Jim Buss and the myth of Lakers' exceptionalism

Kevork Djansezian

By believing that the L.A. Lakers will remain dominant simply because they are the L.A. Lakers, Jim Buss and his enablers do the franchise and its fans a real disservice.

When you convince yourself that you are by definition exceptional, you forget that gravity applies to everyone. The leaders of the L.A. Lakers -- particularly Jim Buss, the owner's son and heir apparent, who essentially runs the club these days -- don't consider the franchise just another NBA team. The Lakers are special. The Lakers have their own rules. The Lakers are exceptional, and the rest of us just wouldn't understand.

But gravity applies to everyone.

When Phil Jackson retired for the third time in 2011 after five championships in L.A. including two with the Kobe Bryant-Pau Gasol-Andrew Bynum core, Jim Buss sought to excise all reference to the Zen Master's reign. He gave short shrift to the obvious successor, Brian Shaw, the choice of Kobe, Phil and the fans, and a well-respected assistant coach to boot. Shaw got pushed aside so that Buss could pick someone outside the Jackson imprint. Continuity matters in the NBA, especially at the very top. Rare is the team that wins a title the first year together -- it took the Miami Heat a second season together and with Erik Spoelstra to raise the O'Brien. Buss could have preserved some continuity by more seriously considering Shaw, Jackson's old hand and someone intimately familiar with the Triangle as well as the talent's strengths and weaknesses.

But Buss ignored the role of continuity, because he reasoned that these are the Lakers, and those basketball maxims don't apply.

Continuity doesn't just matter on the court; it matters in the front office, too. History suggested that the Lakers' longtime scouting crew knew what they were doing. History suggested that Ronnie Lester and his staff knew how to help prepare the Lakers' coaches. So when Jim Buss dismissed them to save cash during the lockout, that was a slap in the face to not only the crew, but to the rules of success in basketball. Buss thinks the Lakers are above those rules, that any old bartender named Chaz can come in, watch a few games and do the job.

Nope. Gravity applies to everyone.

The growing sentiment is that the Lakers weren't particularly happy with Mike Brown after the team's playoff run ended quickly last spring at the hands of the young, excited, and dominant Oklahoma City Thunder. That unhappiness became panic this season. But Buss and the Lakers failed to realize that the team's failures in 2011-12 had as much to do with the stars' ages as anything else. Kobe is getting older. Pau is getting older. Metta World Peace is getting older. Expecting them to do in 2012 what was possible in 2009 and 2010 is just foolish. Gravity applies to everyone. Players get less effective as they age. They can't carry as much responsibility, and if they are forced to, the team will suffer. Kobe is special, but he is not supernatural. Gravity applies to everyone. Even Michael Jordan had his Wizards stint, even if we have tried as a society to collectively erase it. Gravity applies to everyone, including Kobe, Pau and Metta, and that is a major reason if not the major reason the Lakers' '11-12 season ended early, and by placing any major amount of blame for it on Mike Brown, Jim Buss is insinuating that the rules don't apply to the Lakers, for the Lakers are exceptional.

Changes require adjustment. Adjustment requires time. Time requires patience. Adding Steve Nash and Dwight Howard: huge changes. Huge adjustment. Time needed. Patience needed. Implementing a new offensive system, is tricky, especially a complicated system. The Princeton, which Buss and Mitch Kupchak clearly signed off on by allowing Brown to hire an outside coach in Eddie Jordan was a huge change. A huge adjustment. Time needed. Patience needed. The loss of Steve Nash to injury after a preseason without, for the most part, Dwight Howard. Huge changes. Huge adjustment. Time needed. Patience needed.

No patience allowed.

To think that any other coach would have led Kobe-Pau-Bynum to the championship last season is ridiculous. Phil Jackson himself led those Lakers straight into the caldera in 2010-11. To think any coach could seamlessly add Nash, add Dwight and excise Nash all within the span of a month is ridiculous. To think any coach unfamiliar with the moving parts could do a whole lot better at this point, or to think that 1-4 is some un-Lakery catastrophe, or to give the Princeton offense exactly five games is ridiculous. The Lakers are not so special that 1-4 isn't allowed. Even great teams have rough spells. Even championship teams lose games. The Lakers are not so special that the rules of this Earth do not apply. The Lakers are not exceptional by their very existence.

Lakers fans will cheer when Phil Jackson or Mike D'Antoni is hired, and the Lakers, because they are talented as all Hell, will win lots of games and maybe some playoff series and maybe a championship. But this episode shows us that the future will be painful for the Lakers so long as Jim Buss thinks that the rules of decent team management do not apply to him, and so long as Jim Buss believes that the rules of basketball don't apply to the Lakers. The Lakers don't have 16 titles and almost 50 playoff seasons because they are exceptional, it is because the team's management -- West and Kupchak, Riley and Jackson -- have always understood the rules of decent team management and have always understood the norms of basketball and have dominated within their bounds. The Lakers aren't respecting those rules or that history right now, and it foretells trouble once Kobe and Nash are toast and Pau is gone and Howard is all that's left. No matter whether Jackson comes back for a frolicking third act in L.A., no matter what becomes of this season, that reality is stark and avoidable only if Jim Buss comes to terms with it.

The early results suggest that he will not. Some day, we may look back at the Mike Brown era and admit that this is when the Lakers came crashing back down to Earth. If you don't come to terms with gravity, that's all that can happen.

***

The Hook is a daily NBA column by Tom Ziller. See the archives.

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