Lakers' players running the show
Forget management -- Bryant, Fisher and Gasol are setting the tone for Los Angeles
DALLAS -- The big question on every Los Angeles Lakers fan's mind the past couple weeks has been this: What exactly does Jim Buss do for this team?
Everyone knows Jimmy as Dr. Jerry Buss' son, and he's listed in the media guide as the team's executive vice president of player personnel, but adding context to those labels has been difficult because his public appearances have been more infrequent than Punxsutawney Phil's.
Lakers coach Mike Brown seemed like a logical person to ask about Jim prior to L.A.'s 96-91 win over the Dallas Mavericks on Wednesday. After all, Jim is the guy Brown interviewed with to get the job. Brown has said he spent more time with Jim during the lockout than with Dr. Buss.
"That's something that you would have to ask him," Brown said. "I think that's a question that I would have to ask or defer to him because we don't really have interaction like that when it comes to making trades and all that other stuff."
Jim's job description could take some time to unearth. The Lakers' public relations department maintains that general manager Mitch Kupchak speaks for management and Dr. Buss speaks for ownership, so there's no need for Jim to comment publicly on anything for the time being.
Just consider that even though Magic Johnson said Wednesday it was Jim who runs the team and not Mitch, it was still Kupchak who issued a statement on behalf of the franchise following Kobe Bryant's "trade Pau Gasol or don't" rant on Sunday.
And so, the curiosity is palpable. Lakers fans want to pull back the curtain and get a glimpse of who is supposedly calling the shots.
Yet there's a feeling remaining within the fan base that is still 10 times stronger than any inquisitive yearning toward Jim Buss: the desire for wins.
What we're learning based on the Lakers' last two impressive wins, at home against Portland and on the road against Dallas, is that we still might not know exactly what Jim Buss does, but the Lakers' players can render Jimmy pretty much irrelevant by just going out and playing to their potential.
By Bryant pitting The Players against Management with his comments backing Gasol on Sunday, and Derek Fisher taking it even further to create The Players against Everybody Else on Monday during a players-only meeting following the win against the Trail Blazers, the 14 men who wear purple and gold uniforms put the responsibility for being successful solely and squarely on their shoulders.
"You see everybody just kind of focusing on the group and what we have to do," Bryant said after going just 4-for-15 from the field against Dallas yet being lifted to victory because of the 24 points and nine rebounds of Gasol and the 19 and 14 of Andrew Bynum. "You're not worried about if you just had a bad play or if Coach takes you out or whatever. You're not focused on that. You're just focused on the group and what we can do to win the game."
It's not exactly a case of the patients running the asylum because these players have a total of 17 NBA championships between them while Brown has zero as a head coach. (Brown does have one as an assistant with San Antonio, but if we're going to count that we might as well count Steve Blake's title at Maryland.)
Maybe that's why the best we've seen out of this group in the past month has been a win in Boston against a Celtics team that came into the game having won nine of 10 and Wednesday's win in Dallas against a Mavs team that had won seven of eight.
Those are opponents that brought the best out in the Lakers in an epic Game 7 Finals win in 2010 and the worst in them in an embarrassing 36-point series-ending loss in Game 4 of the second round in 2011. Nobody else could tell them what they have inside after those experiences. Brown said he wasn't even going to mention the sweep before tipoff.
"I wasn't here, so it wouldn't be real for me to start talking about, 'Hey, let's go get one from last year!'" Brown said before the game. "Players would sniff it out."
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But they would accept the same message from the right messenger. Fisher ended up addressing the team about it and the result of the game -- a gritty road win forged from a true team effort -- spoke for itself.
Bynum, who ripped into his teammates last season, citing "trust issues" on defense during the playoff implosion, said the cohesion is doing wonders to improve the Lakers' effort on that end.
"Defensively, it's everything for this team," Bynum said after the Lakers held the Mavs to 40 percent shooting and 8-for-32 from 3-point range after having allowed 20 3s in May, the last time the teams met at the American Airlines Center. "You got to cover for one another."
There's pride in the locker room again. There's belief. There's professionalism.
Too much of that was getting lost by worrying about trade rumors or complaining about inconsistent rotations or letting lengthy shootarounds drain them mentally.
Stop wondering about Jim or blaming Brown. Look around at what you have and seize the moment.
"You address the elephant in the room," Bryant said. "You address it, talk about it and I think everybody can relax a little bit more instead of kind of tip-toeing around the issue."
"Once we were on the same page, we're working together, we're focused for 48 minutes or close to 48 minutes, then we're really good and we have to understand that and believe that and go out every night playing like that," Gasol said.
(They might have taken the whole team thing a little too far by missing 18 of 31 free throws as a group, including a brutal 1-for-8 stretch late in the fourth, but hey, there's always something to improve upon.)
"There's so much outside talk of, 'This team's not good enough,' and 'We need to trade this person, that person,' and it comes down to who is in this locker room," said Matt Barnes, who mercifully ended the free throw drought by sticking two freebies to seal it. "We believe in each other as teammates. We're a family in here and we got to try to block out all the outside noise as best we can and go out here and play because, when it comes down to it, we're the guys on the court. No one else is."
Not Jim Buss. Not Mitch Kupchak. Not Mike Brown. Not Magic Johnson.
Just 14 guys wearing purple and gold.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.