Heisler: Jerry Buss wanted his organization back

No. 2 is the financial angle: D’Antoni won’t even be the highest-paid Lakers coach. That will be Mike Brown, making $4.5 million this season and next. D’Antoni’s $4 million is one-third of the $12 million (at least) Buss would have had to pay Phil.

Buss, who used to throw money around as if this was Monopoly, has become bonkers about finance in recent years, laying off everyone in the basketball operation up to and including assistant GM Ronnie Lester before the lockout.[/caption]

Even the new $150 million-per-year local TV deal with Time Warner – a 400 percent bump over their previous $30 million deal with Fox – hasn’t reassured Buss, with his new $50 million assessment for revenue sharing plus $30 million in luxury tax, which will jump when next season’s repeater penalty kicks in.

No. 3, and perhaps most important of all: If Buss was cool with Jackson, I’m guessing he had quite enough of the Phil Era. If they wound up going hat-in-hand to Jackson every time he left, the Buss family wasn’t really the Lakers. Phil was.

Jackson was uncontrollable. There were no secrets with him around. He zinged “Jimmy,” making the Jim-Jeanie sibling rivalry visible.

Of course, it’s always hard to find out what really happened from the Lakers… who may not actually know, themselves.

When they traded Shaquille O’Neal in 2004, Buss insisted it was strictly for financial reasons, Kobe Bryant’s looming free agency. Coincidentally or not, Buss withdrew the extension he offered Jackson, who had just told Kupchak he couldn’t coach Bryant anymore. The Lakers didn’t just pull the offer. They announced it, turning Jackson into a lame duck.

It was true, there was a financial issue with Shaq turning down a $22 million-per-year extension. Of course, they had months to negotiate it – except that Buss had gone down into deepest Orange County, where Bryant lived, and met with him at the Newport Beach Four Seasons on Super Sunday, Feb. 1, 2004.

Buss told Bryant he had decided to trade O’Neal, either to let Bryant know he was their guy or reassure him the team was financially solid. Of course, it was all about signing Bryant, as it should have been.

Bryant was halfway out the door with his fabled poise shattered and smoke coming out of his ears, trying to play while commuting back and forth from Colorado for his rape trial. He was so intrigued by the up-and-coming Clippers, he tried to meet coach Mike Dunleavy before the exhibition opener in Anaheim.

Dunleavy, who understood tampering penalties, demurred. Instead, they met on the sideline, where Dunleavy said that Bryant, about to inbound the ball, told him, “I want to be with you.”

At the time, I thought Buss wouldn’t be able to conceive of the Clippers stealing his star and would wake up July 1, 2004 to find his franchise player missing. To his credit, Buss figured it out.

The choice was clear. Bryant was 25 and a conditioning zealot. O’Neal was 31 and expanding. After ballooning into the 350-poundd range, he promised to come in at 300 the next season but arrived weighing closer to 400.

Buss ultimately turned Bryant around with an 11th-hour phone call from Croatia (nothing gets between the Laker paterfamilias and his vacations).

Inevitably but undeservedly, Bryant – who thought he would be the one to go – was blamed for running off O’Neal, becoming the most shunned superstar by his peers in NBA history. So Buss’ insistence that he traded O’Neal purely for financial reasons was an attempt to shield his star as best he could.


  1. says

    mark! come back to LA! Ur the best Laker writer we ever had! u and chick hearn taught me more about the nba than all my other sources. i don’t understand why they let u go!

  2. DaveKnows says

    Everyone was shocked about this move but when I first heard about Phil back with the Lakers I thought the triangle wouldn’t be as unstoppable as it once was because it wouldn’t play to the strength of this team as currently constructed. I think the sweep to Dallas also played a big factor. They probably looked at enough Nash in Phoenix tapes an thought that Nash would excel under Mike more than under Phil. Howard would have a hard time adjusting to triangle and Steve would be on he perimeter shooting threes. They liked what the saw in Phoenix and wanted that hear and I actually think they will dominated in reg season in Mikes system. Gasol Howard and Kobe all like to play with their back to the basket and a system with constant picks and rolls will overwhelm most of their competitors.

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