhaps that it was more than just a villainous player that couldn't handle the big time spotlight of Los Angeles.

What was missing was a suggestion that perhaps the Lakers weren't the Lakers anymore. That maybe this franchise is no longer the great franchise it's always been.

The Lakers have well earned that reputation. 66 seasons, 31 Finals appearances and 16 championships. More debatable top-10 historical players than most franchises have retired numbers. And for the most part, this all came during the greatest ownership in any North American sport.

Dr. Jerry Buss bought the Lakers (along with the Forum, some real estate holdings and the Los Angeles Kings. Yes. Another professional franchise) in 1979 from Jack Kent Cooke for a now paltry sum of $67 million. To put it in perspective, today you could buy five years of Nikola Pekovic and two years of Gary Neal for that money.
However, his buying the team hinged on whether or not Cooke would draft a Michigan State point guard with the first overall pick. Without that selection in the 1979 NBA Draft, there would be no deal. Cooke, who liked the idea before Dr. Buss had suggested it, agreed. The doctor's idea was that with this guard's ability to orchestrate a fast-break style of play, they'd not only dominate on the court, but also serve up an entertaining brand of basketball the world hadn't seen before.

Thus, on June 25th, 1979, Earvin "Magic" Johnson became a Laker. He went on to win 3 MVPs, appear in 9 NBA Finals and win 5 championships. It seemed that even before he officially owned the team, Dr. Buss was already one of the smartest owners in the league.

The Lakers were winning, and winning big, but the Buss family didn't become complacent. With the national spotlight shining on the NBA brighter than it had ever done before, the Lakers quickly emerged as one of the glittering jewels of professional sports. The Lakers captured the world's attention by combining the obsession with the glamorous Hollywood lifestyle with an aggressive marketing campaign that would make the purple and gold one of the globe's most popular sports teams.

Ownership kept the momentum going by making great basketball decisions into the 90s. After a brief rebuilding period, the Lakers brought on Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant and years later, Phil Jackson. Coach Jackson turned out to be the final piece of the puzzle, as the Lakers went to another four Finals and won three titles with the duo, and later three more Finals and two more titles with Bryant leading the way. Year after year, it seemed, the Lakers made the toughest decisions, executed the shrewdest acquisitions and got all the breaks. They were smart and lucky, and as the old adage goes, you need both of those qualities to win a title. Or a truck of them to win ten.

In these past 30 years, there's been a lot of incredible what-ifs pertaining to the Lakers. What if the Charlotte Hornets were more curious why Jerry West would be so ready to trade an All-Star center in Vlade Divac for an 18-year-old kid? What if Robert Horry had his hands on his hips at the top of the key? What if Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley hadn't ordered his General Manager to shed payroll? What if Magic Johnson doesn't make that hook shot over two defenders? And Larry Bird doesn't miss that corner three seconds later?

Yes, the team needed to be lucky. But they needed an ownership and a front office that could either give them a chance to even have those moments in the first place or capitalize on them when they happened. The Lakers didn't just have tremendous luck and the draw of a large market behind them to bring players to the city. They had a tremendous owner who led with intelligent decision making, a calculating business acumen, a vision for the future and the charisma and conviction to make everyone believe it.

And that's where the true key to success in professional sports is: it's in the ownership. Look all around the sports world. Who are the teams with the greatest long-term success and the strongest track record of staying consistently competitive over decades? The Pittsburgh Steelers, Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants and Denver Broncos. The New York Yankees and St. Louis Cardinals. The San Antonio Spurs, Phoenix Suns, Miami Heat and Houston Rockets.

You know what all those teams have in common? No, not big city appeal. Not the strongest television markets or best weather. For some of them, not even a strong history of winning championships.

What they all share is strong ownership. Long-term owners, whose singular vision has given their organizations a trickle down effect that's empowered some of the finest front office executives in the league. It's hard to quantify leadership in that way--every fan will know the big, splashy decisions, but they'll hardly know the day-to-day minutiae of creating a sports team that becomes more of a brand than just men on a playing surface. Those details are reflected in the proficiency and excellence of those in the organization, and how they work hard in propelling these teams towards winning season after winning season.

Don't believe me?

