The funny part Friday was how Pau Gasol said Mike Brown being fired as Lakers coach sent a direct message to players that it’s time to step up now. Because losing four of five to the Thunder in the second round, then losing to the shorthanded Mavericks and undermanned Trail Blazers, then starting 0-3 for the first time in 34 years apparently wasn’t message enough.
Gasol is right about one thing: This just became a lot more about the roster and not the coach, especially if the almighty Phil Jackson is the successor to the man who succeeded him. It was about the players all along, really, only most people were in such a rush to pin the 2012 playoffs on newcomer Brown that they didn’t note master motivator Jackson got the same result a year earlier with the same sludge of poor focus and energy. Now, it really is time to step up.
What no one within the Lakers would – or could – say is that it just became about Jim Buss too. He is the son of the owner of the head of basketball operations as executive vice president of player personnel, with heavy input from general manager Mitch Kupchak. With his father no longer involved in day-to-day affairs, and rarely using veto powers on even major decisions like coaching moves, Buss is the one ultimately responsible for hiring Brown and then giving Brown five games to sort through many problems when it was obvious to all the 2012-13 Lakers would need transition time.
It doesn’t help that Buss is coming from a very unpopular place with fans, whether he cares or not. He is not Jerry Buss, beloved for bankrolling Lakers championships over decades, and he got into the front office of one of the marquee franchises in sports because of bloodlines, not a skill for talent evaluation. It was Jim Buss who was perceived as the driving force to rid the organization of any connection to Jackson and his domineering personality, including giving little consideration for Brian Shaw to become the successor because Shaw had been an assistant on Jackson’s staff, even though players openly hoped Shaw would get the promotion.
Fairness time, though. If Buss, the son, gets the blame for all that has gone wrong the last few years, and he has, then he gets the credit for what has gone right. Dwight Howard is a Laker. Steve Nash is a Laker. Jackson may be a Laker again. That’s a lot of improbable victories around the same time. Buss is also the exec who championed drafting Andrew Bynum out of high school in 2005, stayed the course when Bynum wobbled along with immaturity and injury, refused to budge when Kobe Bryant screamed for Bynum to be traded, and finally turned the investment into a better center, Howard.
The particulars of Buss’ actual role, compared to the work of Kupchak, will probably never be known. That is how it generally works – an owner or team president, sometimes with no basketball training, will push the button on a trade or a contract or a coaching hire and the GM will take the hit it the outcome is bad. This would be especially true in the case of Kupchak, as professional as they come. No way he ever outs one of the bosses for a decision gone wrong.
When Bryant tried to blast his way out of town, Kupchak took the grief. When the Lakers kept Bryant and got championship good again, Kupchak received little public credit. It’s a little like that now with the executive vice president of player personnel, with the obvious difference that he cannot be fired as a Buss. The son is essentially in the job as long as he wants it.
If the Lakers hire Jackson, and developments were clearly headed in that direction as soon as Kupchak said at the Friday press conference that it would be “negligent not to be aware he’s out there,” also known as “Of course we’ll be in contact,” then Buss will have made another popular decision. Brown out, Jackson closer to being in, a 101-77 win over the Warriors with an actual sustained effort – it was a nice Friday for fans and at least some corners of the locker room. It was a start on the recovery.