In his first meet and greet with the New York media Phil Jackson made it clear: Jerry Buss was an icon. Intuitively, Jerry knew the type of team the fans wanted to see. So he created that team. And Jerry was adored. These are the facts. The fans loved Showtime. The fans loved the team after Showtime. The fans loved Kobe and Shaq. The fans loved Kobe and Lamar Odom. They loved Kobe and Lamar and Pau. But Jerry Buss died. In the aftermath the fans do not love this thing Jerry Buss’ son has created. These are the facts. The fans do not love Wesley Johnson and Kendall Marshall and Robert Sacre. They do not love not making the playoffs. They do not love losing to the Clippers by 48 points. They do not love weekly humiliations. They do not love games being pulled off of national television because the product is so horrifyingly terrible. They do no love having to put faith in the lottery and a 19 year old when no 19 year old in NBA history has been a top pick and led the team to the title in his first year. In fact, in the past 15 years, not one top three pick in the NBA draft has won a first round playoff series. Not Kevin Durant- he didn’t make the playoffs as a rookie. Not Lebron James- he did not make the playoffs as a rookie. Not Yao Ming- he did not make the playoffs as a rookie. Not- Derrick Rose- he lost in the first round as a rookie. Not Carmelo Anthony- he lost in the first round as a rookie. And so this is what Jim Buss the son has created, this belief in false hope.
And yet Jim Buss has an extraordinary opportunity now that Phil Jackson has left Los Angeles. His plate is full. There are four priorities he has to consider before he can create a team the fans will support. The first thing he has to do is narrow the divide with his sister Jeanie. The perception is he and Jeanie hate one another. Perhaps that is not true. But most people believe it is true and thus there is the damage. A good part of Jim’s job is acquiring talent. But the modern NBA player is sophisticated. He is not going to punish himself by joining something that is broken at the roots. Because nothing grows in dirt. Jim has to find a way to change the impression that he and Jeanie are adversaries. It is true that his father operated in a way that Jeanie was never included in basketball decisions. Why should she be? Dr. Buss had a great instinct for talent and for people and he knew what he was doing. Those particular gifts were not bestowed upon Jim. He has to rely more on advice and on expert opinion. At the very least, Jeanie, the most beloved member of the Lakers children, can be the Lakers voice to the public, their eyes and ears, and represent her family and the team as the team begins this process of repairing their brand.
In the past the Lakers have thrived under chaos. Kobe and Shaq fought. But there were other times when Kobe and Shaq had periods of contentment. On the court they compromised. Kobe let Shaq dominate in the post. Shaq let Kobe take over fourth quarters and road games. That is how teammates operate. Jim has to figure out how he and Jeanie can be teammates without sharing sensitive information he wants to keep private. There is a way to make her feel included without rejecting her entirely.
Jim also has to learn to communicate better with his star player. Kobe’s unhappiness as laid out quite succinctly in the press conference last week was damaging to the organization. Every media outlet picked it up and the sound bites they ran over and over again had nothing to do with Kobe’s knee and what he expects from himself next season. It had to do with the dysfunctional relationship between the two owners. If Jim had a better relationship with Kobe then Kobe could have told him his frustrations face to face and left the media out of it. It is not entirely wrong that Jim and his family are hell bent on following their father’s wishes. It is even understandable. But one of their father’s habits was Jerry Buss truly liked his players. He got to know them as people. He understood them. So when Magic Johnson was not happy with Paul Westhead’s offense he called Jerry Buss. When Shaq was not happy with the Lakers getting swept in the playoffs in 1999 he called Jerry Buss. It is hard to imagine Kobe calling Jim Buss to tell him anything, much less to confide his unhappiness. Instead Kobe did what we knew he would eventually do, he blasted his bosses. And then in a Kobe move, he let it be known D’antoni is damaged goods. He won’t play for him. Which is to say Carmelo won’t play for him either. Or Lebron James. Or Kevin Love. Or Kevin Durant. What Kobe says and thinks and feels has weight with players around the league. He let it be known that as long as the Lakers have D’antoni their free agent market acquisitions are going nowhere.
Phil Jackson has seven principles to create a winning team. One of the principles is that three offensive rebounders are on the floor at all times. Obviously this is not a D’antoni principle since the Lakers are last in offensive rebounding. When was the last time you saw multiple players make the effort to get an offensive rebound? Yeah, like never. That is Jim Buss’ third task. What is the Lakers identity? Is it going to be a three point team who spaces the floor? Or a team that plays in the post? Or a hybrid of both? What is their defensive philosophy going to be? Are they going to be rim protectors? Or quick on the perimeter? Once he determines the identity of the team than Jim can make decisions on who to draft, what free agents are worth signing and more importantly who coaches this team next year.
Although the anti-D’antoni crowd can be heard all the way to the Vatican he has some supporters. Though in the minority they are still vocal. They believe D’antoni can succeed but only if he rids himself of his legendary stubbornness. His three point shooting system can stay if he adds variations-post players who are tough in the paint and fight for points and rebounds. Kobe is a post player; D’antoni is a perimeter coach. Something has to give. Will D’antoni make an adjustment to slow the game down? Teams that play the fastest never win and this year is an example. The three fastest pace teams are in the lottery: The 76ers, Lakers and Timberwolves. The game has to play at a speed in which post players can be skilled at what they do and feel comfortable and supported. The impression of D’antoni is that he would rather lose playing his system than win playing another system.
But if it is not D’antoni, then who? Who coaches this team? George Karl. Byron Scott. Jeff Van Gundy. Stan Van Gundy. Avery Johnson. Or Jim could think out the box and go for a player: Derek Fisher. Derek would help in these last two years with Kobe and he would help recruit Kevin Durant.
It is official. The Phil Jackson era lasted over a decade. It brought five titles and incredible memories. It is over. The Jim Buss era is beginning. The question now is what will Jim to do change his reputation? Or his perception that he is incompetent, nothing more than a rich man’s son who does not know what he is doing. His greatest summer is coming up. At the end of it all a lot of questions will be answered. As for today…goodbye Phil. You were great. We’ll miss everything about you. Your intelligence, your humor, your sarcasm. And most of all, your championship runs.