Les Alexander has owned the Houston Rockets for 20 seasons. They've made the playoffs 12 times and won 2 NBA titles. Jerry Colangelo bought the Phoenix Suns in 1987. They never won a NBA title, but only missed the playoffs three times and went to three Conference Finals during his ownership of the team. Peter Holt has owned at least a piece of the Spurs since 1993. They've missed the playoffs just once in that span. Micky Arison bought the Miami Heat in 1995, and has seen only three losing seasons to go along with three titles (and counting).

The Rooney and Mara families have owned the Giants and Steelers, respectively, for the past seven decades. The Bowlen family has owned the Denver Broncos since 1984 and been to five Super Bowls to go along with 14 playoffs appearances. Jerry Jones is the young owner of the group here, having owned the Dallas Cowboys since just 1989, but for better or for worse, has seen the team emerge into one of the most popular franchises in the sport.

Bill DeWitt's group bought the St. Louis Cardinals in 1995. All they've done since then is go to the playoffs 10 times, win three pennants and two titles. Say what you will about the Steinbrenner family, but since 1973, they've guided the Bombers to 11 pennants, 7 titles and an unreal 22 playoff appearances.

To further prove my point, there's no doubt that it takes more than just a big city and all the inherent financial advantages that it brings.

The Los Angeles Clippers have been under the guidance of Donald Sterling since 1981. The New York Knicks play in the world's most famous arena in the world's most famous city. They haven't won a title in 40 years, with James Dolan being a part of ownership since 1994. Before the current ownership under Guggenheim Partners, the Los Angeles Dodgers had been under a cloud of terrible owners since 1998. It's not a coincidence that the team hasn't won a pennant since 1988.

I'm not suggesting that a terrible owner can't win a title--he or she absolutely could (Jeffrey Loria of the Miami Marlins has wrestled the crown of "Worst Owner in Professional Sports" away from Donald Sterling, but even Loria has a championship ring). What I am suggesting is that it takes a leader like Dr. Buss for long-term, sustained success.

When he passed back in February, the entire sports world was incredibly shaken by his death. Lakers fans were no exception. Dr. Buss' decline had been measured and gradual, but the manner in which he lived, with such passion and exuberance, felt as if there was no mortal cross that could ever wear him down.

Before his passing, like in business, the good doctor was prepared. He had taken several contingencies to make sure the infrastructure of the franchise wouldn't corrode into civil disarray. Jeanie was appointed team governor (and team representative at all NBA owner functions) as well as manager of all business aspects of the team, while her brother Jim would function as the head decision maker on all basketball matters. There would be no power struggle for the Lakers. Dr. Buss had arranged for the team to peacefully remain in guardianship of the very same family that had seen it prosper for the past 33 years.

Whether it be that reason, or simply the team's seemingly impervious reputation, Lakers fans have seemed to be taking Dr. Buss's passing in stride. Aside from the sadness of losing a great man, there's an overwhelming sense that the team will be okay. They're the Lakers, after all.

But...why? When #STAYD12 went up all over town, how was the reaction a rage against the player rather than a realization that maybe this is the new world order?

The Lakers are not the Lakers anymore. The Lakers were Dr. Jerry Buss. They were a personification of his visionary genius and enduring will to win. His team has emerged from what was a dying sport into one of the world's most prominent professional sports teams, simultaneously helping to lift up the NBA with it. It's not as if Dr. Buss was the sole factor; he needed Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal to be three of the greatest players of all-time. He depended on Jerry West to be one of the most daring and calculating executives in the league. He hired Pat Riley to push his teams harder than ever before, and then Phil Jackson to control the egos of his young superstars.

But the driving force behind all of that was the man who had the will to hire smart people who could communicate ideas and would dedicated themselves to winning more than anyone else in the field. Dr. Buss, more than any other owner in professional sports over the past three decades, was able to do that without peer. Smart owners hire smart front office managers. Smart front office managers hire smart coaches and acquire smart players. Smart coaches and players win championships.

Was this past summer the first sign of a franchise in the midst of change? Many will disagree, but a franchise player has never voluntarily left the Lakers--not to mention tens of millions--for another team. With Dr. Buss around, the ending to this story could have been entirely different than the Dwi...nightmare that followed. But don't take my word for it: I'll listen to his daughter who had first hand knowledge to everything that went on this past season.

