Lakers looking for improvement after franchise's worst season

Lakers' dynasty derailed (10:54)

Outside the Lines examines the decline of the Lakers' franchise since the death of owner Dr. Jerry Buss. (10:54)

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- As the Los Angeles Lakers embark on the post-Kobe Bryant era, their most notable newcomer is one of his former teammates, first-year head coach Luke Walton.

The 36-year-old Walton, a player on back-to-back Lakers championship teams in 2009 and 2010, is tasked with changing the culture and ultimately restoring luster to the franchise.

"I think he is our best free-agent signing in a few years," Lakers president Jeanie Buss said.

But that isn't as impressive as it sounds, given that every marquee free agent the Lakers have pursued in recent years has spurned them.

And while Buss, the team's top official, and her brother Jim, executive VP of basketball operations, apparently see eye-to-eye on Walton, the state of the siblings' relationship adds Hollywood drama to the Lakers' unprecedented struggles on the court.

Jeanie, 55, and Jim, 56, attained their positions at the behest of their late father, Jerry, who won 10 NBA championships in 34 years as owner of the storied franchise. By the time he died in 2013 after battling cancer, the Lakers' slide had begun.

The club has since endured its three worst seasons ever, posting successive records of 27-55, 21-61 and 17-65.

Last season's debacle led to Jim and general manager Mitch Kupchak firing coach Byron Scott in April, a move that Jeanie says she did not know was coming. She told Outside the Lines it would "probably make me more comfortable" to be consulted on important basketball decisions, but "I have to defer to them, because I've empowered them to run the basketball operation."

Official job titles notwithstanding, the Scott episode "says that her brother is in charge of basketball operations and she has absolutely no say-so," said John Salley, who played 11 seasons in the NBA and won the last of his four NBA championships as a member of the Lakers.

Former Lakers forward Matt Barnes, who now plays for the Sacramento Kings, said what many have wondered: "If the front office is not on the same page, how can you expect the team to do anything?"

One thing the front office has done is hire and fire coaches with dizzying frequency -- three have come and gone since Phil Jackson stepped down after the 2010-11 season. Mike Brown and Mike D'Antoni preceded Scott, and not one of the trio served more than two years.

Five years ago, the franchise's fortunes took a troubling turn. The two-time defending champions, led by Bryant and Pau Gasol, had won the Pacific Division under Jackson. In a meeting during the playoffs, Jackson, who won five of his record 11 NBA titles with the Lakers, shared a secret with his players.

"He was diagnosed with cancer and I think it threw everybody for a shock," Barnes told Outside the Lines. "It brought tears to some people's eyes.

"I saw a tear run down his face. And it was tough."

When Dallas swept the Lakers in the Western Conference semifinals, Jackson announced he was resigning as coach. Neither he nor his team revealed the prostate cancer diagnosis. That news didn't come out until Jackson included it in a book he wrote two years later.

Barnes said the Lakers' decline began when Jackson, whom he calls "arguably the best coach of all-time," left the organization. And at that point, Barnes said, Jackson's relationship with Jim Buss was already "very rocky."

At his resignation news conference, Jackson said he hadn't spoken with Jim Buss in a year.

"The second Phil was gone, everything that you can imagine -- that had anything to do with Phil anywhere -- was gone," Barnes said. "His sayings, the pictures with him in it ... gone. You could just tell right there that Jim obviously had some kind of problem with Phil."

Brown succeeded Jackson for the 2011-12 season, which began with the Lakers and New Orleans agreeing to a momentous trade that would've brought All-Star point guard Chris Paul to Bryant's side in a backcourt for the ages. But the league, which was running the financially struggling Hornets, nixed the deal, citing "basketball reasons."

"I think a lot of people to this day still feel that that was something [NBA commissioner] David Stern did on purpose because he didn't want the powers of the NBA to all be in Los Angeles," said Scott, a shooting guard on three Lakers championship teams in the 1980's. "He wanted more parity and that's the thing the NBA always talked about."

"If the Paul trade went through, we would be looking at Jim Buss and everything differently," said Roland Lazenby, a Lakers historian and biographer of Jerry West, Jackson and Bryant.

Former Lakers scout Gene Tormohlen agrees.

"That was devastating," he said. "You pay for it for four, five, six, seven years. They lost him, but it wasn't their fault."

