The Los Angeles Lakers have lost 12 of their last 13 games, but just a few weeks ago it was impossible to look at the team’s 10-10 start and not feel like progress had been made. The Lakers were fun to watch, appeared to be having fun playing alongside each other, and had made massive strides in their effectiveness on both sides of the ball.
Still, the team’s recent struggles have served as a rude reminder that the Lakers are very likely not a playoff team, much less a team primed to make any type of postseason run. For most rebuilding organizations that type of progress would be fine, however, the Lakers aren’t just any rebuilding organization. Their vice president of basketball operations, Jim Buss, set a deadline for himself to get back to at least the second round of the playoffs by this summer a few years ago. If he didn’t, he said he would step down.
Will he really do so if the Lakers are showing progress? In comments he made to Bill Oram of the Orange County Register, that doesn’t sound like Buss’ plan:
“This was quotes from three or four years ago,” he said. “Those were what the path was supposed to be.”
On that front, Jeanie Buss has been unequivocal. She said as recently as February that anything less than the second round of the playoffs would qualify as falling short.
Therein lies the stark divide between the siblings.
Jim Buss said injuries and the Kobe Bryant farewell tour derailed what were otherwise reasonable expectations. He now believes in a different measuring stick.
“If I feel that the strides have been made,” Jim Buss said, “and the team is going in a very positive – not just a positive direction – a very positive direction, I don’t see a switch happening.”
That decision ultimately won’t be up to Jim. His sister, Lakers president Jeanie Buss, didn’t give much clarity on what her plan is, telling Oram that the team would reevaluate things when the season is over. Has Jim made the necessary “strides” to save his job without a playoff berth? It depends on how one looks at this Lakers team.
Are they the 10-10 squad that ranked as the NBA’s 13th-most efficient offense and (at least not bottom of the league) 27th-most efficient defense? Those Lakers were only being outscored by 3.1 points per 100 possessions, the mark of a scrappy, young, and competitive team that was in games until losing at the end. They were assisting on 55 percent of their baskets (21st in the NBA) while posting the league’s 10th-best true-shooting percentage.
If that’s the team one thinks the Lakers are closer to being, then the rebuild looks a lot rosier than if they are nearer to the team that’s played the last 13 games. The Lakers 12 losses over that span rank as the worst mark in the NBA, two more than even the lowly Philadelphia 76ers.
The Lakers have the fourth-worst offense in the league during that time, while defensive efficiency (allowing 114.1 points per 100 possessions) has been almost five full points worst than their defense from the prior season (which already was the worst in the league). The team’s percentage of assisted baskets has dropped to 51 percent (28th in the league) and their true-shooting percentage now ranks 27th.
So which team are the Lakers closer to being? Even if their youth and recent injuries would seem to point towards the team’s future being a bit brighter than their last 13 games would suggest, only the rest of the season will tell, which seems to be Jim’s point:
“It’s hard to comment on something that hasn’t even happened yet,” he said. “We’re assuming that the Lakers will not be in a position for me to stay confident about me staying in that position. You’re trying to predict where we’re going to be. If we end up being the worst bottom three teams, I can say you’re right. But I don’t think we are.”
If the Lakers show progress, Buss said, and “the coach is happy with everything the front office is doing,” he does not expect he will be going anywhere. With those caveats, Buss reinforced his earlier point: “I think it would be a big mistake on the Lakers’ part to make any switches.”
The Lakers not ending up as one of the league’s three worst team’s isn’t a lock. Their recent skid has left them with the league’s seventh worst record, only two games “back” of being even with the Brooklyn Net’s for the NBA’s worst mark.
That being noted, it’s hard to see the team being bad enough to be worse than four of the team’s “ahead” of them in the race to the bottom for the rest of the season (image via the invaluable Tankathon):
Unlike all those other teams besides Brooklyn (who are still going to be awful), the Lakers also have zero incentive to tank because their first-round pick goes to the Philadelphia 76ers if it falls outside of the top-three in the 2017 NBA draft, something it has a nearly 60 percent chance to do even if the Lakers finish with the third-worst record in the league.
So would the simple act of not finishing with one of the league’s three worst records be enough progress to save Jim’s job without a miraculous playoff run? After the first 20 games, I think most would have said yes. After the last 13, his approval rating has probably dropped some.
How competitive the Lakers are for the rest of the year will probably be the largest determining factor in how things end up for Jim. The team doesn’t need to go .500 the rest of the way, but they also can’t be outscored by 13.7 points per 100 possessions as they have over the last 13. Luol Deng probably needs to continue his recent surge in production, while the Lakers’ young players need to show a bit more on both sides of the ball again, like they were during the Lakers’ 10-10 start.
Whatever ends up happening, the largest takeaway from these comments is that the public is once again being made aware of the Lakers’ tumult at the top. Jim and Jeanie both seem to be being honest when they say they have no idea what is going to happen at the end of the season, which is a problem for the Lakers. This team needs direction, and this latest evidence of uncertainty is going to do very little to help the organization’s standing both with their fans and free agents around the league.
Whether it’s Jim Buss, Mitch Kupchak, Phil Jackson, or the ghost of Red Auerbach, these latest comments from the Buss siblings are the latest reminder that the Lakers need to provide a clear and coherent plan for who is going to be running the team over the next few years.