Jim Buss has had his competence questioned since he was given full control of the Los Angeles Lakers' basketball operations. Every single decision he's made has been endlessly evaluated and judged, his every quote parsed to the letter. This is, frankly, par for the course when a man is put in charge of an organization as storied and cared about as the Lakers. But has Jim Buss been a total failure, a case of nepotism run rampant?
This isn't James Dolan and the New York Knicks, where aside from a few blips in his ownership history, Dolan has proven to be too much of an organizational cancer to produce a winning product. So what's led to this narrative loop where Buss gets seemingly more than his fair share of blame when things go wrong, and very little credit when things go right? Maybe it came about because he is less personable, more reclusive, and let's face it, less interesting than his father Dr. Jerry Buss.
But being uninteresting doesn't make everything that has happened since he accepted responsibility of the team a failure, nor is it necessarily as negative as it often seems. Despite the Lakers hitting franchise lows on-court, the organization is now likely on a path to get back on its feet sooner than later with the No. 2 pick in hand.
Let's look at Dwight Howard's departure. Howard didn't actually take less money by leaving the Lakers for the Houston Rockets, because Texas has no state income tax. How much less he took in real dollars will not be known until Howard signs his next contract, given he could only receive a four-year deal from Houston as opposed to the five he would have been offered by LA.
Even if he does end up losing money, it will be because he fell apart physically, meaning the Lakers may have dodged a bullet when Howard walked down that Staples Center tunnel for the last time, yelling at Mitch Kupchak all the way. With Howard's health struggles over the last two years, is there anyone left who thinks the Lakers would be better off with limited financial flexibility and three more years of Dwight than they are with Julius Randle and their second overall selection in the 2015 NBA Draft, both on cost-controlled rookie contracts?
Some would argue that this point is moot, because Buss tried to keep Howard. But does anyone honestly believe they would have let Kobe Bryant in to lecture the notoriously sensitive Howard on how to win if the organization was truly going to be heartbroken if he left? The Nash trade went horribly, no one disputes that. It was also a trade the majority of teams with holes at point guard would have made at the time. If not for incidental and freak contact with Damian Lillard's leg, that transaction may have looked much different.
Kobe's contract was a huge sink in the team's salary structure, but it's going to be off the books after next season, just in time for the summer of Durant. It also was a good business move for the team, and one that didn't really keep the Lakers from making other moves thus far. The roster's been so far from competitive, and the market for talent so slim over the last few summers that it hasn't been much of a factor.
Instead, the team has stuck to a plan: take their Hail Mary in free agency, but otherwise sign cheap players with possible upside and evaluate them for a role going forward. The organization has been committed to this plan despite howling from local and national media, not to mention a few Lakers legends. It was a turbulent ride filled with more losses than the team has ever endured in a two-year stretch, but they're already on the cusp of cashing in.
The front office deserves credit for a few of the strengths it has shown as well. For all the ESPN fueled criticism of their analytics department, the team's scouts have pretty consistently found talented players either late in the draft (Ryan Kelly, Robert Sacre, and most notably Jordan Clarkson) or off the street (Tarik Black and Jabari Brown). None of those guys are going to carry the team back to contention, but they provide nice depth and demonstrate a knack for finding overlooked talent. The Lakers are also said to work with one of the best international scouts around.
Maybe Jim Buss is awful. In the end, it may not even matter as much as most think. We've seen that owners can, by all accounts, be bumbling, pretty awful to work for, or both, and still haul in big free agent fish. All you need is an attractive young core and environment to sell, and you can still land a blue chip player.
Buss has made mistakes. So has every person who's run an NBA team. But maybe -- just maybe -- with the draft-lottery-fueled good vibes in the air, fans can find it in their hearts to give Buss a chance to actually make a major error.
Follow this author on Twitter at @hmfaigen.