Brown's Lakers won the division but again lost in the conference semis in 2011-12. Then came two ill-fated multi-team deals that became black marks on the front office's resume.

First, the Lakers traded two first-round and two second-round draft picks for the aging former MVP Steve Nash -- who broke down physically. Then they acquired All-Star center Dwight Howard, whose balky back and icy rapport with Bryant doomed the hopes that he'd become the second coming of another ex-Magic center, Shaquille O'Neal.

The Lakers, Salley said, mishandled Howard's return from back surgery. "Dwight felt pressured to play ... they wanted him to play the same way he did in Orlando, but he wasn't the same person.

"They should have said, 'rest your back.'"

Howard's only season in L.A. had barely begun when the Lakers abruptly fired Brown, with the team 1-4 in his second season as coach.

Immediately, the buzz was that Jackson would return, 18 months after he left.

Jerry Buss was in the hospital, critically ill, as Jim Buss and Kupchak met with Jackson, who had been undergoing cancer treatments of his own.

He and Jeanie, who had been dating for more than a decade, were living together at that time. Jeanie, who has been engaged to Jackson since Christmas 2012, recounts the November 2012 coaching discussions:

  • "He was interested in coming back. He was open to coming back. But he needed to be cleared by his doctors."

  • "He met with his doctor, he met with his family and he also met with some of his former assistant coaches."

  • "People thought the Lakers had a really good shot to win a championship and his concern was he did not want to come back and lose in a [NBA] Final. He said, 'There's nothing worse than losing in a Final,' and he wanted to make sure that he would be able to beat Miami with LeBron James. And so there were things that he wanted to make sure, and he had asked for 48 hours to make that decision."

  • "In that 48 hours, the organization decided to go in another direction and hired Mike D'Antoni."

  • "I was disappointed in the way it was handled, because we were asleep at midnight, and the phone rings. And he was woken up to be told that they had given the job to somebody else."

  • "He thought it was his job to say yes or no to. And so that misunderstanding, I think, kind of left some awkward feelings. But I certainly understand that it was Dr. Buss, Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak making a decision ... they felt Mike D'Antoni was the right coach for the team at the time."

  • "I think that Phil has been a source of conflict for my brother and I. And certainly, that probably would be the crowning moment."

  • "I think that now my relationship with my brother is better, because that source of conflict is no longer an issue in our process with the Lakers."

Late in D'Antoni's first season, Bryant ruptured his Achilles tendon. He was still sidelined early the next season when the Lakers gave him a two-year, $48.5 million contract extension, making him the highest-paid player in the NBA. But six games into his return, the 35-year-old Bryant -- the Lakers' all-time leading scorer -- fractured his knee and missed the rest of the season.

Beyond the issues of Bryant's health and play, the contract extension given him in Nov. 2013 raised questions over whether the Lakers had financially hampered their ability to improve the team.

"Awesome for Kobe," is how former teammate Carlos Boozer described the extension. "He deserved that contract for what he did for the Lakers. But I think it limited them financially on how they could go out and get certain players to add to the roster."

Scott, who succeeded D'Antoni for 2014-15 and coached Bryant's final two seasons, has a different view.

"It didn't handcuff the organization like a lot of people think it did," Scott said. "Mitch [Kupchak] and Jim [Buss] had pretty much looked at No. 1, rewarding Kobe Bryant, but also No. 2, making sure they weren't strapped as far as the salary cap."

"I don't think Kobe's contract caused any problems," Jeanie said. "They had [salary] cap space and the ability to approach free agents, who decided for whatever reasons that they didn't want to come to the Lakers."

Whatever the reasons, the Lakers struck out in their efforts to sign the likes of LaMarcus Aldridge, Carmelo Anthony, DeAndre Jordan and Kevin Love.

Said Barnes: "The team was terrible, Kobe was coming to an end of an amazing career, and it was just a tough sell to get big-name players there."

But did the prospect of playing with Bryant deter free agents from signing with the Lakers?

"I think that was all rumor and speculation, and if there was any player that was afraid to play with Kobe, then I don't think they're Laker material," Jeanie said.

"You hear some people say they don't want to play with Kobe, but I think that's bull----", Barnes said. "[He] was probably one of my best teammates to play with. His intensity, his passion, the way he played, the way he carried himself, it was an amazing experience."

