The Lakers last week sunk to the team’s low point in Los Angeles. They lost Tuesday evening to the Philadelphia 76ers, a team so woeful it had lost its first 18 games of this season along with the last 10 games of the previous season. Philadelphia fans could be excused if they exclaimed, with relief, “Thank God for the Lakers.”
After last week’s game, radio commentators and fans who called in to the postgame broadcast weighed in on why they thought the team had gone so stunningly wrong. They claimed, variously, that the players weren’t playing, the coach wasn’t coaching or the general manager wasn’t managing. Listening to the radio, I wanted to yell: “It’s the owner, stupid!”
Look, I don’t know – and most fans don’t know – whether the manager isn’t managing, the players aren’t playing, etc. I do know, having covered business for years, that ultimately, like it or not, you usually are obligated to give the person at the top the credit for success or the blame for belly flops.
The top dog, whether an owner or a chief executive or managing partner, is responsible for setting the right course and getting the proper people to carry it out, on time and under budget. When things go off course, and they always do, then the person at the top – and this is the important part – must step in and correct it. If they don’t or can’t, failure inevitably results. There’s a reason why Jack Welch is considered a genius and Jeffrey Skilling a dufus.
Jim Buss has been the guy at the top of the Lakers for several years now. Let’s look at his bottom line, which, for sports teams, is the win-loss record over time: The Lakers, who won 45 games three seasons ago, won 27 games two years ago and 21 games last season. This year, the team is on pace to fall below that modest level. I think we have a trend line.
How has Buss fared in getting the right people? Well, he passed on Phil Jackson to be coach and brought in Mike Brown and then Mike D’Antoni, neither of whom will ever attain Jackson’s results. He gave Kobe Bryant a huge extension, $48.5 million over two years, when Bryant was aged and injured. And he was unable to sign big-name free agents such as LeBron James, Dirk Nowitzki and Carmelo Anthony, although the Lakers did land Dwight Howard. Of course, Howard left after a year and walked away from big money to do so. (That was after the Lakers put a sign on Staples Center pleading with Howard to stay, which had been the lowest point in the team’s L.A. history until last week.)
The current players and Lakers managers may or may not be playing hard or working up to their potential. It doesn’t matter much. Buss is the one responsible for setting the right course and getting the proper people to carry it out. If the course is wrong, he must change it. If the people aren’t working out, if they’re not right for the job, Buss is the one – the one – who must swap them out. The point: This is the team Buss has assembled. The team, as it exists today, is the sum of all of his decisions.
I have no reason to believe Buss is anything but intelligent, conscientious, honest and dedicated. But I also have no reason to believe he is the right guy for the job.
To his credit, Buss once gave himself a deadline. He declared that if the Lakers weren’t a contending team by the 2016-17 season, he would step down.
He may be the only one who needs that much time. I believe the rest of us have seen enough.
Charles Crumpley is editor of the Business Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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