Unless you live in a cave, you know that Phil Jackson has signed on to be the Knicks’ new Director of Basketball Everything (or something to that effect). The full details of the deal have yet to come out, but initial reports say that Phil will be paid around $12 million annually to be, among other things, the new face of the franchise and shepherd them into the future by, well, being Phil Jackson: owner of championship pedigree. How this plays out for Phil and Knicks isn’t yet known and popular opinion seems to be that he’ll either succeed because he’s Phil Jackson or fail because of James Dolan which, if you are asking me, sounds like a pretty good deal. I wish Phil nothing but the best in this endeavor — and it will be an endeavor, but that’s another discussion.
Of course, Phil’s trek back to his NY roots has brought to the forefront the major question of why is he taking this job with the Knicks and not the Lakers. This isn’t just a fan question either. Kobe Bryant is seemingly asking it. As is Magic Johnson. Phil should be a Laker, only he isn’t. For many, this is a development that induces anger.
I don’t really blame people for being mad. Phil is a charismatic guy who has had a lot of success with the Lakers. The fact that he left three years ago after his team played terribly against the Mavs doesn’t resonate as much with fans as the 5 championships he won with the franchise. This is understandable. Again, I like Phil Jackson and would have welcomed him back into the fold without the bat of an eye. He’s Phil Jackson.
But he is not coming back and that brings forth a reality that many aren’t seemingly ready to face. This is Jim Buss’ team; this is Jim Buss’ time to lead.
Tell the truth, you just got a lump in your throat didn’t you? You heard some ominous music playing in your head, right? Did you get the sudden urge to change the channel even if your TV isn’t on?
I get it. Jim Buss doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence in fans these days. A wretched team this season and the sour taste of last season combined with the departure of Dwight and now Phil will do that to you, I know. The Lakers are down in the dumps and it’s All. Jim. Buss’. Fault.
Except, you know, it isn’t.
I am not here to defend Jim Buss. But I am also not here to rip him to shreds. Jim Buss has proven, as an executive, to be…actually I don’t know what he’s proven. His record is mixed. He has held his current title of Executive Vice President, Basketball Operations for the past 9 years. Before that his title was Assistant GM to Mitch Kupchak, a title he held for 7 years. Doing the math, that is 16 years in the Lakers’ front office “handling basketball related decisions that range from the scouting of players and the NBA Draft to trades and the signing of free agents” according to the Lakers’ media guide.
No one person deserves all the credit or blame for the team’s successes or failures over those years. As has been reported multiple times, the Lakers made most major decisions with input from Dr. Buss, Jim, and Mitch Kupchack with the good Doctor having the final say. Pinning any one decision on anyone besides Dr. Buss — while he was alive — is likely just spin, be it to praise or condemn someone. The fact is, the Lakers experienced a lot of success over the years and have fallen on hard times recently. Credit and blame can be doled out however one wants, but doing so without remembering that every major decision was made by all three of the aforementioned people with Jerry having the final say should probably be put out there first.
Now that Dr. Buss has passed, however, the Lakers are mostly in Jim’s hands. Even though he is not technically the owner — the Lakers were left to all the Buss children in a trust and they cannot sell without every child approving — he is the highest ranking executive on the basketball operations side. The buck, then, stops with him when it comes to player and coach matters.
As mentioned above, this likely gives you pause, but I prefer to see it as an opportunity for Buss to attack the perception that he is some sort of incompetent. For reasons that have nothing to do with ability, this will not be easy. The Lakers are a team of free-agents-to-be paired with players who have great name recognition but are injured and have question marks heading into next season. They have cap space to spend, but with the aforementioned roster issues aren’t necessarily the most desirable landing spot for free agents. They look as though they will have a high draft pick in a talented draft, but it is rare for a single draft pick to turn around the fortunes of a franchise right away.
And then, of course, there is that pesky perception of how good Jim is at his job. Whether it is true or not, the idea that Jim doesn’t have the ability to build a winner damages his, and by association the Lakers’, chances to turn things around quickly. And the only way to change that perception is to do the thing that is made even harder by how he is viewed. If this sounds like an inescapable spiral, it sort of is. The Lakers are in a position where they need several things to go right over the next summer or two — nailing their draft pick, Kobe returning to form, having some smaller FA signings work out very well, etc. These things aren’t impossible, but that’s a lot of things going right in a short amount of time.
The flip side of this, however, is that none of those things happen overnight. It takes time for a draft pick — especially an 18 to 19 year old kid (whose name isn’t LeBron, Shaq, Duncan, Alcindor, Wilt, etc) to prove he’s ready to play at a high level night in and night out and shift a team’s trajectory upward almost instanteously. We won’t know about Kobe’s progress and how he’ll hold up over the course of a rigorous NBA campaign until several months into next season. Free agent signings can always be spun positively on July 1st, but the act of them living up to (or surpassing) the value of their contract comes over the long haul.
This is how winners are built. I understand fans have little patience for stuff like this, but in many ways there’s no choice this time. This isn’t like when Phil Jackson took over the team that Del Harris couldn’t get over the hump. And it definitely isn’t like the team Pat Riley took over that won a championship just a couple of years earlier. There is no ready made roster here that is one piece away. The Lakers are rebuilding and need the time it takes to forge a foundation that a contending team can rest on for years to come.
Doing this any other way would be disservice to everyone involved. And while I have no way of knowing this, I have a feeling the people who know this best just so happen to be Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak. Whether people are willing to give them this time is another story entirely, however.