Jim Buss isn't his father. And that's fine. He doesn't need to be. It's preferred that he doesn't spend his days with the Los Angeles Lakers cowering in the shadows of Dr. Jerry Buss. He should make his own name instead.
Building his own reputation will begin much like Dr. Buss' reign ended—with Kobe Bryant.
What happens between now and the Black Mamba's exodus will forever shape how the son of a franchise-building mogul is perceived. Buss hasn't done enough to warrant our unique praise, and what he has done leaves much to be desired.
Under his watch, Purple and Gold passed on Phil Jackson in favor of Mike D'Antoni. A $100 million product barely made the playoffs. And the Lakers couldn't convince Dwight Howard to stay in Los Angeles, a failed mission Jeanie Buss has already admitted her father could have salvaged.
Her singular assessment is a stance many have taken to define her brother. Not as criticism for a lone decision, but as an all-encompassing sign of incompetence. Nepotism put Buss in charge. Not skill. Placing him at the helm is one of the (very) few makes Dr. Buss ever made. That's what some are saying.
"If he didn't think I was capable of doing this, I guarantee he wouldn't have put me here," Buss said of his father, as quoted by ESPN Los Angeles' Ramona Shelburne. "He would have arranged something else."
The time has come for him to prove it, to prove Dr. Buss right and any existing skeptics wrong.
Life After Dr. Buss
Los Angeles hasn't moved on from its previous pioneer. Not really.
For more than 30 years, Dr. Buss was a safety net. The Lakers were never rebuilding. Even in a losing season, we all knew a return to prominence was just around the corner.
To a point, the Lakers are still functioning under that same guise. It's just assumed that they'll right this ship—in spite of their current leader if they have to. That right there is the problem. Buss needs to be part of the solution to Los Angeles' present quandary.
Rebuilding in Lakerland is taboo, yet he told Shelburne it's exactly what his father spoke of before his passing.
"My dad said, 'You know what? D'Antoni's the guy,'" Jim explained. "'I've always liked him. Showtime. I think it will be fun basketball as we make the transition [from the Kobe Bryant era].'"
Somewhat ironically, Buss' future is tied to the Kobe era. He must find a way to maximize what's left of the Mamba's time while simultaneously executing that transition his father spoke of.
Not since Kobe debuted have the Lakers faced such a problem. They've had issues, that's for sure. There was once a time he called Smush Parker and Kwame Brown teammates. Struggles mattered very little, though. Unpleasant results and infrequent failures were transient.
That Jerry Buss mystique is almost gone. Enough of it lingers to believe the Lakers will find a way, but enough of it has vanished to where we're not completely sure.
Someone different is lighting the way now. And it's a different way the Lakers are traveling altogether. Jim isn't trying duplicate his father's success; he's trying to create his own legacy.
And he's doing so while juggling a crisis load no one in Tinseltown has faced in decades, Dr. Buss himself included.
Rebuilding Around Kobe (Sort of)
There's no such thing as an easy rebuild this side of the CBA. Financial limitations have never seemed more constricting, and not even the most cash-flushed teams are above them.
Refurbishing the Lakers' roster around Kobe (again) is especially difficult. For starters, he's 35 and still rehabbing a torn Achilles. The rebuild in question can't begin until next summer, when he'll turn 36.
Selling prospective free agents on joining forces with a superstar over 35 is no picnic. Mark Cuban and Dirk Nowitzki would attest to that. When that star is Kobe, the process is kind of like a picnic—invaded by thunderstorms, mutinous ants and, even worse, store-brand mayonnaise.
Kobe isn't like most superstars, and in many ways that's a good thing. You poke a (Chicago) Bull, you get the horns. Pester LeBron James, he'll show you his (nonexistent) hairline. Badger the Mamba, he'll pierce you with his fangs (or jump shot).
The Lakers love that. Kobe's on- and off-court persona has carried them to five titles over the past 17 seasons. That's like a championship every three years.
Now that persona is a problem for the Lakers and for Buss.
Los Angeles can no longer assume everything is going to work out. There's no evidence to suggest they'll land a star free agent (or two) as planned next summer. LeBron, Carmelo Anthony and whomever else they chase may be out of reach.
Why? Because of Kobe.
ESPN's Henry Abbott penned a beautiful piece on the perils of next summer for the Lakers. Within it, he explained how strenuous the task at hand is because of Kobe:
The second reason the Lakers may struggle to get a free agent is that Bryant has gained a reputation as a difficult teammate. The Lakers have been a fine destination of late for role players, but not for would-be stars such as Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, Shaquille O’Neal and Andrew Bynum, none of whom get the ball as much as they'd like, and all of whom, despite playing well, become targets for media scorn.
Another agent says: "The Lakers are Kobe. You have to understand that. It's not the organization for you if you want the ball or the spotlight. All that glitters ain't gold."
I asked a third agent, who has a Lakers client right now, if he thought Bryant might be a sticking point for free agents. His immediate response: "Uh, duh. Yes."
The Lakers are Kobe. It's been said before, and it will be said again, but it really sticks with you in times like these.
