Over the last few years a vocal set of Lakers’ observers — be it fans or media — consistently called Kobe Bryant the elephant in the room. Kobe was holding the team back, they said. His contract, his dominant persona, his power and sway from two decades of successful NBA summit climbing giving him carte blanche over one of the marquee brands in all of sports. This was the popular narrative for many.
I’d argue, though, that the real elephant in the room was the Buss Family dynamic. The whispers of discord were always present, like the hum from the a/c unit on a hot summer day. After Dr. Jerry Buss passed away, his children were to lead the organization forward and, it seemed, they just couldn’t get on the same page. The hiring and firing of coaches was an especially touchy subject, one tied to personal relationships that fed into reported mistrust which only escalated pre-existing hard feelings.
The last few seasons have tested whatever resolve remains. The Lakers’ poor on court performance led to a self-imposed timeline for contention with Jim Buss promising to step down if goals were not met. However positively or negatively this act has been framed, it was always something which made little sense to make public.
There simply isn’t much, if any, positive traction to be gained from it. Either you succeed in your goal which would have led to the accolades which come with winning anyway, or you fail and now critics not only have the losses to sink their teeth into, but also the circus of you being on the record you would go away because of it.
People will hold you to this. And I don’t mean fans or media. I mean the people who actually can.
This is exactly what, among other things, Kevin Ding of Bleacher Report is reporting today. In a hard-hitting column on the Buss Family dynamic, Ding says the other Buss siblings are looking for results or Jim Buss will be out, one way or another:
That might be enough improvement for the siblings to give Jim more time and not hold him to the strict definition of being “in contention.”
But they aren’t going to overlook anything else just out of a father’s love.
Jim, now 56, needs positive results to prove to them that he deserves this job he was given…
…Jeanie still doesn’t want to take Jim’s job away, but as she said in 2014, she wants him to be held accountable.
Although it appears the five siblings are ready to move on from him in his job at this time next year, even if he doesn’t step down, Jeanie will be left to make the call if there is chaos instead of consensus in what promises to be a must-see sequel to that original family meeting in 2014.
Before getting into the meat of Ding’s reports, two things struck me immediately.
First, what horrible timing for a report like this come out. Free agency begins in three days. The Lakers are looking to make a major impact by signing multiple players. It’s hard to know how much ownership discord matters to potential free agents. Maybe not at all. But if it does, even if just a little, a report like this hurts.
(*Update: I spoke with someone who made what I consider a good point about the timing of Ding’s column. This person noted that agents/player advisers are typically well versed in team dynamics around the league. The point is that if players/agents have any concerns about the Lakers’ front office or ownership, they have had them for sometime and this column doesn’t really impact that. There is an argument to be made that bringing it to light now is still bad timing and it only intensifies the spotlight on these issues at a key time, but, as I wrote, it’s not entirely clear how much this matters to free agents to begin with.)
Further, the Lakers really seemed to be building momentum in the last few weeks. They’d made a coaching change which has been universally well received. Then they kept their draft pick in the lottery, ultimately selecting Duke’s Brandon Ingram. There has been real excitement around the team recently, but this report takes a pin to the balloon.
Second, Ding’s column puts Jim and Mitch Kupchak squarely in the cross-hairs while portraying Jeanie and the other Buss siblings much more favorably. I have no clue who Ding’s sources are, but it’s not hard to see that they are people who are pretty sympathetic to Jeanie. I’m not going to point a finger at her directly, but I always look at unnamed sourced reports from the perspective of “who benefits from this?”. In this case, it is pretty clear that Jeanie and the other Buss siblings come out looking very good while Jim got buried.
One could even argue that with a column framed how this one is, Jeanie is now pretty well positioned to optimize her power within the organization and proceed however she best sees fit. Even though Ding reports any feelings about Jim (and/or Mitch) are only about wanting to succeed and not about a power grab, if one of the main repercussions from Jim being removed (whether that’s his decision or not) is consolidation of power in Jeanie’s hands and all the benefits of that…
It’s not hard to connect the dots here.
As far as the reporting goes, Ding lays out several things that have been hinted at in the past, but never really laid out in a way which was so all-encompassing. Jim is portrayed as aloof, over confident in his abilities, not very hard working, and awkward socially. Mitch is portrayed as a GM who is good at his job, but not personable or very open in ways which inspire a family atmosphere. According to Ding, this plays itself out in multiple ways ranging from him asking for a contract extension in the wake of Dr. Buss’ death to doubts of him being able to serve as a closer in meetings with potential free agents. None of this is good.
In other words, confidence in the abilities of the two top executives on the basketball side is being chipped away at in this column. Whether any given individual wants to buy into this or not is a personal decision, but you better believe many will.
The drama is never too far away with these Lakers, is it?
During this past season even Kobe said, and I’m paraphrasing, that organizational culture starts at the ownership level and that it is up to Jeanie and Jim to work out their differences in order to lead this franchise forward. The implication being, until it happens this franchise will falter. Kobe was right. And, as this report lays out, the Lakers seem to have a long way to go.