|The Los Angeles Lakers will have to take a new direction without iconic owner Jerry Buss. (Getty Images)|
Word of Jerry Buss' death carried far and wide Monday, in a sport that he influenced perhaps more than any owner in NBA history. But nowhere will Buss' absence be felt more than with the team that he built, rebuilt and built again many times over into a symbol of winning and professionalism.
Those attributes have been lacking in the nearly two years since Buss officially retreated from the day-to-day operations of the team and appointed his son, Jim Buss, as executive vice president. Jim Buss took control of basketball operations after the first of two consecutive second-round playoff exits in 2011. He oversaw the hiring of Mike Brown, the firing of Mike Brown, the hiring of Mike D'Antoni and the resulting 25-29 record the Lakers have assembled as they emerge from the All-Star break without their iconic, Hall of Fame owner.
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There is little doubt that the ownership of the team will stay in the family; the Buss family said as much in a statement released by the Lakers on Monday after Jerry Buss' death at age 80. But the direction of a franchise that has always been able to reinvent itself over the years is in serious question. Where do the Lakers go from here?
After Brown was unfairly fired only five games into the season, the Lakers chose not to repair the chasm created between the franchise and Phil Jackson by stunning the basketball word and hiring D'Antoni instead. When Jackson did not return after the 2011 playoff loss to the Mavericks, Jim Buss cut all ties with him within the organization. Members of the front office and scouting staff who were close to Jackson were let go. Joey Buss, another son of the late owner, took over Jackson's office.
Jackson's longtime girlfriend and now fiancee, Jeanie Buss, oversees the Lakers' business operations, but her influence on the basketball side has dwindled.
None of this is to say the actions of the son can taint the legacy of the father; Jerry Buss' championship tapestry with the Lakers, his creation of Showtime and stewardship of a sports landmark, are forever. But the future is promised to no one in sports, and the Lakers' future is now in Jim Buss' hands, which have thus far proven to be too small for the job.
As Jackson was fond of saying, these things can turn on a trifle. And indeed, the Lakers -- no matter which Buss was calling the shots -- were so close to stumbling on the move that would've put them back on track. Their December 2011 attempt to acquire Chris Paul from the Hornets, subsequently rejected by commissioner David Stern in his role as temporary owner of the New Orleans franchise, perhaps would've negated all the missteps that followed. Paul's MVP performance representing the Clippers in the All-Star Game on Sunday night made it so obvious that the Lakers got that one right, even if they've gotten so much else wrong in the months since.
In the short term, the Lakers have to find a way to play better and squeeze their way into the Western Conference playoffs. They have 28 games to make up a 3 1-2 game deficit to the eighth-place Houston Rockets.
In the bigger picture, they have to find a way to do that while persuading Dwight Howard -- who's been struggling with the after-effects of back surgery and a torn labrum in his right shoulder -- to stay in LA long term when he becomes an unrestricted free agent this summer. There are serious concerns about whether Howard, one of the few low-post centers left in the game, can co-exist with D'Antoni, a small-ball coach who views post play as a symptom of ball-stopping, inefficient basketball.
The first milestone in the Lakers' road to recovery comes at 3 p.m. ET Thursday, at the NBA trade deadline. The Lakers have displayed no appetite for trading Howard before the deadline, and GM Mitch Kupchak has repeated publicly what he has privately told Howard: He doesn't want to trade him. As CBSSports.com reported last week, however, the Lakers and Celtics did at one point discuss a potential deal that would've been built around Howard and Rajon Rondo, though such a scenario became unlikely once Rondo was lost for the year with an ACL injury.
Asked about Howard's future after the All-Star Game on Sunday night, Kobe Bryant said, "It doesn't matter. ... That's my message to the team is that you can't worry about the future, you can't worry about the past, you just have to focus on the present."
Bryant had given a similar answer recently when I asked him what would happen if Howard left as a free agent this summer.
"The franchise will figure it out," Bryant said. "They always have."
Under Jerry Buss, the architect of 10 championships and multiple dynasties, that was true. Now? Nobody can be sure.