Dr. Jerry Buss, who owned the Los Angeles Lakers from 1979 until his death in 2013, may have been the greatest owner in professional sports history. At a minimum, he was one of the most influential and the driving force that turned the Lakers into the NBA’s premier franchise.
That was then and this is now.
During Buss’ tenure, the Lakers won 10 championships and reached the NBA finals, on average, almost every other year. And yet, in less than 11 months from his passing, Buss’ beloved Lakers are in ruins with no end in sight. It could be years before the Lakers are even relevant again. Sadly, they’ve gone from Showtime to Slowtime to No-time.
Every championship team has had a rebuilding period in which they may go from elite to mediocre and worse. And some last seemingly forever. (Can you say New York Knicks?) After Jordan, after Bird and after Isiah, the Bulls, the Celtics and the Pistons went from greats to goats.
The Lakers, however, even after Kareem, after Magic and after Shaq, managed to remain at or near the top. Luxury tax be damned, Dr. Buss would have it no other way.
It appears Buss’ heirs, Jim and Jeanie, aren’t so committed to success. The Lakers are losers of 11 of their last 12 games, including at home to Milwaukee with the worst record in the NBA and a humiliating, record-breaking 123-87 loss to their cross-town rivals, the Clippers. Frankly it wasn’t that close. (Ah, but for the good old days of Smush Parker.) But how or why have the mighty fallen so far?
In 2011, in what many regarded as an abuse of power, commissioner David Stern didn’t help matters. In declaring point guard Chris Paul’s trade to the Lakers null and void Stern made a parody of parity, and the league is suffering.
Currently, in big city markets, fans of the Knicks, the Bulls, the Celtics and the Lakers won’t see any NBA finals unless they watch on TV and, even there, ratings could plummet. (With all due respect, imagine an Indiana-Portland finals. Yawn.)
Unfortunately, the latest nail in the Lakers’ coffin is Kobe Bryant’s recent salary-gobbling contract extension. It guarantees him $48 million over the next two years and guarantees Laker irrelevancy for even longer.
Holder of five championship rings, the ultimate warrior, Bryant, is undoubtedly among the greatest Lakers of all time. Given their storied history, that’s saying something. But in giving him such an exorbitant contract (double market value) the Lakers foreclosed their chances of signing two max contract stars in the off-season.
A “home town” discount for a franchise player is common in the NBA, but Kobe’s contract is more like a “lifetime achievement award.” One can’t imagine Dr. Buss having done so just to make Kobe a Laker for life. (He certainly didn’t give in to Shaq’s excessive salary demand in 2004.)
Kobe says that he’s “all about winning,” but it appears he’s also all about “getting paid.” Unlike Tim Duncan of the Spurs, who went from $20 million to $10 million so his team would have cap room to keep competitive, Kobe went from $30 million to $24 million, leaving the Lakers with a foreseeable future of being uncharacteristically uncompetitive.
In defending Kobe, pundits and fans claim that in no other business is it expected that an employee will turn down money from an employer. Except that’s not entirely true. Forgetting Duncan and others in the NBA, in the movie business star actors often take a fraction of their normal salary to be in projects they want to be a part of.
Keep in mind, Kobe has earned over $300 million in his NBA career. I’m reminded of the movie classic “Chinatown” where Jack Nicholson’s character said to John Huston’s obscenely wealthy character, “How many steaks can you eat?”
If the Lakers had amnestied Kobe for 2013, the team might have saved $80 million in luxury taxes. Kobe could have taken his $30 million salary, given exhibitions in China making millions more in shoes and jersey sales, increasing his and the NBA’s brand.
But no. Instead Kobe hurried his return from Achilles tendon injury, suffered a fracture in his knee and may be out for at least another month, or equally as likely, the remainder of the season. (As if it matters now.)
With the savings, the Lakers might have been able to sign two additional stars and, with a rejuvenated Kobe, possibly could make a run at the coveted 17th NBA title. Now it appears to be a mad dash for more pingpong balls and a high lottery pick.
With his team in tatters, hopefully Dr. Buss is happily playing poker in the great high stakes game in the sky. If not, he’s probably spinning in his grave.
Jack can be reached at facebook.com/jackneworth, twitter.com/jackneworth or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Look for more Snide World of Sports columns in the coming weeks in the sports section of the Daily Press.