The parallel story that I keep going back to is comparing the summer of 2013 to the summer of 2004. Nine years ago, another franchise player was a free agent exiting after a season assuredly more successful than the team's 2012-2013 campaign, but somehow even more acrimonious. Kobe Bryant, whether he was right or wrong, was sick of Shaquille's public sniping of him, as well as the three-time Finals MVP's diametrically opposed work ethic...or lack thereof. The pre-Mamba Mamba wanted to be the top dog on his own squad, for the fortunes of the franchise to rest on his shoulders first.

In such a pursuit, Kobe weighed the pros and cons of staying with the Lakers. That summer, he had two clear suitors in front of him. One was the clearly rebuilding Lakers, whose salary cap was maxed out, and the next best players on the roster were a couple of 24-year-olds, Lamar Odom and Caron Butler, a broken down (and expensive) Brian Grant, two sophmores in Luke Walton and Brian Cook and their 27th overall pick, a string bean point guard from Slovenia, Sasha Vujacic. On the other side (literally) was the Los Angeles Clippers, a similarly young team headed by rising star 25-year-olds in Elton Brand and Corey Maggette, along with a 22-year-old Chris Kaman and rookie lottery pick point guard Shaun Livingston. At the time, there really was no contest as to which team had the brighter future: it was clearly the Clippers.

The team tried to make the decision making process easier: they removed the two elements that had seemingly been at odds with Bryant for the past several years. By mid-July, Phil Jackson had left the organization and even with without any guarantee of Kobe's signature, the Lakers traded Shaquille to the Miami Heat. It was obvious that LA was throwing itself at Bryant's feet, essentially telling him that the team was his if he wanted it.

Even still, with all these lures lined up leading back to the Lakers locker room, Kobe has admitted he was very close--too close--to signing with the Clippers. What it took, and what Jeanie was alluding to in that interview, was a last minute, face-to-face meeting with Dr. Buss to persuade Kobe that despite whatever misgivings he had, the Lakers were the best place for him to blossom into one of the greatest to ever play.

And the next day, Kobe Bryant re-signed with the Los Angeles Lakers.

The other guy did not.

It's not as simple as to say "if Dr. Buss were alive, then no star player would ever leave". There are a million different factors that not only differentiate the two men, but also entirely change the circumstances around their free agencies entirely. In many ways, they are not comparable situations. More than anything, a newer more restrictive collective bargaining agreement has turned the NBA world on its ear, with many ramifications we won't truly see come to pass for years down the line. Perhaps that, more than any one man could change the perception of who the Lakers are more than anything. Even then, I would still believe in Dr. Jerry Buss to figure out ways to make the new CBA work to his benefit.

The fact remains that in 2004, nothing the Lakers were doing seemed to sway Kobe and to this day, I still believe it made much more sense for him to leave for the Clippers. What it took to change his mind was the charisma and conviction from Dr. Buss's mouth. That, more than anything, tells me just how strong a visionary this man was.

Knowing all this: how are the Lakers going to be okay? The Lakers, as we have known them for 33 years are no longer the same franchise. The great man who has provided a guiding light towards the trail is now gone. In his place are two of his children, who have surely tried their very best to learn everything there is to know about their father. However, as they will freely admit, can only emulate Dr. Jerry Buss. They will never be Dr. Jerry Buss.

We all have to realize that this year-to-year assurance that the organization will persevere in the long-term is no longer a certainty. That guarantee left when the head decision maker was no longer around to give the final blessing. The Lakers are starting several steps back from the peak they've inhabited for so long, with a couple of people in charge that essentially amounts to two highly trained rookie owners whose decisions are now wholly theirs. Jim Buss, the basketball front office VP under Dr. Jerry Buss is a very successful executive. However, Jim Buss, the basketball front office VP and team owner has no record of winning basketball games. In fact, this Lakers regime has essentially no record of winning anything.

Every single year we believed that no matter how dire the situation or how desolate future prospects seemed, it was either always part of Dr. Buss's grand scheme or nothing he could not handle. There isn't any proof that these new owners will be able to operate in the same manner.

I am not suggesting that the Lakers cannot remain the Lakers. Jeanie and Jim might be able to achieve much of the greatness their father was able to achieve. However, to simply believe in the future of this franchise because they've been great historically is foolish. The primary reason that anyone has ever believed in the Lakers, whether they knew it or not, was because they believed in Dr. Jerry Buss. Without him, I'm not sure what we're all believing in any more.


--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the Silver Screen & Roll Daily Roundup newsletter!

A daily roundup of Los Angeles Lakers news from Silver Screen & Roll