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IN ANY AUTOPSY OF THE LAKERS, JEANIE BUSS DESERVES THE MOST BLAME
Protected from criticism in a town that loves her, the owner has allowed her late father’s franchise to unravel amid shocking dysfunction, mostly because she lets too many people make bad decisions
Her Hollywood friends won’t like reading this, nor will raging feminists looking for a Twitter fight. But Jeanie Buss is a terrible owner. The woman who helped build “Showtime,’’ under her late father’s swashbuckling whims, has created a Lakers debacle that only can be called “Shitshow.’’
If she knew what she was doing, she wouldn’t have allowed her franchise to be hijacked by LeBron James and Rich Paul, who met 20 years ago when Paul was selling throwback jerseys out of his trunk in Cleveland. And she wouldn’t have let Kobe Bryant’s agent, Rob Pelinka, weasel his way into a big front-office chair requiring chops way bigger than his. And she wouldn’t have given authority to longtime pal Linda Rambis and her doofus husband, Kurt, who at least should wear his goggles as he snoops. And she wouldn’t have enabled a loose-lips culture that leaked the news of coach Frank Vogel’s firing, to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, before Vogel was told himself.
“I haven’t been told shit,’’ Vogel said in Denver, hours before he officially was informed in Los Angeles.
That word was used often during one of the most abysmal, dysfunctional (insert your preferred adjective) seasons in recent sports history. “It feels like shit,’’ James said after his team blew a 23-point lead in a critical loss to, um, New Orleans. And while fingers were pointed Monday about the cause of a 33-49 crash — management blaming Vogel, Anthony Davis blaming Russell Westbrook, Westbrook blaming Vogel, James blaming injuries, and seasoned folks like me blaming James and Paul for orchestrating a Westbrook trade that stunk from the jump like, well, you know — nobody was holding truth to power atop the steaming pile.
It’s unfathomable to think the once-glittering Lakers brand has slipped into punchline territory. But Buss has let it happen because too many people have her ear, including her former president of basketball operations (Magic Johnson) and her 76-year-old former boytoy (Phil Jackson), which suggests she is too incompetent to trust and make her own judgments as custodian of the Buss Family Trust. I am not exaggerating Paul’s influence on the rise and fall of the Jeanie Lakers. For proof, one could examine the logo on James’ sweatshirt as he conducted his post-mortem for the assembled media.
“KLUTCH’’ just happens to be the overlording agency founded by Paul on James’ coattails, a conflict of interest that should have been investigated years ago by the NBA. “KLUTCH’’ just happens to be the agency that green-lit the Westbrook deal, the poison pill that killed the season and maybe the franchise for years to come. “KLUTCH’’ just happens to be the agency that feeds Wojnarowski, who demands inside information for the editorial favor of never criticizing those who dish. Elsewhere, “KLUTCH’’ just happens to be the agency that represents Ben Simmons, who is holding the Brooklyn Nets hostage the way he held the Philadelphia 76ers hostage, turning what once was a “mental health’’ issue into a “herniated disk’’ that could render him useless in the playoffs.
Everything James does is calculated. That includes his choice of clothing on the day a coach is dumped and fingered for the mess, a day when James and Paul reclaimed their clout, a day when the Lakers recalibrated because a thousand voices were urging Buss to do something. The most convenient choice was to target Vogel, a basketball lifer hellbent on hustle and defense — and the worst fit imaginable for a me-first, no-defense slacker such as Westbrook. If Buss was a good owner, she would have shut down the idea the minute it was proposed last summer by Pelinka, as heartily endorsed by Team Klutch, including James and Davis, who wined and dined Westbrook at one of LeBron’s mansions. If she had any clue whatsoever, she might have realized DeMar DeRozan was a smarter option and nudged Pelinka to pursue him. Instead, DeRozan signed with Chicago and enjoyed a spectacular season doing exactly what Westbrook wasn’t doing — making shots, taking care of the ball, winning games, reaching the postseason.
