The mistake we made with the Lakers all season long was granting them allowances based on what they’ve done in the past. We ignored warning signs and excused slumps because we had seen them turn it around when it mattered before. We all saw how that turned out in the playoffs.
It’s time to apply that lesson to the franchise.
It’s clear now that we can no longer give the organization the benefit of the doubt going forward, even though they have been the most successful team in pro sports in the three decades-plus that Jerry Buss has owned the team. If the Lakers don’t want to assign any value to their past, why should anyone else?
As the Lakers seek to cut costs in preparation for the pending lockout, they’re in the midst of an organization-wide purge, shedding both prominent and behind-the-scenes people who have contributed to all of that winning. Phil Jackson’s input isn’t valued anymore and the only member of his coaching staff with a shot at returning is Chuck Person. Assistant general manager Ronnie Lester is on his way out, as are most of the training, scouting and video staff. Even equipment manager Rudy Garciduenas, a fixture since the Showtime era who has made sure everything from Magic Johnson’s jersey to Phil Jackson’s extra-high chair was in its proper place during his 28 years with the team, does not expect to be back.
Magic Johnson sold his ownership share in the team. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar feels like he’s persona non grata in Lakerland. Jerry West’s valued insights will now be delivered to the Golden State Warriors.
The Lakers are divorcing themselves from their history – not that they’ve been paying much attention to it when making big decisions lately. The last time hired someone to follow Phil Jackson they replaced a multiple-champion coach with a multiple-champion coach, figuring that Rudy Tomjanovich’s two rings were the closest approximation they could get to the nine Jackson had at the time. They failed to take into account that Tomjanovich’s success came with veteran teams in Houston, and with the departures of Shaquille O’Neal, Karl Malone, Gary Payton, Derek Fisher and Rick Fox the Lakers had been transformed from a veteran team to a young team that year.
In hiring Mike Brown the Lakers could once again say they’ve brought in someone whose resume was as solid as any realistic candidate out there. Twice Brown has coached the team with the best record in the league. He’s been to the NBA Finals and won the coach of the year award.
But the Lakers forgot what worked for them in the 1980s, when Pat Riley was an unproven assistant coach just a couple years removed from a spot next to Chick Hearn in the radio booth but was given the reins of a team with championship-level talent. They took a chance, and it turned out they had one of the great coaches in league history on their hands.
We don’t know if assistant Brian Shaw could prove equally great if he got his first head coaching job with the Lakers. We do know that passing over Shaw essentially handed him the boarding pass for his departure from the organization, which means the Lakers will be without one of the few people whose opinion Kobe Bryant respected. As Bryant ages and his talents diminish, someone will have to tell him to have a seat more and more, or draw up plays that go to the opposite side of the court from him. Do you see any candidates for that duty? Any volunteers?
Dealing with Bryant will be different for Brown than dealing with LeBron James in Cleveland, because the Cavaliers let LeBron run rampant over the organization in a desperate attempt to appease him and get him to stay. The Lakers already have Kobe locked up for what should be the duration of his elite playing days….and by minimizing his input in the coaching search they have shown that he doesn’t have the franchise under his sway the way he did when he was up for free agency in 2004.
Jerry Buss’ son, Jim, the executive vice president of player personnel, is increasingly responsible for the direction of the team. He needs to be held increasingly accountable as well. When things go bad it’s always been Mitch Kupchak who shows his face to take the blame. He’s never complained, always recognized that it’s part of a general manager’s job. It’s something an executive vice president has to do as well, especially when that executive vice president is overseeing the severance from a valued tradition and into a cloudy future.