Scott said something else turned off free agents. "It was the fact that Dwight Howard opted out [as a free agent after one season as a Laker] and took less money somewhere else. I thought that that was a sign from players that the organization wasn't like it used to be."

The departure of Jackson, who became the president of the New York Knicks in 2014, remains a game-changer, according to Barnes. "I think if Phil was here they would've been able to get some key free agents -- I don't know if they would've necessarily won a title, but it wouldn't have been as bad as it was."

Salley said there has been a leadership vacuum in the front office since 2000, when Jerry West left. The legendary "Mr. Clutch" as a Lakers guard, West was the executive who brought Bryant and O'Neal to the team, leading to three straight championships from 2000-2002. When West walked away at age 62 after the first of those titles, it was called a retirement, but he went on to success in positions with the Memphis Grizzlies and Golden State Warriors. And he was instrumental in the Warriors' July signing of Kevin Durant.

"You need a guy who can make things happen, and he makes things happen," Salley said, adding that he doesn't know if the Lakers have anybody in their front office right now who can do that.

As they've failed to land free agents and their record has tumbled, the Lakers' most popular figure for more than a generation has been the harshest critic of Jim Buss. Magic Johnson, who was a part-owner of the team until 2010, ripped Buss in February 2015 on "First Take" for failing to put Kupchak in charge and "trying to prove to everybody that this was the right decision that [his] dad gave [him] the reins." A year later on the same ESPN program, he said, "Jim has to step aside. He really does."

In May, Johnson still retained a ceremonial title as a Lakers vice president when he tweeted that Durant, DeMar DeRozan and LeBron James were potential free agents the Lakers should pursue. Outside the Lines learned this week -- and confirmed with a senior Lakers official -- that the NBA fined the team over Johnson's communiques about players under contract to other teams. In June, the Lakers granted the outspoken Hall of Famer's request to remove him from the honorary VP position.

Magic Johnson, Jim Buss, Mitch Kupchak, Phil Jackson, Mike Brown, Kobe Bryant and several other current and former Lakers players, coaches and staffers declined interview requests for this story, as did former NBA commissioner David Stern.

As the Lakers prepare to play their first regular-season game since Bryant's remarkable 60-point career-closing performance in April, there is optimism that Walton can bring back a measure of stability to the franchise.

"I think that Luke Walton is somebody that will be with us for a long time. We're committed to seeing him be successful," Jeanie said. "I believe with the leadership we have in Luke Walton, that we will get back to the kind of standard that my dad set."

A Golden State assistant for its championship run two seasons ago, Walton led the Warriors to a 39-4 record last season as a fill-in for ailing head coach Steve Kerr.

"Luke was a great hire," said Barnes, his former Lakers teammate. "I think he's going to bring a new excitement to the team."

Jeanie says Walton's capabilities as a communicator stand out.

"I don't even think he understands the natural charisma that he has," Jeanie said. "He has an ability to draw people to him at all different ages and backgrounds."

The good feelings in Laker Nation about the new coach even extend to the man he replaced after two years and a 38-126 record. Scott, who said he thought he and Lakers management had an understanding that he'd be given more time to turn things around, called Walton "a fantastic guy. I think he's going to do a good job."

But the team Walton will now lead, which features several touted but unproven young players, is likely to again be at the bottom of the standings, according to ESPN projections.

More help could be on the way after the season, however. Barnes said one potential free agent told him of plans to give the Lakers serious consideration and Boozer said the chance to lead a team -- with Bryant now retired -- could be especially appealing to the egos of some leading free agents.

"Jim and Jeanie will figure it out," Boozer said. "They'll get their organization the right way, give Luke a chance to see what those young guys can do, maybe they get a top free agent next summer, maybe they make a trade during the year, but I just think it needs more time."

How much time Jim Buss has left running basketball operations remains unclear. In a public statement in 2014, he said if the Lakers weren't title contenders within three to four years, he'd resign.

What will Jim do if the team's struggles persist? And if the Lakers don't contend, what does Jeanie think should happen with Jim?

"I think that's a conversation that we shouldn't speculate about now," she said.

When pressed about whether she would consider firing Jim and shaking up the front office, Jeanie said, "We need to see progress.

"I will do whatever I can to ensure the success of Laker basketball. Whatever it takes."

Production assistant Alex Eliasof contributed to this OTL report.