Wednesday, March 12, 2014

It's Not Ego Preventing Jim Buss from Hiring Phil Jackson (3.12.14)

With Phil Jackson's eventual signing as the president of basketball operations for the New York Knicks, a wave of criticism is being cast toward Jim Buss, the current executive vice president of player personnel for the Los Angeles Lakers  otherwise known as the bumbling son of the late, great, Dr. Jerry Buss.

Kobe Bryant and Magic Johnson, two cornerstones of the franchise, are just the latest to make a call for action "at the top," meanwhile, reporters and analysts have been hounding Jim's decisions since his promotion to a more prominent role in the franchise back in 2005.

According to multiple reports, it was the dying wish of Dr. Buss for his son, Jim, to run the basketball side of the Lakers, while his adored daughter, Jeanie, would run the business side of the franchise. While not necessarily an oppressive form of patriarchy, this ruling has surely had its faults, and it has led to the demise of the Lakers organization, including what is amounting to be the worst season in the history of the franchise.

Things have not gone quite so smoothly throughout the Jim Buss era, notably his failed head coaching hires of Rudy Tomjanovich, Mike Brown, and Mike D'Antoni, to the recent spurning from Dwight Howard — the first big name player to ever leave the Lakers with big money on the table. Jim's most egregious failure certainly has to be the dangling of a head coaching gig over Jackson's head in 2012 before abruptly hiring D'Antoni — this failure led to numerous, thundering, "We want Phil," chants, including, memorably, the night Shaquille O' Neal's jersey was retired.

Clearly, things have not gone quite as planned under Jim's reign. While the Lakers have enjoyed considerable success throughout his time, including two championships, and three consecutive NBA Finals appearances, many attribute such success to the efforts of Jackson in tandem with an all-time great in Bryant, and veteran talents such as Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, and Derek Fisher — and undoubtedly, Dr. Buss's willingness to spend money and pay the luxury tax.

Now, with the Lakers at their lowest, Los Angeles is clamoring for Jackson's return, a beacon of hope, with the desire that he turn around the franchise. The claim that the Lakers are to be a "family run business," doesn't necessarily hold credence considering the fact that Jackson is engaged to Jeanie, and the two are soon to be married. His last name may not be Buss, but it is clear that Jackson carries the best interests of the Lakers with him. So what gives?

Well, obviously, ego. Hiring Jackson at this point in time to be the president of basketball operations would ultimately mean that Jim would, essentially, be firing himself. Lakers fans surely want Jim to sacrifice such ego for the better of the franchise, and Jeanie has certainly endorsed Jackson, but this just isn't going to happen. Jim is not going to step aside for his condescending brother-in-law. He clearly has problems with Jackson that run deeper than a workplace relationship, and despite Jackson's wealth of basketball knowledge, he simply has no interest in hiring him to take his place at the top of the mountain.

And I can understand why. It really isn't all that difficult to comprehend. It's not just ego, or spite, that is holding Jim back, it is the almost certain promise of redemption. It is the, "I can do this, I can be great," mentality. It is the need to prove himself. It is the desire to live up to his father's dying wish, the hunger for credibility.

Jim believes that in two to three years, the Lakers are once again going to be the marquee franchise of the NBA. Simply put, Jim does not want Jackson claiming credit for "turning the franchise around," he believes he can do it himself.

And honestly, he's probably right. While the Lakers could definitely use Jackson as a head coach, that is not the position Jackson desires, thus making Jackson rather superfluous in the ability for the franchise to once again be a contender. The Lakers are set up rather nicely for a relatively quick reload, and Jim knows it.

So how exactly are the Lakers going to turn this thing around?

Well, this coming summer, the Lakers will land a lottery draft pick in what is considered one of the most talented draft classes in a long time  a first for the franchise since Andrew Bynum went 10th overall in the 2005 NBA Draft. This pick is going to be the future of the franchise, whether it is Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid, Julius Randle, Dante Exum, or Marcus Smart. Each of these guys is considered to be supremely talented, and while none of them may be on the level of a transformational player such as LeBron James or Kevin Durant, each of them possess considerable upside.

Then there's the summer of 2015 when it is all but assumed that Kevin Love is going to become a Laker in free agency — and if the Timberwolves are competent in any form, they should trade him before he straight up leaves them. If Love isn't nabbed, there are numerous talented options: Rajon Rondo, Kyrie Irving, LaMarcus Aldridge, Roy Hibbert, Marc Gasol, Nikola Vucevic, Klay Thompson, and Kawhi Leonard, among others. There's plenty of big names here, and certainly one of these guys won't mind a huge pay day while leading the turnaround of the franchise. With plenty of cap room, the Lakers can sign any of these free agents to a max deal.

And that is just the beginning. That 2015-16 season will likely be Bryant's last, as his current two year extension will expire. With a top-flite free agent, a budding young draft pick, and an all-time great leading the squad, the Lakers will likely make some noise in the playoffs — not necessarily championship noise, but surely advancement in the postseason, a great building block for sure.

Following that, comes the summer of 2016, with the likes of Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, Andre Drummond, Joakim Noah, Damian Lillard, Bradley Beal, and Harrison Barnes all available as free agents.

Depending upon Bryant, the Lakers may or may not have room for these 2016 free agents. Bryant's current extension will be expired, but he may not be ready to retire  especially if he feels that the first year of his extension was wasted. If he does retire, the Lakers, if wise in their signings, will certainly have the cap room to offer one of them a max contract to team with Love and the budding young draftee of 2014 who will still be on a cheap rookie deal. If Bryant decides to instead come back, he certainly won't cost himself a shot at championship number six by demanding top dollar, and instead, he'll much more likely be willing to accommodate the franchise in the hopes of bringing another max level free agent to the franchise.

So let's run this down. Top level draft pick in 2014. Top level free agent in 2015. Possible top level free agent in 2016. Unfortunately, the Lakers will not accumulate a top draft pick in 2015, that pick belongs to the Phoenix Suns due to the ill-fated Steve Nash trade. Despite this blunder, and the unknown future of Bryant, the Lakers are set up to reload relatively quickly.

Yes, a two to three year wait for greatness seems like a long time for Lakers' fans accustomed to championships, however, it's really not that long in the grand scheme of things, and as Jim sees it, it's not like Jackson is going to make this process move along any faster.

If Jim truly felt that he wouldn't be able to turn the franchise around, I believe that he would bite the bullet, even with all of the past transgressions, but at this point in time, that just isn't the case. Jackson is sure to bring an aura of greatness to New York, but that is a franchise that hasn't done anything of importance since 1972-73. Jackson's impact will be far greater in New York than it would be in Los Angeles. The Knicks need Jackson to counteract the failure of Jim Dolan's ownership. Meanwhile, the Lakers are just four seasons removed from their last championship.

No matter what, the Lakers are going to have to wait a couple of seasons to once again be great. Next season will likely be rough once again, but as soon as the 2014-15 season ends, things will be looking up. If you think free agents are going to avoid Los Angeles, a marquee franchise with championship pedigree, Hollywood endorsements, the night life, the weather, the beach, and everything else that comes with the franchise, you, simply, are wrong.

Howard may have put a scare in the franchise, but he undoubtedly is an aberration, not the norm. Howard isn't necessarily a young star, and he saw the writing on the wall for the Lakers' problems, as well as the opportunity for immediate success in Houston. His decision had more to do with basketball reasons relative to his age than anything else.

Simply put, Jim Buss will lead the Lakers back to prominence, and when everyone is kissing his ass, he'll beam with an "I told you so," arrogance, an air of intellectual superiority. In actuality, he may have more in common with his father than we know.

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