It's considered heresy to write anything negative about Jerry Buss, but I'm going to do it right now. With the Lakers falling to second-to-last in the Western Conference, I blame Jerry Buss for the team's woes this season.
When Buss owned the Lakers, he was famous for relating well with his players on a personal level, but he always left basketball decisions to basketball people. So it was bizarre when Buss decided to make his son Jim the "Owner/GM" after his passing. Of all people, Jerry should have known that an "Owner/GM" in charge is usually a recipe for failure.
It's true that Jerry Jones and Al Davis had success early in their careers, but both saw their teams' fortunes fall as times changed and the game got more complex. However, at least Jones and Davis had a background in football before they became owners. Jim Buss never played real organized basketball. At 6-feet-2 he was probably the tallest person at his horse racing jockey school. I would be the first person to say that playing experience doesn't mean you'll make a great GM, but it's not as if Buss has a degree from MIT like Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey. Buss is a USC dropout.
It's an owner's responsibility to establish an organizational culture. This is arguably where Jim Buss has failed most. Many credible basketball people who are close to the Lakers have absolutely trashed Buss in public, including Phil Jackson, Magic Johnson, Brian Shaw, Ronnie Lester and others. I'm still baffled as to why Buss fired 20 support staff during the NBA Lockout, including Assistant GM Lester and about a dozen scouts.
Smart organizations don't fire all their scouts when times are tough. Instead they want to create an atmosphere that attracts the best basketball talent evaluators. At a time when the Lakers knew their roster was aging and knew they'd need to build for the future, they became an unappealing place to work for the people who could best help them move forward. After being unceremoniously dumped by the Lakers after 24 years, Lester now lends his scouting skills to the surprisingly successful Phoenix Suns.
In the meantime, under Jim Buss, the Lakers have lagged behind the rest of the league in innovation. Teams like the Spurs, Rockets, Warriors, Thunder, Grizzlies, and others have all been successful by embracing analytics and advanced scouting technologies. While half of the NBA's teams had installed motion tracking cameras from STATS LLC, the Lakers were one of the league's holdouts before all teams were require to use them.
If you ask anyone in the Lakers front office about innovation, then they'll tell you how they were the first team to have NBA Development League franchise. However, their D-League team has done a lackluster job of producing quality NBA players. It seemed like no matter how many games Devin Ebanks played for the D-Fenders, he just wasn't going to prove he belonged in the big show. Either the NBADL idea doesn't work, or the Lakers need to reevaluate their strategy.
A few weeks ago, I wrote that the Lakers should tank this season in order to get a higher draft pick. According to reports, this year was expected to be the deepest and most talented NBA Draft in a generation. Unfortunately, it looks like those reports were greatly exaggerated. Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker have disappointed somewhat. The No. 1 overall pick is now projected to be Kansas center Joel Embiid from Cameroon, who didn't start playing basketball until he was 16. Michael Olowokandi and Hasheem Thabeet come to mind as other African-born centers who didn't start playing basketball until their mid-teens, yet wound up being highly drafted busts. In other words, the Lakers will need to scout really well to find a good player in this draft, regardless of how high their pick may be.
With poor leadership, and a lousy roster outside of Kobe Bryant, it looks like the Lakers are doomed to have many dark years ahead. But there is one way that the Lakers could potentially save themselves. It's with Phil Jackson.
In an interview with the LA Times this week, Jackson hinted that he'd love to run the Lakers basketball operations. Jim Buss should let him. If the Lakers are going to get out of their current mess, then they're going to need some creative thinking. They are going to need a dramatic overhaul of their organizational culture. And they're going to have to start doing things that no other team is doing.
Phil Jackson brings that X-Factor to the Lakers. Few men in basketball are as intelligent and innovative as Jackson. If Phil were in charge of the Lakers then he'd establish his Zen Hoops philosophy across all areas of the franchise. He would also bring credibility to the organization and would help attract free agents in the same way that Pat Riley helped bring talent to the Miami Heat.
In reality, there's few top-line free agents who could even come to the Lakers in the coming seasons. But they do have a ton of cap space next year to sign mid-tier free agents. I don't have much faith in Buss's ability to scout and evaluate the free agent market, but Jackson would bring in guys who fit his system and culture. If the Lakers can't get a superstar player, then at least they could be competitive next year with Kobe Bryant and balanced and deep supporting cast that could come from their cap space. I trust Jackson to fill those roles.
Jim Buss may not want to give up that kind of authority, but if he wants to emulate his father's success, then delegating basketball decisions to basketball people is the best way to go. I have no idea if Jackson will be successful as an NBA personnel man, but he is one of the most brilliant basketball minds in the game today, and he certainly deserves the opportunity. As the fiancé of co-owner Jeanie Buss, Jackson is essentially part of the Laker family.
And if Jim wants to be as loved as his father, then people of Los Angeles will embrace him if he chooses to be just an owner, and not an "Owner/GM."