For a superteam to have any chance of success in a league controlled by megastars and their agents, the organizational structure must be sound. It isn’t working in Brooklyn. It isn’t working in Philadelphia. It worked for a while in the Bay Area, until Kevin Durant fled the Warriors and pursued an ill-advised alliance with Kyrie Irving with the Nets. And it flopped in L.A., where the Lakers are searching for their sixth coach since Jackson stepped down 11 years ago. This franchise has every built-in reason to be the model of stability and sustained excellence — banners in the rafters, legends in the Hall of Fame, dancing girls on the court, celebrities in the stands, sunshine in the sky. Instead, only 18 months after winning a Pandemic Bubble title that now seems fluky, the Lakers are making an easy scapegoat of Vogel … because they can … and because James and Paul knew it was necessary.
“Today is not going to be a day of finger-pointing and unwinding all the specific reasons. We just felt organizationally, at the highest level, it was time for a new voice,” Pelinka said.
Yes, the Lakers need a new voice — at the top. What they need is the vision and muscle of Pat Riley, who still applies old-school, I’m-the-boss leadership while understanding the world around him in 2022. Riley kept LeBron in his place in Miami, and the Heat won two championships as the original superteam. Riley would provide guidance and wisdom for Buss. Riley would end the factions, stop the outside noise from Johnson, tell Paul to get lost and have lunch with Adele. But Riley is 77 and isn’t leaving Miami, where his team is the Eastern Conference’s top postseason seed. Besides, does he really want to work in a town where the show-business culture turned him into a buffoon, played by gnarly-nosed Adrien Brody, in the HBO series about the Lakers’ glory years?
So Buss is stuck with Team Klutch and her inept underlings and whoever calls her first on a particular day, Johnson or Jackson. Anyone crazy enough to want the coaching gig — Toronto’s Nick Nurse is said to be the desired top candidate, as he’s also repped by Klutch — is hereby forewarned: You could be the next Vogel. All of this could have been avoided, of course, had Buss approved a market-value contract for Monty Williams or Lue, both of whom rejected lowball offers and find themselves in much better places today than Vogel, the No. 3 choice who always was treated as such.
LeBron has become an expert in coach-killing. Remember Cleveland in 2016, when he led the ouster of David Blatt only months after the Cavaliers reached the Finals? James will say it was the right call, pointing to the title he won with Ty Lue that season. But if James had his way in Miami, Erik Spoelstra would have been fired instead of sticking around as one of the league’s best coaches. In L.A., he killed Vogel via Westbrook, then tried to blame injuries and bad luck. In today’s NBA, all teams are impacted by injuries and COVID-19 absences, none more so than Brooklyn. But Durant found a way to navigate the Nets into the play-in tournament. James played hero ball down the stretch, trying to win the scoring title, but ultimately wasn’t capable of willing the Lakers past the Pelicans and Spurs. Not that he ever would acknowledge failure, choosing to dwell on injuries that sidelined him and Davis and limited their time as a trio with Westbrook.
“It’s not failure at all,’’ James said. “We came to work every single day, put our hardhats on and tried to get better. Results didn’t happen for us, but it’s not failure.’’
What was it, then? “I mean, at the end of the day, the reason we were not very good together is we weren’t on the damn floor together,” he said. “That is the No. 1 thing. I mean, how many games did we play together? We played, what, a quarter of the season together? I played more games with my high school teammates in a season, and we only played 27 games. So there it is.”
Sorry, that cannot be a justification when James has said at times — echoing a generation that must stop the nonsense that LeBron has one-upped Michael Jordan — that he’s the greatest player ever. He isn’t permitted lazy excuses. Can he at least explain why he initially was so jacked about adding Westbrook? Didn’t he anticipate the possibility of a volatile mix? “Areas I saw where we could complement each other was Russ being the push guard and being able to create tempo, me being the wing threat and getting us running, and AD being a lob threat. I thought we could be very successful with that. And our length, our defensive prowess, too. I thought we could be really good.’’ But collectively, they were too old and broken-down — don’t forget Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard — for such a fastbreaking dream. Even when the trio was intact, the Lakers didn’t play defense and never resembled a crisp, disciplined operation. For that, Vogel deserves some blame, but a year and a half earlier, he was good enough to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy. This season will be remembered for how one wayward superstar, despite his Hall of Fame credentials, can turn a championship coach into an unemployed coach.
