When the ‘16-17 Los Angeles Lakers season started, one would’ve thought it would take outright disaster for people to start thinking about Jim Buss’ future. Well, after a 10-10 start, the Lakers have lost roughly one zillion games in a row and are free falling to the bottom (or top, depending on your perspective) of the lottery. Outright disaster it might not be, but boy does it feel close.
So, the question begs asking: If the season continues in this direction, what might it mean for Jim Buss, Mitch Kupchak and the rest of the front office? Hope you’re comfortable, because this is going to take some time.
First and foremost, we have to figure out if Jim deserves a stay of execution, no matter how the season plays out. In short, things would seriously have to come unhinged around the team. Yes, the vibe around this young group is nowhere near a positive one, but things can definitely be worse. Just look at the last two seasons, for example. Or the Brooklyn Nets. That would definitely be worse.
That said, we should probably get some perspective on the job this front office has done, and whether they can legitimately be credited with the progress that has been made.
Let’s go back to the summer before 2012, in which the Lakers went all-in to get Kobe Bryant another ring. They acquired Dwight Howard in what was seen as a good trade at the time. Steve Nash was added in a potential overpay, but again, the point was to get a title while Kobe had some time left. At the time, the overwhelming vast majority considered the roster Jim, Mitch and the rest of the front office put together an incredible success. Then the season happened.
Should the unmitigated disaster that season turned out to be be held against those who assembled that group? Sure, but doing so with the aid of hindsight seems pretty unfair, especially when, again, those moves were applauded throughout the league.
No one was firing Jim Buss then, even on the most ... passionate ... message boards and comment sections.
We all know how that played out. Howard left via free agency. Pau Gasol followed suit a year later. Nash limped to the finish line of his career and Kobe’s Achilles exploded — a fitting metaphor for how that roster worked together. But again, if you lauded the moves that brought that talent together, you don’t get to fire anyone over how it turned out.
It’s also worth pointing out the role Jim played in the championship seasons before 2012 happened for full context. The last couple years are much more logical grounds for demanding changes in the front office, though. Byron Scott was hired. Kobe got that bleeping contract. Multiple assets walked for nothing in return. Losses piled up. Byron was hired. The Lakers have reached depths as an organization the fans honestly didn’t think possible and the light at the end of the tunnel is still rather dim. Byron was hired. Oh, and if the losses continue this year, the Lakers might send lottery talent to Philadelphia. So there’s that. And did I mention Byron Scott was hired?
All the aforementioned losing led to the likes of D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle and Brandon Ingram at the tops of a few drafts, but it is fair to ask if the Lakers Mr. Magoo’ed their way to that lottery talent. Though if you’re asking that question, you should probably also take into account that Jim and his team found Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance, Jr. (and others) even with the limited means they had to work with while they gutted the future for the opportunity to compete at the end of Kobe’s career.
Kristaps Porzingis is probably the biggest missed opportunity from the last couple years, but had they taken him and missed, that would essentially have signaled the absolute end of their tenure. No one saw this coming from Porzingis, and it isn’t like Russell has been all that disappointing an alternative.
So, with all necessary perspective behind us, let’s ask the question another way: We know the Lakers have made progress, but is it enough to warrant seeing how it all plays out for Jim before we make a decision on his future? Gun to my head, I’d say yes, but boy I am not comfortable with a gun to my head.
If you make a move from this front office, you’re basically saying this core that they’ve assembled isn’t good enough. If you bring in major change at the top, are you then giving the replacements permission to send these guys out for youth or talent of their own choosing? Might that be too much change all at one time? Frankly, I think so. If you’re bringing in a new team to manage personnel, but also telling them to show patience, you may as well keep those who assembled the core you want to be patient with around.
Fans might also wonder about what Jim might do to keep his job. At the current rate, the Lakers seem destined for another trip to the lottery and another March, April and May absent of playoff contention. Jeanie Buss can’t like that, and based on some pretty easy reading of tea leaves coming in the form of whispers around the organization, she doesn’t.
Could a move to keep the Lakers in contention just a little longer be coming so Jim can stick around? I wouldn’t bet on it, and here’s why: Even if Jim was to step aside from his current position, he’d remain a part owner, and any such move would risk the overall value of the franchise if it were to go as wrong as those heading into the 2012 season.
This wouldn’t be Sam Hinkie being fired as his process failed around him. This would be an owner stepping aside to collect profits as others work for him. Tough life, I know.
If moves aren’t going to be made to speed up the process Jim, Kupchak and the rest of the front office have set in place, making a move for the sake of doing so would seem pretty counter-productive. The Lakers have stuck with the toughest parts of a rebuild. They may as well see this thing through.
All this said, let’s just say Jeanie has reached the end of her patience with her brother and thinks it’s time to move in a different direction without completely altering the outlook of the franchise. Is such a move possible? Are pieces in play for it to happen? FIND OUT AFTER THE BREAK.
This is where things get really interesting. The stars are actually aligned fairly well for such a move to take place. If Jeanie thinks the wear and tear from the years of bickering with her brother are too much for the franchise to overcome, she could have him step aside and promote Mitch into his spot. The Lakers have a guy with a pretty famous last name and whom the rest of the league is reportedly keeping a close tab on. Ryan West could step into Mitch’s vacated GM spot and thus the front office could go in a different direction without necessarily completely altering the organization’s makeup.
Oh, and there’s also the chance that Ryan’s father steps in to help his son figure out what it takes to be a successful general manager as his own career in the NBA comes full circle.
Still, none of the above scenario comes to pass unless A) the Lakers continue this free fall or B) enough teams come calling on Ryan West that they feel the need to up his responsibility and keep him around. Basically, it’s the hypothetical resulting from a few hypotheticals that are still months away from coming to hypothetical fruition.
Where does this leave Jim and Jeanie Buss and the Lakers as a whole, then? It’s really up to the siblings to come to some kind of understanding internally. Shortly thereafter, they’d need to present a consistent message publicly so this doesn’t remain an issue moving forward. Remember, even if Jim is kept around after this season, it isn’t like Jeanie has given him a vote of confidence moving forward. As easy as it’s been to blame Kobe or recent losses for free agents passing on donning a purple and gold uniform, the cloud of organizational ambiguity isn’t a great first impression when meetings start.
Hinkie ran out of patience from his team’s ownership. Sure, there were shortcomings along the way, but at the end of Hinkie’s tenure, the Philadelphia 76ers found themselves at a much better spot than when he started. I can’t help but feel at least slightly cheated he isn’t able to see his process fully take place. Yes, Jim’s tenure has been marked by highs as high as the lows are low, but much of his issue comes from a complete disregard for public relations than competence at his job.
If Jeanie is legitimately considering a change at his position, she’ll take all this into account and, as you’ve seen over the last, oh, 1,500 words or so, there’s plenty to consider. Based on Jim’s recent comments, he isn’t stepping down anytime soon. Based on the flashes we’ve seen from the Lakers’ young core and what that could mean in the years to come, he shouldn’t.