So Dwight Howard has skipped town, exited stage left, lured by Houston’s friendly tax laws and evening entertainment. And while some might be quick to chalk it up as another stain on Jim Buss’ record, this is much more a byproduct of the culture created by Buss’ missteps, than a misstep itself.
You can’t blame Dwight for choosing the better situation. Houston, with GM Daryl Morey’s intrepid wheeling and dealing, positioned themselves for this very moment, and at this point, James Harden and Kevin McHale are far stronger draws than Kobe Bryant and Mike D’Antoni. Howard gets to play with a young squad, learn tricks of the NBA big-man trade from McHale, and avoid the incessant pressure of Los Angeles.
The Laker mystique has been heavily damaged, if not broken. One does not simply spurn the Lakers, right? That Howard would leave the Lakers at the altar is indicative of how much the Laker brand has already been tainted. The need to resort to billboards and cheesy social media campaigns is just further proof.
That mystique did not, of course, evaporate overnight, but the workings of it span a decade and a half with Jim Buss’ 12-step program.
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Step 1: Announce Your Arrival with Your Ignorance – The Sports Illustrated Interview
Jim Buss, the son of longtime owner Jerry Buss, joined the Lakers in 1998 as an assistant general manager, working under NBA legend Jerry West. At the time, fans rightly wondered whether Jim had the chops, or if he was just the silver spooned son of Jerry Buss, born into basketball royalty. But, working under the logo man himself, easing his way into the franchise, things can’t go too badly, right?
Fans always think that they can do as good a job as front office personnel. Apparently Jim Buss thought so as well, telling Sports Illustrated, “Evaluating basketball talent is not too difficult. If you grabbed 10 fans out of a bar and asked them to rate prospects, their opinions would be pretty much identical to those of the pro scouts.”
Undermining the very profession of your subordinates is always a good first step. Also, it’s always a good idea for those born into royalty to assume readiness for the throne: “Right now my dad is Number 1 in the Lakers organization, and I’m Number 4. After another year of this apprenticeship, I’d feel comfortable going from 4 to 1. But you’d have to worry about the comfort level of the current 2 and 3.”
Step 2: Compensate for that Ignorance by Acting Like You Know Something Everybody Else Doesn’t – The Rudy Tomjanovich Hire
In 2004, after losing to the Detroit Pistons in the NBA Finals, the Lakers and Phil Jackson parted ways. The details of that separation are messy, something about a feud between Superman/Diesel/Big Aristotle and a kid named Kobe. Even if at that point Jim Buss had something to do with Jackson’s departure, we can’t really put that on him.
But, the subsequent hiring of Rudy Tomjanovich we can. In a reactionary move that came out of left field, Buss hired Rudy T to replace Jackson. In his own right, Rudy T is a fabulous coach, but many saw Buss’ hiring of Tomjanovich, a defensive-minded coach, as an overreaction to the Lakers’ Finals loss to the defensive Pistons. Midway through the 2004-05 season, Rudy resigned, citing mental and physical exhaustion.
Step 3: A Flash in the Pan – Drafting Andrew Bynum
In the 2005 NBA Draft, Jim Buss convinced the team to draft a 17-year-old high schooler named Andrew Bynum. Many were left scratching their heads, but this actually turned out to be a good move. However, it also sets things up for long-term failure because it reinforced the notion in Jim Buss’ head that he has the Midas touch. Bynum became his gold star, and he refused to move him, standing by his prized prospect despite Bynum’s injuries and immaturity. And more significantly, Bryant’s demands to have Bynum shipped out. While it may look like Buss had impeccable timing, ridding himself of Bynum just as Bynum decided to take up bowling as rehab, holding onto Bynum raised the ire of Bryant, and dampened the Laker mystique through Bynum’s incredible immaturity, on and off the court. Bryant’s quota for tolerating immaturity was used up all too soon.
Step 4: Try Too Hard to Mark Your Territory – Doing Brian Shaw Wrong
Look, I get it. It’s instinctive. Natural. Canines have special ways of marking their territory. Humans do too. But when it’s overdone, it comes off as terribly insecure. And this is precisely what Jim Buss did when Phil Jackson retired in 2011 from his second stint with the Lakers. This was most obviously on display when Buss passed over longtime Laker assistant Brian Shaw in the coaching search. More egregious, though, was how he did it.
Despite being a longtime Laker (both as a player and a coach) and Bryant’s top choice, Shaw was not only passed over, but also found out only when the hiring of Mike Brown was reported on ESPN. Buss apparently never reached out to Shaw, a valuable member of the Laker franchise for many years. Buss’ treatment of Shaw can be attributed to an attempt to distinguish himself from any trace of Phil Jackson.