There is some truth to the saying- the man who has the gold makes the rules. For decades this was true. One man set the agenda. It helped that he was Intelligent and fearless, he used instinct, insight, guile, and trust and relied upon a gambler’s heart as he navigated his way through a host of NBA coaches. Dr. Buss said who was hired. He said who was fired. Never afraid to lead from the front, Dr. Buss had a certain vision. So when he dismissed Paul Westhead two years after he took the Lakers to the NBA Finals and then snatched Pat Riley from the broadcast booth and placed him front and center as the creator of Showtime it was part of the Buss magical touch. Nine years later Dr. Buss hired Mike Dunleavy. All Dunleavy did in his first year was take the Lakers to the NBA Finals. The Lakers made the playoffs in Dunleavy’s second year even though Magic Johnson was no longer an active player.
In 1992, a new Lakers era began: the lean years. First there was Randy Pfund. He was a Riley assistant. He won 45% of the 80 games he coached and the Lakers made the playoffs once, losing in the first round to Phoenix. Next was Bill Bertka, another Riley assistant who coached for two games, followed by Magic Johnson who won 5 games as a Lakers coach, 31%. Dr. Buss then hired Del Harris who, in his first two years, won 48 games and 53 games. He made it to the Conference Semi’s in his first year and lost in the first round in his second year. Then his world turned upside down. In 1996 Shaquille O’Neal was signed as a free agent and Kobe Bryant was acquired through a trade on draft night. In his third year Del Harris was ridiculed for being patient. He wanted to take his time developing the Lakers 18 year old rookie which angered the rookie and his parents and Lakers fans. As the years passed it was difficult for soft spoken Del Harris to manage the conflicting egos of Kobe, Nick Van Exel and Shaquille O’Neal. In his four years as Lakers head coach Del made the playoffs each year with two appearances in the Conference Semi-Finals, one year losing in the first round and one year losing in the Conference Finals. He won 66% of the games he coached.
Next in line for Dr. Buss was Kurt Rambis. He coached 37 games, winning 64% but the Lakers were swept in the Conference Semi-Finals by the San Antonio Spurs and Shaq had enough. He demanded Dr. Buss call Phil Jackson. Of course it was the best thing Dr. Buss ever did even if it had him reaching outside of the Lakers coaching tree. In his first tour Phil won 70% of the games he coached. He won three NBA titles. His 2000-01 team set a NBA playoff record. They were 15-1. Their one loss to the Philadelphia 76ers and Allen Iverson was by 6 points. Phil won 55+ games 4 out of 5 years. He never went to a 7th game in the NBA Finals.
Phil’s second tour would be the last coaching hire by Dr. Buss. He convinced Kobe it would work and it did. Phil won 66% of his games. 4 out of 6 years he won 57+ games. He won two NBA titles and a game 7 against the hated Celtics. For that he will forever be adored.
Dr. Buss handed the coaching hire duties to his son Jim out of loyalty. It ushered in the disaster years. Jim hired Rudy Tomjanovich who lasted 43 games then quit. Jim bypassed Brian Shaw and hired Mike Brown because Brown wowed him in the interview. Mike Brown won 45 games, lost in the Conference Semi-Finals and then was fired after 5 games into his second season. It would get worse. Mike D’antoni, a ridiculous hire when you are trying to keep Dwight Howard, took the Lakers to a depth of despair they hadn’t faced in thirty years. Under D’antoni the Lakers made one playoff appearance. They were swept by the Spurs. They lost a free agent. They lost their identity as a dominant franchise. Add to that D’antoni won 43% of games he coached.
So here we are. Sixteen months after the passing of Dr. Buss, the Buss children are taking a new approach to hiring a coach. It is not about one man. It is about all of them-they are all in. Not just Jeanie and Jim. But Janey, Johnny, Joey and Jesse. They all are going to have some say in who the new coach is, according to Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times. While the interviews will be conducted by Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss, the information gathered in the interviews will be relayed back to all of the siblings for them to ask questions and voice their opinions. Jeanie, who is the Governor for the team, has the most clout. There has been a lot of speculation on why so many coaching candidates and why so many interviews: this is why. You have a lot of co-owners who are going to want their questions answered and who need to be convinced. Contrary to public skepticism and opinion, Jim Buss is not on his own island making decisions that will ultimately sabotage a franchise. He is working with his sisters and brothers. In this they answer to each other.
Larry Brown is out, according to him. Byron Scott is in, very in, according to him. Mike Dunleavy and Alvin Gentry met with Kupchak only. Derek Fisher has an interview coming up. Scott Skiles? Who knows. This much is clear. The way the Lakers used to do business, the way the Lakers used to hire a coach, the way the Lakers understood trends and the future while still connecting with the past, all of it passed when Dr. Buss passed. The kids are doing their best to run things the old fashioned way but this is unchartered territory, this democracy. Even they don’t know if they can follow in their father’s successful footprints. Only time will tell if their way is indeed the best way.