L.A. Lakers Drama: Owners Jeanie and Jim Buss on Power-Sharing, Phil Jackson and Filling Dad's Shoes
Magic Johnson, as close to a deity among Lakers fans as there is, also has criticized Jim's leadership. "I don't believe in Jim Buss," said Johnson on national TV after Jackson was passed over for D'Antoni. Jim says those words hurt him and his dad and affected Dr. Buss' feelings about Johnson, who sold his interest in the Lakers in 2010 to join the group that now owns the Dodgers. Jeanie, on the other hand, says of Johnson: "Whenever I've needed his help, he's always been there for me. I couldn't be closer to him." (Johnson couldn't be reached for comment.)
If all this makes Lakers fans uneasy, it should. "The one thing we had when I was there was one singular voice," says Riley. "We had Dr. Buss, [GM] Jerry West and Pat Riley parroting the same thing. When you have three men on the same page talking to Kareem or Magic Johnson, that's powerful. The single voice is so important."
Dwight Howard made that painfully clear this summer: The free-agent center actually bought his way out of Lakerland. League rules intended to coax free agents to re-up with their existing teams allowed the Lakers to offer him a five-year, $118 million deal; any other team could offer a maximum of four years and $88 million. Howard left $30 million on the table to go to the Houston Rockets.
Even with his departure, the Lakers have the fifth-fattest player payroll ($75.6 million) for this season. That includes more than $30 million owed Bryant, who is in limbo after his injury. In short, the Lakers are not close enough to the 2014 championship trophy to see it with binoculars, much less reading glasses. The good news is that the team only has $11 million committed to player salaries for the 2014-15 season, making it a big-time player in next year's free-agent market, which could include LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony.
But the Lakers need to acquire more than salary-cap room if they want to be in play for the league's biggest superstars. "They're living on the History channel," says one free agent, meaning the team remains convinced that the attraction of playing for the Lakers in L.A. is enough. As one NBA agent notes: "The Lakers were built for a different era. Their personnel has been depleted and [research] infrastructure is outdated. It's important to be in a major market, but not as important anymore. And they were always able to spend more than other teams. Now they can't." A longtime opposing assistant coach adds that free agents feel the Lakers' track record is impressive but the team is not on the cutting edge when it comes to marketing, physical therapy or analytics. The sense is that institutional arrogance has caused a slow but evident decay. "It hurts to hear that," says Jeanie, without contesting it.
And the idea that the present-day Lakers will ever again enjoy seven trips to the Finals during a stretch of eight seasons, as they did in the '80s, is hard to fathom for various reasons. Start with the fact that the NBA is set against it.
"The changes in the collective bargaining agreement and revenue-sharing have made it more difficult for any team to stand out, at the will of the owners," says NBA commissioner David Stern. "It's a changed and difficult atmosphere." That Dr. Buss was ill during the latest talks probably contributed to a deal that hurts big-market teams. "Because of his illness, his voice and leadership weren't as aggressive as in the past," says Tim Leiweke, who worked with Dr. Buss when Leiweke was president and CEO of Staples Center owner Anschutz Entertainment Group. "He wasn't there to fight for their view of the world, and this new deal is tougher on them than anybody other than maybe New York."
Working within this new framework, Jim still has had his successes. He helped orchestrate the deal that landed Howard from Orlando, and he dealt his prize draft pick, Bynum, to Philadelphia right before knee issues cost him the entire 2012-13 season. Prognosticators touted the team he built last season as the favorite to reach the Finals before injuries to Howard, Steve Nash, Pau Gasol and Bryant left them struggling to make the playoffs. He also has a chance to rebuild the team after next season.
Jim insists he's just following his father's blueprint, but the Howard situation suggests he missed a page. Instead of Jim spending time with Howard, the team launched a widely derided media campaign that implored "Stay" on billboards. After Howard bolted, Jim turned on his former star, saying he wasn't surprised or dismayed. "He was never really a Laker," says Jim. "He was just passing through."
Those close to Howard say the Lakers could have persuaded him to stay. Even Jeanie believes that if her father had not been sick, he would have sealed the deal like so many before it. "It's disappointing that Dwight isn't here," she says. "I feel like we failed him."
Jeanie and Jim say selling the Lakers is not an option, though the list of suitors is long and rumored to include Lakers minority owners Patrick Soon-Shiong and AEG as well as Dodgers owner Guggenheim Partners (parent of The Hollywood Reporter). Instead, they must settle on a figurehead who will guide the team as their father did. It won't be easy.
"Each great organization in the NBA has a great personality that defines them," says Leiweke, now president of the Toronto Raptors' owner, ticking off Riley in Miami, GM Sam Presti in Oklahoma City and coach Gregg Popovich and GM R.C. Buford in San Antonio.
And who could that be for the Lakers? Riley is not interested. Neither is West. Jim Buss has made it clear he's fine with Jackson being on the payroll if Jeanie chooses, but he sees his role as a consultant and nothing more.
"Therein lies the great challenge for the Lakers," says Leiweke. "Can they redefine that organization now? The greatness of a franchise is attributed back to great leadership. That person was Doc Buss. Always."
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