At this point it’s tough to know how to describe the Lakers’ decision to part ways with their former coach. When the season starts in October the Buss faction’s move may look like a favor, the rough equivalent of handing a life vest to Byron before throwing him over the side of a sinking ship. It may be unfair to the Buss siblings to describe this move that way, but John Kennedy was right: victory has 100 fathers and defeat is an orphan. Byron cannot claim all the credit for the failure these last two seasons represent. The story goes back further, and includes other factors — like Kobe’s injuries, including a left achilles tear earned while he was trying to will the Lakers into the 2013 playoffs. There was little doubt he would be back, but nobody knew what to expect. The Buss siblings still rewarded Kobe with a $48.5 million, two-year contract that stranded the purple-and-gold in a forest it’s only now wandering out of.
Why does it matter? The contract tied up resources that could have been spent pursuing more mid-level talent. Kobe’s contract, when mixed with management’s insistence on chasing the most expensive, highest profile free agents left little room for alternatives when Carmelo, Lebron, and LaMarcus left the Lakers at the altar. Mitch found that money won’t lure top flight talent to a lousy team. Neither will a rich nightlife, multi-million dollar endorsement deals, or celebrity friends. Eventually word got around that the Lakers lost out in the LaMarcus sweepstakes because the Buss faction put Hollywood perks ahead of basketball in their first meeting. D’oh. When Greg went to Milwaukee and DeAndre eventually rejoined their hallway rivals the improv show was back in business to cobble together the 2015 edition Byron would have to lead.
When Mike was still running the show in 2013, the Lakers were consistently beaten on the boards, rated 28th out of 30 teams on defense — as measured by points-per-game surrendered — and finished 27-55. After Byron’s two years, the same team was still consistently out-rebounded, rated 27th on defense, and finished 17-65. It went from bad to worse; but what were the odds of anything better? The 2014 squad was a patchwork, their lotto pick went down with a broken knee on opening night, and Kobe was out half the season with a shoulder injury. This season’s team was a better organized patchwork, but still featured four rookies and a retiring superstar who spent more time with the trainer than on the practice court. Byron’s job was all the more difficult because Kobe’s status was unknown from game-to-game. It was like giving Byron the keys to a ’93 Ford Escort and wondering why his driver can’t outrun those zippy Acuras.
But enough about the past, the guy Bill Plaschke called a “good soldier” for taking on a thankless task has left the stage. The future will belong to the Buss siblings, but Jim’s outsized expectations of a return to glory set the stage for a sibling rivalry that could lead to a palace revolt. Jeanie is apparently serious about holding Jim to his 2014 promise that he would step aside if the Lakers are not in the hunt for a western conference championship in “three to four years.” The team does live in the land of make-believe, but this is hardly the time for a badly-written “Hamlet” makeover. Nevertheless, something is rotten in the Center of Staples. The franchise is facing its biggest summer in years; it has a new coach, a three-man core, $60 million in spending money, and a potential top-three draft pick. The “Showtime” days when championship-or-bust was the modus operandi left the building. If Mitch is right, and Luke is going to “going to start an outstanding coaching career” he’s going to need time and talent to pull it off. As a fan I want to see them get there, but I can’t trust that the people in the wheelhouse know what they’re doing.