Can the Lakers Still Be a Showtime Team Without Jerry Buss?

On Monday, Dr. Jerry Buss, the owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, died from kidney failure at the age of 80.

Buss had been undergoing cancer treatment and had been hospitalized for the past 18 months. Buss purchased the Lakers in 1979 and made it the most successful professional sports franchise during that period. During his tenure the Lakers went to the playoffs 32 times in 34 years, made 16 NBA Finals appearances, winning 10, and grew the team’s net worth to $1 billion. Buss left a legacy and a blue print for success that is in jeopardy of being undone by his son Jimmy.

Buss chose his son Jimmy to take over basketball operations of the Lakers, while he left business operations to his daughter Jeannie. During the elder Buss’ tenure the Lakers became known as Showtime, the hottest ticket in sports. Under Jimmy, the team has sunk to all-time lows. The younger Buss fired head coach Mike Brown after only five games into the 2012-13 season and replaced him with Mike D’Antoni. Buss fired one coach, Brown, who knew nothing about offense and replaced him with another coach, D’Antoni that knows nothing about defense. Neither coach has had any success this season. The Lakers are on the verge of missing the playoffs for only the fifth time in their 65 year history.

The Lakers have had a time-honored and proven formula for success. They get the best coach, equip him with a Hall of Fame caliber center, make some improbable deals and secure other superstar players and then make the inevitable run for the championship. This is a formula that has been repeated ever since the team was located in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The legacy of Hall of Fame centers includes George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O’Neal. The improbable deals include drafting Magic Johnson and James Worth and trading for Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. Each one of these deals led to an NBA championship.

So far Jimmy Buss has not been able to sustain his father’s success. He took over the team in 2011 and made his first mistake by hiring Mike Brown to replace Phil Jackson. Laker players and Laker Nation bristled at the notion of hiring an outsider instead of a disciple of Phil Jackson’s triangle offense like assistant coach Brian Shaw. Brown started off well enough finishing 41-25 in his first season. But after losing four of five regular season games and all eight pre-season games in 2012, Brown was fired.

During the offseason, the Lakers had pulled off the improbable deal. They had traded for Dwight Howard, arguably the best center in the league, and Steve Nash, a former MVP and probable Hall of Fame point guard. Together with Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol the Lakers were poised to make a championship run using their proven formula. But then Jimmy Buss did the unthinkable. Rather than bring back Phil Jackson, Buss replaced Brown with D’Antoni. D’Antoni had “resigned” after a miserable coaching stint with the New York Knicks and his coaching philosophy – run, gun, 3 point shooting – was an ill-fit for this Laker team. The Lakers are now paying for this decision.

D’Antoni has been a disaster. His bench rotation is erratic at best. He benched Gasol and has no idea how to get Howard more involved in the game. He simply does not know how to coach big men. Rather than capitalize on the formula that Jackson used to win five of seven championships, he implemented an offense that alienated every player on the team. 

Dr. Buss built a dynasty that started when he purchased the team for $67.5 million in 1979. He hired well, including coaches Pat Riley and Phil Jackson and GMs Jerry West and Mitch Kupchak. Buss was rewarded with a championship in the first season of ownership and the rest is history. With the likes of Hall of Famers Magic Johnson, James Worthy, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Jamaal “Silky” Wilkes and sure fire Hall of Famers Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, Laker Nation turned NBA games at the Great Western Forum into showcase events for celebrities and fans. A Laker game became one of the toughest tickets in town and celebrities were often relegated and happy to sit in sections normally reserved for “ordinary” fans. Filip Bondy of the Daily News described games at the forum as a “unique journey into a glittering other world.”

Buss’ marketing innovations included having the Lakers introduced to Randy Newman’s “I Love L.A.,” the Laker Girls, and parlaying Jack Nicholson’s and Dianne Cannon’s star appeal to attract other celebrities to Laker games. Eventually the Lakers’ moved out of the “Fabulous Forum” and into The Staple Center where they continued to win championships and draw megawatts ratings. The Lakers popularity was so large that they began routinely scheduling Sunday evening games to compete directly with NFL football.

Under Dr. Buss the Lakers have had a magical run. The magic may have worn off. The first indication was when the NBA voided the deal that would have brought Chris Paul to the Lakers. Then Jimmy Buss hired D’Antoni. Buss is now stuck with a team that is faced with losing Dwight Howard through free agency and paying $25 million to two coaches (Brown and D’Antoni) that have proved incompetent. Jimmy Buss, this is definitely not your Daddy’s Lakers.