“I think it's unfortunate, to be honest, because I've never had an issue with any of my coaches before," Westbrook said. “I’m not sure what his issue was with me or I'm not sure why, but I can't really give you an answer to why we really never connected. When I first got here, the ability to be able to do what I'm able to do for a team and an organization wasn't given a fair chance.’’
Did the topic of chemistry and cohesion never come up last summer? Even an NBA novice knew this lab experiment — adding the oil of Westbrook to the water of James — was fraught with peril. James has been wounded by criticism that his front-office role is too heavy-handed, but Pelinka always has confirmed it with references to James as “a stakeholder’’ in decision-making. LeBron claims he’ll stay out of the think tank in the coming weeks and months, when the Lakers decide on a new coach/fool and figure out whether to trade Westbrook — if it’s possible — or, gulp, give him one more shot at $47 million next season.
“That's not my decision,” James said. “It's not my decision to sit here and say, ‘Well, this is what we should bring back and have on the roster.’ That would be the front office's decision. And obviously they may ask my input, but at the end of the day, they'll make the decision they feel that best suits this franchise going forward.
“I think the front office will do whatever it takes to help this ballclub become a better ballclub from top to bottom. Ask me my opinion, I'm going to give my opinion. But at the end of the day, they're going to make the decision that they feel is best for the franchise.”
Pelinka, too, sought to clarify that he’s in charge of basketball ops. “The roster decisions ultimately rest on my shoulders. And I will take input from LeBron and Anthony as our two captains,’’ he said. “I have done that during my entire tenure. But at the end of the day, I think I'm the one who leads the basketball operations department and will take ultimate accountability for the roster decisions that are made.”
Notice how there was no mention of Rich Paul. James doesn’t have to directly add input where can do so through Paul, who does the dirty work. Ultimately, Pelinka cannot snuff Paul out of the process without upsetting James, who does have an extension to negotiate this summer. If he doesn’t sign it, he becomes an unrestricted free agent after next season, and talk immediately will begin that he’ll join son Bronny for yet another Cleveland homecoming in his career twilight. Pelinka knows he must tread lightly.
“LeBron James is a player that's on the Mount Rushmore of basketball, and every season of his 19 so far has to be looked at as a precious commodity," he said. "And we need to do all we can to be caretakers of his legacy and to try to build the best team we can around him. And that's something that we had the objective for that last year and obviously this roster did not work. But there's a great level of trust in our collaboration with him to make sure we get it right this summer and fix it.
“We don't know exactly how long LeBron will play but, of course, this year he played at the highest level. An incredible year for him offensively and he feels, in my exit meeting with him, highly motivated to return next year and have another elite, elite level of play. ... For him to play at that level in the 19th year of his career is pretty jaw-dropping, and his motivation to come back and do that next year is palpable."
James says he craves another championship. That can’t happen within the current front-office paradigm. Jeanie Buss needs help, but she seeks it in all the wrong places and delegates to all the wrong people. Isn’t this the latest example of how the offspring of famed owners aren’t worthy of the immense responsibility, the burden that comes with team inheritances?
Hal Steinbrenner has won just one World Series, way back in 2009, since taking over the New York Yankees from his winning-and-spending-obsessed father, cantankerous George. The McCaskeys have won only one Super Bowl since George Halas handed down the Chicago Bears to clueless grandkids. An ugly family feud has forced the sale of the Denver Broncos, an admired franchise before Pat Bowlen’s illness and death. The Raiders since Al Davis? They moved to Las Vegas, where they’ve been followed by turmoil while extending their championship-less streak to 38 years.
Since Jerry Buss passed away during the 2012-13 season, the Lakers are 1-for-the-decade. That isn’t close to being acceptable for a franchise of 17 titles, countless legends and its own ongoing TV series. At least “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty’’ was renewed for a second season.
It’s the show Jeanie never approved and never wanted to reach air. All you need to know is that she couldn’t stop it.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.