Jim Buss — the man at the top of the Lakers’ basketball operations food chain — has said all along that hiring Mike D’Antoni as coach back in 2012 was a call his farther Jerry Buss made from the hospital bed he would eventually pass away in. Father and son talked, Jerry had always wanted a return to Showtime and Jim wanted his imprint on the team, so they went with D’Antoni five games into a season with a roster that was a wretched fit for his style of play.
But was it worse than that? Did the Lakers consciously choose to build around 37-year-old (at the time) Steve Nash over then 26-year-old Dwight Howard?
That’s what Lakers president Jeanie Buss says in a Q&A she did with ESPN’s fantastic Ramona Shelburne.
“It came down to hiring a coach. [The Lakers hired Mike D’Antoni in November 2012.] When you have a big man and a guard, you have to decide whom you’re going to build your team around. The choice was to build it around Steve Nash and what suited Steve Nash instead of what suited Dwight Howard.”
Clearly Jennie Buss has a dog in this fight — she is engaged to Phil Jackson, the runner up in that coaching race. That’s who she wanted, who most Lakers fans wanted, and who Dwight Howard wanted as coach. But to bring in Jackson — at a salary three or four times what D’Antoni would make — would have shifted the balance of power in the organization toward Jeannie. Jackson would have coached the Lakers for a couple years but he wanted the kind of front office job he eventually got in New York, immediately Jackson would have had some say over players/personnel, and that eats away at Jim Buss’ power.
Jim again told ESPN this was all about what Jerry Buss wanted.
Jim: I’ve been on record as saying [hiring D’Antoni] was my dad’s decision. I know that makes Jeanie uncomfortable, but I’d sit down with him for hours going over Laker decisions. In my opinion, he was sharp.
Jeanie: [Interrupts] Dad was in the hospital. I would always run things by Dad too. But he was in the hospital, not feeling well, and that is why he counted on us to make the decisions. So I agree that he would have input, but he needed my suggestion or Jimmy’s suggestion or [GM Mitch Kupchak’s] suggestion because he was confined and did not have access to all the information that we did.
I’ll say this: I don’t believe Jim Buss thought “we should build around Nash.” He may have wanted to go to that up-tempo style and thought Nash could help bridge the gap to the next star player, but no way he thought Nash was some kind of long-term cornerstone. Nobody would.
That said, Jim may want to lay the D’Antoni hiring off on his father, but he can’t. For several years prior to this Jerry was not really involved in the operations of the team, he was more consultant than active partner. Jerry would not have forced D’Antoni on Jim, this was an idea from Jim that Jerry was good with. This was two guys thinking alike but also more about the power play than what would work on the court.
And it was a big swing and a miss.
Hiring D’Antoni was a decision that turned off Dwight Howard — he wanted Phil Jackson. The guy the Lakers shot down with a late-night call. More than that, Howard wanted to feel listened to, like his input mattered to the team, and getting a coach with a system that was the opposite of fitting what Howard wanted to do was a sign he wasn’t being taken seriously. This was one of the early dominoes that ended up having Howard opt for Houston as a free agent. Lakers fans can say “good riddance” but they got nothing in return for a superstar walking out the door. That’s a loss.
There’s many more layers to this story — obviously Howard and Kobe Bryant didn’t get along in terms of approach to basketball — but what is clear is the Lakers set themselves back with that coaching hire. It was one where most of the people around the league were scratching their heads at the time it happened, now it retrospect it was an unmitigated disaster. One of several situations that led the Lakers to the mess they are right now. And will be for a while. And the Buss family will have to own up to that.