Too soon to judge Lakers' future

LOS ANGELES – It hasn't even been a year since iconic Los Angeles Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss died at the age of 80. But when someone led a life as large as Buss before dying on Feb. 18, 2013, you remember them on the day they came into this world, not the one they left it. And so the Lakers celebrated their late, great owner Tuesday night during a 104-92 loss to the Indiana Pacers, a day after what would have been his 81st birthday.

The celebration was muted. So much has happened in the 11 months since Buss died, it felt as if it should be. He would've had a hard time with what the Lakers have become this season. The man did not like losing ... ever.

But while it was difficult to separate the present moment from the man, it's important to do so. The fact that it's so hard to only underscores why.

A losing season like the 16-30 debacle the Lakers are in the middle of is hard on any franchise. But it happens. Every few years, a rash of injuries wrecks everything. A star player leaves via free agency. Veterans get old. Salary cap issues force management to make tough choices. It happens to everyone. It just doesn't happen to the Lakers.

Buss bought the franchise from Jack Kent Cooke in 1979. The Lakers missed the playoffs only twice during the 34 years he owned the team. Let that sink in a minute. The Lakers made the playoffs every season but two in the 34 years that Jerry Buss owned the team. And they didn't just make the playoffs, they won 10 NBA titles.

It's a staggering record of success, one that probably will never be duplicated in professional sports. And it's why this season feels so strange for the Lakers and their fans. They simply have no context to process it. No experiences on which to draw.

In addition to mourning the man, it feels like an era ended.

It has only been 11 months since Buss' death, but to the Lakers and their fans it feels like 11 years.

That's how foreign losing like this is to the Lakers. The losses pile up, blending into one long soul-crushing highlight. It feels as if things are never going to change and it has been forever since they ever won.

That's a testament to the standard to which Buss held his franchise. Losing was never acceptable.

The problem with making that connection, however, is that it confuses the man with the moment.

Yes, this is an awful season for all involved. But to say it's a referendum on the future of the Lakers' franchise now that its steward is gone is a reckless and rhetorical leap.

The narrative is too easy. A great man dies and the je ne sais quoi that made his franchise special dies with him.

Really though, it just so happened that Buss died before a year that was set up to be a bad one. The Lakers had three aging superstars coming off injuries. You don't need an actuary to tell you the probability of at least one of those stars re-injuring himself was high.

The Lakers also had and awful salary cap situation that took fiscal restraint to maneuver out of. That meant signing players to one-year deals and resisting any transaction that impacted their salary cap beyond this season. It could have worked if everything had gone right. But, well, you know the story by now.

No, this was set up to be a down year. Everybody hoped for the best but steeled themselves for the worst. And by Tuesday night, the Lakers (16-30) pretty much were at their worst as they dropped into a virtual tie with the Sacramento Kings (15-29) for last place in the Western Conference.

It's humiliating and frustrating and awful for all involved.

"It's been strange, not a typical season for us," Pau Gasol said. "It's tough for the franchise, for our guys, this team to go through this. Nobody really wanted or expected this."

It's also just one season.

That it's the first season after Buss died is not nearly as significant as some would like to make it. The judgment on how his children, Jim and Jeanie, run the franchise in his stead can not be made now. It's far too soon. Their actions over the next five years are what matters, not those made in the first 11 months since their father died.

Can you draw conclusions? Sure. But how can anyone connected or even around the team see clearly when they're in the midst of such a terrible season? It's virtually impossible to see with much clarity when you have so little context or experience to process a season such as this.

Tuesday night the Lakers celebrated the life of the man who raised the stakes here so incredibly high. Try to separate the moment from the man.