Buss doesn't have to sell LeBron, 'Melo or anybody else on the Lakers. Like I said, there's enough residual charisma from the Dr. Buss era to do that. His reputation and the team's propensity for winning are still intact.
Now's the time when the Lakers have to sell everyone on Kobe, on his willingness to make room for another star the way he never did for Shaquille O'Neal. Or Dwight Howard.
Then Buss has to sell them on Los Angeles' ability to afford all this.
On the surface, everything looks great. The Lakers have just over $10.6 million in guaranteed contracts leading into 2014-15. Heads burst at the thought of what they can do with around $50 million worth of buying power.
Only they don't have that much. There are cap holds to consider (more on this later) and, more importantly, Kobe has said he won't take a pay cut. And he's slated to make over $30 million next season.
How's that going work out with LeBron? Or 'Melo? Or Andris Biedrins?
Pau Gasol's future is at play here too. He won't be priority No. 1, but without him the Lakers are left with a gaping hole in the middle. They could attempt to replace him by pursuing players like Andrew Bogut and potentially restricted free agent DeMarcus Cousins, but those guys cost money. So would Gasol. And apparently, so would Kobe.
Bringing back the Mamba while filling the needs of the roster and landing another star won't be impossible. But looking ahead, Buss must wade through pallets of that picnic-destroying, store-brand mayo to make it happen.
Where Do the Lakers Go from Here?
Wherever Buss convinces Kobe to take them.
Buss knows the stakes. It's up to him to sell Kobe on them, just as he'll have to sell his future targets on the Mamba. Since any future the Lakers hope to have still begins with Kobe, this is the most pivotal part of the process.
First, we have to acknowledge Kobe isn't going anywhere. Renouncing their rights to the future Hall of Famer is a great way to clear $30-plus million off the books. It's also not going to happen. Remember, the Lakers are Kobe.
Next you have to look at the financial situation. Grantland's Jared Dubin posted an informative piece on various scenarios Los Angeles could explore. No shred of intel he provides is more valuable than that of the cap holds.
Including Kobe, the Lakers would have three players on the docket next summer, meaning they would have nine empty cap holds, one for their first-round draft pick ($911,400) and eight at the minimum ($507,336).
Paired with Steve Nash ($10.6 million) and Robert Sacre's ($915,243) salary, and assuming Kobe doesn't take a pay cut and earns another $30-plus million, that gives the Lakers roughly $47.8 million in commitments. That leaves less than $15 million to work with, not even enough for one star free agent, let alone two.
Most likely, that's what Buss and the Lakers are facing—those three contracts. Their available space could lessen depending upon what they do with free agents such as Gasol, Nick Young and the like, but chances are the only guaranteed returns are Kobe, Nash and Sacre.
Fully aware of what he's dealing with, the third part of Buss' process involves appealing to the competitor in Kobe. To that sixth championship ring we know he aches for.
He could dump Nash's salary and create enough room for LeBron or someone else, but who's about to join a barren Lakers roster? Not LeBron. Comfier gigs would await him with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Miami Heat.
Throw 'Melo in there as well. As much as he idolizes Kobe, he'll 1) scoff at the opportunity to start anew on a team with no one save for the Mamba and 2) probably balk at playing for Mike D'Antoni again.
So Buss must convince Kobe to accept that highly dreaded pay cut. Paying Kobe $20 million annually allows the Lakers to offer one max contract. If he's paid between $5 and $10 million, they can go out and offer two. Unless those two stars in question are willing to take steep cuts themselves, Kobe's salary would have to be closer to $5 million.
That's the only way this works—Kobe has to take a pay cut. And Buss must get him to do it. He must show Kobe another championship is priceless. That another two is divine.
Even if he can't make room for two stars, he has to ensure there's room for one, without compromising what little depth the Lakers have (Nash) in exchange for nothing. Or, like Dubin notes, he'll be forced to approve more patchwork, signing mid-tier free agents to short-term contracts in hopes he can flip them for prominent stars via trade later on.
No one in Los Angeles wants this. Fans want to see the Lakers contend. Kobe wants to see the Lakers contend. And Buss needs the Lakers to contend.
Competing for a championship begins with Kobe, just like it has for nearly two decades. Only this time, contending hinges on Buss' ability to effectively preach sacrifice more than it does Kobe's ability to win on his own.
Kobe was and remains one of the Lakers' greatest assets. But he's also one of their biggest obstacles. I mean that in the nicest way possible.
Given all he has done, Kobe can't be slighted or cast aside like some nameless player. He belongs in Los Angeles.
In order for Buss to prove he belongs, he must find the balance between catering to Kobe and the future. Find a way to retain Kobe on the cheap while coupling him with a younger superstar or two, and we'll always remember what he did.
Fail to find that stasis, and we'll remember that too. We'll remember everything.
"Change scares everybody," Buss told Shelburne. "I understand that."
Change can't scare Buss. He can't afford to fear it. More importantly, change can't elude him or the Lakers either. Things can't stay the same; they just can't. If they do, in his father's shadow is where Buss will forever stay.
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