The Lakers are now officially and firmly in the hands of an owner whose last name is either NBA royalty or a mode of transportation some Laker fans would like him to ride out of town, pronto. Jim Buss gets that kind of reaction.
The new face of the Lakers wears a lowered baseball cap and raises plenty of suspicion, which is understandable if not totally justified. Is he following the path of his iconic and late father who was universally considered the greatest NBA owner of all time? Or is he a silver-spoon guy with an aluminum foil touch?
Even if you chart Jim's short but eventful timeline as the man in charge of the Tiffany of NBA teams, you witness the violent back-and-forth swings that really don't lend much of a clue either way. All you get is a crook in your neck. Check the wild ride:
Jim overrules his basketball people and convinces his father, Jerry Buss, to draft Andrew Bynum. That decision was gushed over. Bravo, Jimbo.
Jim gets control of the basketball operation from the ailing patriarch and, after Phil Jackson is nudged out the door, rejects Brian Shaw and doesn't consider Jeff Van Gundy as replacements. He goes with Mike Brown. Someone open a window. That stunk.
Jim fires the entire Laker scouting department including Ronnie Lester, who went back to the Pat Riley days, and overrules his GM, Mitch Kupchak, in the process. Daddy Buss would've never done that to Jerry West.
Jim green-lights a major trade for Chris Paul and the response is immediate. Jim came out looking good; David Stern, after nixing the deal, took the lumps.
Jim gives thumbs-up to the summer blockbuster that adds Dwight Howard and Steve Nash and subtracts Bynum and his troublesome knees. The revamped Lakers are looking shaky on the court but please, spare the revisionist history. How many thought the Lakers, at that point, were back in the Western Conference title hunt at the very least? How many owners would've done what Jim did? And armchair GMs? Show of hands?
Jim helps yank the ejector seat under Brown after five games in what clearly is a panic move to rescue a team in turmoil. Well, OK, perhaps erasing a mistake was the right call depending on the follow-up, which is …
Jim ultimately puts the kibosh on Jackson's return, rejecting the legendary coach in favor of Mike D'Antoni. Um, the Lakers are still flirting with .500 ball and looking mix-matched and overmatched and confused some nights, so that's not looking so hot at the moment.
There you have it, the pros and cons of the appointed heir to keep the Lakers entertaining and viable, the man charged with making sure Kobe Bryant's final years aren't spent in vain. Oh, and if that's not a handful, Jim also needs to watch the bottom line closely, because the Lakers are up to their chest hairs in the luxury tax, and unless something changes in the next several months, they must cut a hefty check to the league to cover their salary surplus.
In summary, Jim twice made bad choices with coaches, but as for the other decisions, they all made sense at the time whether they worked out or not. Now he must demonstrate he wasn't shortchanged in the Buss DNA by preventing the Lakers from turning into the Clippers, pre-Chris Paul. They can't afford a stretch where they're rebuilding or hopelessly mediocre or paying too much for a team that's only good for a few rounds in the post-season. Jerry Buss always found a way to keep that from happening on his Rolex because the Lakers averaged one appearance in the NBA Finals almost every other year while he was alive.
Jim is a self-proclaimed Daddy's Boy who studied West and Kupchak for several years to arrive at this point, where he holds final say on personnel matters while sister Jeannie assumes the business end. Kupchak handles the small stuff, but now it's Jim signing off on deals that'll shape the Lakers in the foreseeable future. And that scares people, probably more because of the near-impossible task of living up to Jerry's legacy than anything Jim has or hasn't done.
Jim's most useful asset is tuning out the noise and following his gut instead of the public sentiment, and he's going to need to keep that attitude handy for the future. He ignored it when folks screamed about using a high pick to draft a 17-year-old kid (Bynum). He refused to cave and trade Pau Gasol or Howard at the trade deadline. And he believes not only will the Lakers make the playoffs, they'll be positioned to return to the throne after Howard is re-signed this summer and the Lakers chase LeBron James in 2014, when Kobe's contract is up.
The next few years will require a steady hand and sharp planning, except the Lakers won't have the reassuring presence of Jerry Buss to lean on. How does Jim handle the Howard negotiations? Should he be so tied to a player who already seems unsteady in a bigger, more demanding market? And what about Kobe in '14? It would be a PR disaster if Kobe wants to play another year beyond his contract and Buss, in a mad dash after LeBron, tells Kobe to take a hike and then fails to get LeBron.
That's the kind of aggressive approach Jerry Buss made into a trademark. The difference is, Jerry Buss had the proven track record and the magic to make things happen. Jim is already carving an identity as the spoiled son who has too much sway in basketball decisions, doesn't take advice very well and doesn't know what he doesn't know. Jerry Buss avoided that disaster by realizing West knew more about basketball than he ever did. Buss did choose Kobe over Shaquille O'Neal but mainly because Shaq priced himself out and didn't get along with Kobe and so it was an easy call for Buss.
The best Jim can do is place his trust in Kupchak, who learned from the knee of West and is well-connected in NBA circles, more than Jim. That would require Buss to tuck his ego well under his baseball cap and only push his weight in extreme situations, and that kind of concession might not be in his personality.
There's too much at stake for him to suddenly be a basketball expert. Los Angeles won't tolerate a strong of poor decisions, not at these prices, not after being spoiled by Jerry Buss. The Lakers will always be a destination because of their setting and history, but then, so are the Knicks. And how did that franchise do in the first decade under Jim Dolan after he took the team from his father?
One thing worth mentioning in Jim's favor: If he's so unprepared to steer the Lakers now and especially in the future, why did Jerry Buss -- he of the golden touch and impeccable foresight -- choose Jim instead of Jeannie to handle the basketball end?
Did Jerry Buss show his genius and leave the best decision for last? Or did the owner of 10 NBA championships choose the wrong time to slip up and ensure the Lakers will struggle to win another?