Heisler: Jim Buss Is In Over His Head

Jim Buss is in over his head.
Of course, with the Lakers’ predicament, Jerry Buss, his father, would be in over his head, too.
Actually, that remains to be seen. But it goes back to their last time at such a crossroads, after trading Shaquille O’Neal to keep Kobe Bryant, when I wrote, “Mitch Kupchak is in over his head,” adding, “Jerry West would be in over his head, too.”
Amazingly, Kupchak and the Buss family tunneled out of that one and were back winning titles in 2009 and 2010, and that predicament was a lot worse than this one!

So much for the good news in Lakerdom, where this predicament is bad enough.

The Lakers returned to work Wednesday, mowing down Minnesota-minus-Kevin Love with all their people back, even if Kobe Bryant had to be cleared by a veritable medical faculty before playing with a plastic mask over his broken nose, and Andrew Bynum was obliged to go more than the six minutes he played Sunday in Orlando after getting his oft-injured knee shot full of lubricants.

And that was just the toll taken by the All-Star Game!

You know you’re having a rough season when the commissioner takes Chris Paul off your roster and lets him go to the Clippers, Bryant hurts his shooting wrist before the opener and you’re just happy to get your two All-Star starters back in one piece.

Now for the fun part: Trying to put these Humpty Dumpties back together, after the fall from the wall that started with last spring’s sweeping in Dallas.

It comes down to this: The Lakers have one tradable player (Pau Gasol) and three dire areas of need (point guard, small forward, entire bench). One divided by three equals “not enough.”

Unfortunately, for the first time in years, or decades, they have no obvious moves.   No superstars are lined up to join them, as they have since Wilt Chamberlain changed their karma from Sun-Splashed Celtic Bobos to NBA Destination of Choice when he forced Philadelphia to trade him in 1968. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did the same to Milwaukee in 1975.

Shaquille O’Neal signed as a free agent in 1996, arriving with Bryant, who at 17 years old told the New Jersey Nets he didn’t want to play there so Charlotte could draft him and trade him to the Lakers.

With Someone Up There — no, not David Stern, even higher – seemingly watching out for them, the Lakers started this season hoping to trade Gasol and Andrew Bynum for Paul and Dwight Howard. (Gasol, of course, was another gift from the gods – or Memphis owner Michael Heisley.)

Unfortunately, Stern spiked the Paul deal. Lamar Odom, devastated at having been in the deal, told the Lakers to trade him, and, incredibly, if numbly, the Lakers granted his wish, for a draft pick and an $8.9 million trade exception.

Three months after the Lakers seemed sure to land one of the big three — Howard, Paul and Deron Williams — their likeliest number is zero, as D12 and D-Will await package offers from the Nets and Mavericks.

Now what do the Lakers do?

With Bryant at 33, and every last one of their contracts expiring after the 2013-14 season, they have a 29-month window, leaving two choices, neither of them easy or obvious: (1) Move Gasol now for whatever they can get, or (2) Move Gasol or Bynum in June, when players their teams must sign, trade or get nothing for Dwight and D-Will will be on the market.

Despite the 1,000 scenarios being broadcast daily, neither Howard nor Williams is likely to be traded by March 15, given all the moving parts, the D-Boyz yet to select the lucky teams and the Magic and Nets unsure how to proceed until they do.

Whatever the Lakers do will say a lot about who they are now, as opposed to who they have been.   With one last tradable piece, they don’t need a quick deal to Restore Hope This Season, not to mention get their fans and everyone else off their backsides. They need the best deal they can make, even if it means sucking it up until June.

Of course, with fans moaning their team is not only decrepit but b-o-r-i-n-g and the Fabulous Buss Boys’ erratic behavior of late, who says they’re smart enough and tough enough to suck it up?   It could ride on the next seven games, including Sunday’s national TV home meeting with Miami and March 13 in Memphis.

If the Lakes are 5-2 or better and no one knocks their socks off with an offer, the odds go up that hang onto Gasol.

At 4-3, Gasol goes for the best deal out there, with Houston the leader in the clubhouse if it offers Kyle Lowry and Kevin Martin.

At 3-4 or worse, the Lakers take what they can get, even if they send Gasol to Dallas for another first-round pick and trade exception.

Of course, handicapping the Fab Buss Boys is tricky. Let’s put it this way: Those 10 championships they put up in Staples Center didn’t just waft in and affix themselves to the wall.

