Reclusive Jim Buss is Lakers' chief

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- It was a lunch best served cold, on a paper plate, and eaten quickly on the way to someplace more important. Sustenance and nothing more.

Of all the surreal images at the end of this failed Los Angeles Lakers season, nothing captured the disappointment and shallow ending to it better than the hastily arranged pizza party the team's public relations staff organized Wednesday following two days of season-ending exit interviews.

On a day when the team should have been preparing for another playoff game, general manager Mitch Kupchak could only grab a couple of slices, head upstairs to his office and begin deciphering the information he'd collected from the black box left behind in this wreckage of a season.

"It's hard to pinpoint just one thing," Kupchak said, earnest as always.

When things go as wrong as they did for the Lakers in their second-round playoff loss to the Dallas Mavericks, there are a thousand reasons and a hundred regrets.

But in this case, there are only two ways to move forward: reinvention or restoration.

Kupchak's first instinct, after listening to his players and coaches and sifting through the first layer of smoldering embers, seemed to be to keep things mostly the same but tinker at the margins.

To rebuild and restore what went wrong, and save the organizational overhaul for another day.

"We may have to look to improve in certain areas," said Kupchak, tipping his hand slightly. "But with the core players we have intact, we do think we can continue to contend."

It was an opinion echoed in almost full concert by each of the Lakers players during two days of exit interviews, both publicly and privately.

In most corners of the sports world that type of consensus would be enough to quiet talk of dramatic offseason changes.

But something has been brewing in Lakerland the past few years. Beneath the surface, from a man still establishing himself on this stage.

He speaks publicly only a few times year and is most often photographed wearing a baseball cap. His motives and methods remain hard to know, because he lets himself be known by so few people.

Jim Buss didn't set out to become a mystery man, but he has become one.

Over the past seven or eight years, Buss has become one of the most influential voices inside one of the NBA's most influential organizations. Yet most Lakers fans have barely heard of him, and know very little of him except that he really likes Andrew Bynum.

But now, with legendary coach Phil Jackson retiring and his father, Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss, retreating a bit further from the day-to-day operations of the team each year, Jim Buss' influence on the future of the franchise will be hard to miss.

His whims, his voice, will be the single most important force in the way the Lakers move out of this failed season.

It will be Jim Buss who decides whether the team should be restored or reinvented. Whether it needs a fresh start or a new blueprint. Whether the Jackson era should be scrubbed clean off the walls or reupholstered by longtime assistant coach Brian Shaw.

Kupchak will advise and consent. Jerry Buss will make the final call, as always. But it's become clear in recent years that Jim Buss is engineering this train now.

One Lakers insider argued that "this is the same as it's been for the last few years," but I don't buy it. This is different.

Jackson has been an enormous figure in the organization for 12 years, but he was never Jim Buss' hire.

Four years ago, they had a public spat over the radio. Jim called out Jackson's habit of criticizing players through the media. The team's vice president, Jackson's girlfriend (and Jim's sister) Jeanie Buss defended Jackson.

Jeanie Buss and her brother have both said publicly that their relationship is fine.

On Wednesday, Jackson revealed that he hadn't spoken to Jim Buss in over a year, and only rarely conferred with Jerry Buss.

So now Jackson's gone.

His influence is gone.

And there's a huge leadership gap to fill in.

Whomever Jim Buss chooses to fill it will be the first and most important clue about the direction he intends to take the Lakers, and the manner in which he will lead them.

A new coach like Rick Adelman, Jeff Van Gundy or Mike Dunleavy would herald a new direction. Shaw would be a nod to a continuation of the Jackson era.

Already there have been tea leaves to read.

At midseason Jim Buss steadfastly refused to trade Bynum, or to even consider trading Bynum even if it might net swingman Carmelo Anthony. Bynum has always been Jim Buss' most important project. He has stuck his neck out for the talented young center on many occasions.

If he continues to do so, it reflects both his loyalty to Bynum and to his own legacy because of the role he played in drafting Bynum out of high school.

Others within the organization point to the decision a couple of weeks ago not to renew the contracts of the team's support staff.

Ostensibly, that decision was made to give those staffers time to find new jobs with a lockout looming, but the timing of the decision -- while the team was on the road in New Orleans, struggling in its first-round series against the Hornets -- gave the impression that there was more to the message than meets the eye.

Either Jim Buss or his father was leaning toward a housecleaning in the offseason, and not simply a cleanup of some of the issues that ailed the Lakers at the end.

On Wednesday afternoon, all of those dynamics were still settling as Kupchak grabbed two slices of pizza and walked the stairs to an uncertain future.

This summer, the Lakers will either reinvent themselves or try to restore what made them back-to-back champions.

The decision they make will reveal as much about the men making it as it will about the team's future.

Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow her on Twitter.