The happiest days at the Toyota Sports Center over the past few months have been enjoyed not by the Lakers, but the Los Angeles Kings, who train in the same El Segundo complex.
It had been a while since the basketball folks had something to cheer about, and a sense of genuine optimism permeated the building. It certainly was missing during hard slogs through the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons, the exit interviews punctuating them. Same for the day Mike Brown was introduced, and the days following the end of the lockout, with the scuttled deal for Chris Paul, and the ensuing trade sending Lamar Odom to Dallas.
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The transition from father to son has scared many Lakers fans, but they should stop worrying for now.
Wednesday it returned, in the form of Steve Nash's introductory news conference. While few think the Lakers became instant favorites, most rightly think they're part of the conversation, and just as important, Nash will inject some excitement and fun into an on-floor product desperately needing both. General manager Mitch Kupchak looked about as giddy as Mitch Kupchak can. There was a buzz through the sizable media throng. Metta World Peace stuck his head out of the locker room. Brown sat in a back row, smiling. As was his boss, seated next to him.
Executive vice president Jim Buss even tossed a question at Nash during his news conference.
Like Kupchak, Buss looked loose and comfortable, rightly pleased with what his team had accomplished. After it was over, Buss spoke casually to a small group of reporters, but when asked if he would go on the record, he politely but quickly declined.
If ever there was a day Buss could wade safely into media waters, Wednesday was it, but better safe than sorry. Buss, introverted and a little awkward, isn't a natural media operator, and probably never will be. In this regard, Jim is truly the anti-Jeanie. He's working on it, though. Over the past year, Buss has made far more appearances on local radio and in print (virtual or otherwise), "far more" being defined as a number greater than zero, more or less his previous level of exposure.
Fair or unfair, Buss is generally defined by those things he isn't. He's not a basketball lifer, someone who grew up playing the game and worked his way into the basketball operations department of the NBA's greatest franchise. (Fair to say he had a good in.) He isn't someone who has always commanded respect among some in hoops circles. Most importantly, Jim Buss is literally and figuratively not his father, the man achieving a truly unprecedented level of success in American sports now slowly ceding to his son more control of the product.
It's time now to add another item to the list of things Jim Buss isn't:
He is not, as feared by many media members and fans, a vehicle of doom, the certain demise of the franchise. He is not single-handedly steering the Lakers into oblivion.
In fact, the record over the past half-decade or so is strong for the Lakers, and Jim Buss by extension.
Particularly over the past eight months. Before the start of last season, L.A. made its play for their post-Kobe Bryant superstar in the bold trade for Paul. (That their success lasted maybe an hour certainly isn't Buss' fault.) At the trade deadline, despite real questions about the viability of a title chase, the Lakers were aggressive, using first-round picks to bring in Ramon Sessions in an effort to finally address the team's point guard vacuum. For badly needed bench punch, they went hard after Michael Beasley.
Now the Lakers have parlayed the trade exception gained in the (widely criticized, including by me) Lamar Odom deal assembled in the wake of the CP3 debacle into Nash, at a time when most believed the team wouldn't add salary to an already huge payroll. Not in the age of increased revenue sharing and (coming soon!) more punitive luxury tax penalties.
Oh, and they still apparently won't quit on Dwight Howard.
Meanwhile, Bryant has frequently noted the improved lines of communication between him and Buss, addressing one of Buss' more egregious failings as he's gained influence in L.A.'s management structure. Buss himself acknowledged the error of not keeping in closer contact with his franchise player on significant moves, starting with the coaching search ultimately leading to Brown's hiring last year.
Really, the steepest part of Buss' learning curve has come with everything happening off the floor, hence the increased media profile. Buss strongly (and rightly) believes his lack of accessibility allowed others to fill in the blanks about him. He did a bad job communicating to people -- fans particularly -- what exactly he did with the Lakers, how he approached the job, and his desire to continue the team's winning tradition. Forget just talking with players, Buss wasn't talking enough to anyone, and it caused problems. He badly underestimated the "dis-ease" (to use a Phil Jackson word) of a change-averse Lakers public toward him and the future of the city's dominant franchise.
When running the Lakers, aesthetics matter, something made very clear during the transition from Jackson to Brown, and into the lockout.
For all the speculation, concern and bumps along the way, the Lakers are doing what the Lakers should, despite serious financial and structural constraints placed on them by the new CBA. They are using every available resource in an effort to win now, worrying about the future when it comes. As a fan, expecting more is unreasonable.
I don't know if Jim Buss is a genius talent evaluator, the architect of L.A.'s best maneuvers, or a smooth hand in negotiations of trades and free agents. I'm sure he has his strengths and weaknesses. And you know what? It doesn't really matter. If Buss delegates to those who know better and their opinions rule the day, great. If Kupchak really does the heavy lifting, that's fine. Kudos to Buss for staying out of the way. If Buss is leading the charge, that's great, too. What matters is the product on the floor. Since 2008, the Lakers have been to three Finals, won two titles, given a championship core a chance at a three-peat, and did their best to have a shot down the stretch of a lockout-shortened campaign cut off at the knees by the league's historic intervention in the Paul trade.
They are still making bold moves, and overall have been a big success. It's unfair to blame Buss for the bad stuff without giving him credit for the good, and overall, the good is winning.
While they clearly pulled a rabbit from a hat with Nash, the Lakers still face major decisions in the next couple of years, and could be virtually forced into a lean season or two following the end of Bryant's current contract. It's a reality independent of whether Jim or Jerry called the shots. Blame the NBA and other owners. There are solid reasons to be skeptical of Buss' role going forward, as well. Rarely in professional sports has it been a good thing for the same person to help choose the players and then sign their checks. And as my brother Andy likes to point out, the one thing we definitely know about Jim Buss is he's not going to get fired.
Either offers potential peril down the road.
The key word, though, is potential. Right now, its impossible to argue the Lakers aren't making winning the top priority and are doing well in pursuit of the cause. It's time to wait for Jim Buss to actually destroy the franchise, instead of assuming he will.