If the Busses may not be as hip as they think they are, and, after laying off everyone from assistaht GM Ronnie Lester to equipment manager Rudy Garciduenas – none of whom were brought back after the lockout – they’re definitely not the family organization they used to take pride in being. But they’re hipper than everyone thinks they are.

Lakers fans were already recoiling in horror when Jim Buss began taking an active role in 2005, which someone (OK, me) compared to Jed Clampett turning over the Beverly Hillbillies to his cousin, Jethro (whereupon Jerry was heard calling his son “Jethro”).

That spring, Jim Buss was part of the delegation that scouted Bynum, a little-known prep center. He was invited along by Kupchak, who knew he’d need help convincing Jerry Buss to draft a high school kid.  In a long history of slick moves with West in charge for so much of it, that pick was one of the slickest in the team’s history.

Of course, Lakers officials like to remind you, “We’re a mom and pop store,” meaning Jerry Buss doesn’t have billions like Paul Allen, or even Donald T. Sterling. On the other hand, the Lakers do have that $3 billion, 20-year TV deal kicking in next season, which will add many hundreds of millions of dollars to their account.

Nevertheless, coming off a mere $20 million profit last season – down from the usual $40-50 million – it was pure Jerry Buss to tighten up and – when Odom moped in – giving them an excuse to dump his $8.9 million salary.

Until then, the Lakers had two tradable players, Odom and either Gasol or Bynum. Now they have one.

Jim Buss, who played the leading role in Mike Brown’s hiring, has been additionally criticized for axing Odom. But it looks like it was really a financial call, and Jerry Buss makes those.

First-year coach Mike Brown now has a problem as more players besides Metta World Peace question the offense, or lack thereof.   Yes, Brown is in over his head, but Phil Jackson would have been, too.

If Jackson wouldn’t have junked the triangle, exposing their point guards who were fine in it, you may remember that he was there last spring when their issues surfaced.

Laker fans live in hope someone will rise to the occasion, as someone always has. Even if it’s been a while.

Mark Heisler is a regular contributor to SheridanHoops, LakersNation and the Old Gray Lady. His power rankings appear Wednesday and his columns appear Thursday. Follow him on Twitter.

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  1. LosFelizLaker says

    By all the surprised people, including me, seeing that Heisler is still covering the Lakers, I’m guessing this might be the first time ESPN’s TrueHoops linked to a Heisler story.

  2. Parker Dressler says

    I still can’t believe the Times let you go. I mean Donald Sterling used to come to you for advice (SERIOUSLY!!) (Didn’t know about Jerry Buss calling his son Jethro, everyone reads Heisler it seems) Glad to still be able to read your stuff Mark your the best in the business.

  3. John John says

    Everything Mark Heisler wrote here are old information Laker fans already know. I suggest you start “giving” us information, and stop “sending” us information. Sound familiar?

  4. Jim Gilmore says

    Joining the chorus here, Mark. Good to find your informed and insightful analysis of what’s going on with the Lakers and the NBA. After reading your columns from their inception in the Times I feel like I’ve found an old friend who mysteriously disappeared.

  5. memphis mark says

    The trade of Pau from Memphis owner Michael Heisley was a gift from the gods? Trading Pau gave us the salary room to sign Zach Randolph plus the player tossed in by the Lakers, Marc Gasol, well he’s worked out pretty good for us. A gift from the god’s? yeah, for us in Memphis. Thanks whatever Buss was responsible.

    • LosFelizLaker says

      I think the key was that Kwame was the main piece given up by the Lakers, and that some (very vocal) NBA fans thought the trade was so one-sided that David Stern forced Memphis to make the deal.

  6. Robert says

    Miss your LA Times column. Can’t believe they kept T. J. Simmers over you. Maybe he offered to clean the bathrooms at night?

  7. Keith says

    Mark, miss reading you regularly, even if you are a bit hyperbolic and curmudgeonly. Saying it’s “been awhile” since someone rose to the occasion is a bit much. They have been in 3 of the last four finals. It’s not as if they are in some major drought.

  8. Jonathan says

    Hey Mark, miss reading you daily/weekly on your LA times column….keep doin what you do better than anyone else!

    ps…I volunteered for LakersNation, writing articles last year, look forward to reading your stuff wherever it may be!

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