The future of the Los Angeles Lakers and their stunning basketball legacy will have nothing to do with the fact they were swept out of the playoffs in humiliating fashion Sunday by the San Antonio Spurs. That fact hardly matters.
It will not revolve around whether Mike D’Antoni does or does not return, or what becomes of Kobe Bryant’s Achilles tendon, or even where Dwight Howard chooses to play next season.
The future of the purple and gold will be set by the inter-family politics now raging in the wake of Jerry Buss’ death — in the jockeying for power that follows the passing of any patriarch, in the shortcomings and strengths of whomever does emerge as the real power in Lakerland and in the tricky task of a self-made man’s greatness surviving the transfer of power from his generation to the ones that follow.
Succession will dictate the Lakers’ future, not beatdowns like the one the Spurs foisted upon the Lakers, 103-82 on Sunday night, to cast them from this hyper-disappointing season. Kobe’s recovery and Dwight’s own Decision, though seeming to loom large now, are small by comparison.
Jerry Buss was a great man, one of the greatest men to ever own an NBA team, and it was his unusual greatness that drew together all the things that have made the Lakers one of the great franchises in sports.
He was a scientist, and a visionary, and an entrepreneur, and a playboy, and with the kind of magic-touched alchemy that only the Great Ones can muster he created the Lakers of Showtime and Magic and Kareem and Shaq and Kobe. He made his creation, that extension of his own remarkableness, about winning and joy and getting what you want and a peek at the great life and a whole lot of money and a brand that you cannot separate from what the NBA at its best now strives to be.
But none of that guarantees that what he poured into his franchise he would ever be able to force into his descendants, a cold and hard fact of American society that has always been true: The Great Ones can change the world and impose their will on their own walk of life and, sometimes, history, but almost never on their own families.
That, in the end, comes only after they are gone.
History is littered with monarchies that faced this very fact. The Kennedys are America’s prime political example. The great novel “The Magnificent Ambersons” dealt with this very thing. Countless businesses, big and small, have withered and died as generational succession led from the great ones – the hungry and desperate and ambitious and brilliant — to the soft and cozy and lazy and comfortable born into it.
It is a vastly different thing to earn stunning success than to be born into it.
In Los Angeles, as best we can tell, the dueling powers here are Jim Buss, the Lakers’ executive vice president of basketball operations, and his sister, Jeanie Buss, the team’s executive vice president of business operations. But we must also throw in their four other siblings, their subsequent inheritors, and even Phil Jackson (as Jeanie’s fiancé soon to be married into the family), to try and grasp the key players in this team’s bid to retain its place in the NBA hierarchy.
What to do with Dwight, D’Antoni, Kobe, the 2014 free-agency class? All trees you can miss for the forest. In the past, the decisions that mattered — from talking Kobe out of a trade he demanded last decade stretching all the way back to Kareem — started with the ownership. And that meant Dr. Buss.
If that greatness, even some of it, continues in the second generation, then all will be well at Staples. But if it does not . . .
So far, Jim Buss’ tenure as steward of his father’s legacy is not exactly confidence-inducing. How different if, say, Jeanie had been in charge — and her beau, Phil, had been re-hired, when Mike Brown was fired earlier this season. Or if Brown had not been brought back this season at all. Then no D’Antoni mess, perhaps a more disciplined and in-line Dwight, a Kobe not so . . . wait. No. Let’s stop there. This is the stuff that can drive historians mad: What if, what if, what if, what if . . .
Only, the what ifs aren’t over for the Lakers faithful, and, though early, the buffoonery of the Lakers since Dr. Buss ailed and then passed — and during Jim Buss’ leadership — should offer us a stark reminder of how hard it is to pass on a dynasty and the intangibles that built it through the generations.
In American society it’s just as likely that Fredo will inherit the family business as Michael.
There can be little joy among the Lakers faithful today. This season was a disaster, D’Antoni is probably not the right guy, Dwight may or may not stay — and neither right now seems particularly comforting — and Kobe sits somewhere at a ripened-basketball age facing return from a very serious injury.
Dark days, indeed.
But know this, Lakers fans: The real battle that matters and that will impact what it means to root for your team in the years to come is happening away from the public, off of the court and outside of anything any athlete, coach or general manager can control.
The question now isn’t what to learn from this season, how to fix next year’s roster, who to retain as the head coach and what to do about this player or that.
The question is which inheritance plan and power structure among the Buss clan is most likely to pass on Dr. Buss’ genius for at least one more generation.