JEANIE BUSS AND DR. JERRY…JIM DOLAN AND CHARLES…OR IS IT CHARLIE? WHAT ABOUT UNCLE LARRY? (AND MOE AND CURLY FOR THAT MATTER)
The Los Angeles Lakers and the New York Knicks, two of the not quite 73-year-old National Basketball Association signature franchises are in such total disarray that they border on being laughable.
The Philadelphia 76ers organization, another league cornerstone knows the feeling well; ask anyone, fan or executive alike who was even remotely familiar or associated with the team’s heartfelt demand to “Trust the Process” (TTP).
In a nutshell ‘The Process’ — conceived by then-GM Sam Hinkie in 2013 with a gentle push from former 76ers guard Tony Wroten and ESPN’s Pablo Torre and viralized courtesy of a legion of fans along with TV sports journalists and podcasters — was a declaration of faith in the Sixers’ rebuild strategy, a model demanding uncommon patience.
“Here’s what we’re doing, here’s why we’re doing it, sit tight for a few years and it’s gonna be dope.”
Basically it espoused a commitment: maintaining an unwavering adherence to a well-grounded and carefully crafted methodology — short-term be damned — in order to accomplish a long-term goal.
A cult-like acceptance was roused and it was understood, albeit sometimes reluctantly and often with anguish and rancor, that every transaction be made in service to and in the name of this mantra.
“Things may look bad now, but we have a plan in place to make it better.”
‘The Process’ itself was Hinkie’s plan to determine the best way to assemble top-tier talent by collecting as many assets as possible — draft picks, young players, players with trade-and team-friendly contracts — in an effort to ultimately attract marquis names.
The short-term strategem of trying to increase the team’s chances at a top draft pick by losing — otherwise known as tanking — became an unfortunate aspect of ‘The Process’ but there was also that aggressive focus on amassing a stable of draft picks through trades and using those chips to make deals for higher picks or desirable players who could be acquired and dealt again.
Hinkie resigned as GM and President of Basketball Operations in April 2016 but by then his groundwork had been laid and pieces were in place for the 76ers to go from a laughingstock to powerhouse material. (19; 18 and 10 wins in 2013-’14; 2014-’15; and 2015-’16 respectively to 52 and 51 the last two seasons — and a remarkable Game 7 Kawhi Leonard last second off-balance 4x-iron-kissing basket away from this year’s Eastern Conference Final).
The point is this: There was a plan, embrace it or revile it.
At least there was a plan.
The hierarchy of the Los Angeles Lakers was in peril — real trouble — after Dr. Jerry Buss, the majority owner died in early 2013. NBA Commissioner David Stern said of Buss at the time, “The NBA has lost a visionary owner whose influence on our league is incalculable and will be felt for decades to come.” Lakers great Kobe Bryant remarked of Buss, “His impact is felt worldwide” and called him “the greatest owner in sports ever.”
Upon his death, Buss’ 66% controlling ownership of the Lakers passed to his six children through a trust with each child receiving an equal share of 11% apiece.
His succession plan dictated that daughter Jeanie — child #3 — assume his title as the Lakers’ governor as well as the role of its team representative at NBA Board of Governors meetings. On March 27, 2017 she took the reins of the franchise.
She had terminated Mitch Kupchak, the team’s fulltime GM since 2000 and accepted the resignation of older brother Jim as VP of Basketball Operations a month before, paving the way for her installation of Magic Johnson as President of Basketball Operations. Then she hired one-time sports agent Rob Pelinka — Kobe Bryant’s agent (and formerly Kevin Durant’s) — to be the new GM.
It hasn’t been pretty.
Magic helped facilitate the arrival of LeBron before he unceremoniously resigned and slipped out the side door, effectively severing his ties with the organization’s executive management. Seems he couldn’t perform his duties and be himself at the same time.
But no hard feelings; he and Jeanie ardently maintain their mutual lovefest. In the meantime, the Lakers missed the playoffs this season, their sixth consecutive year finishing out of the money. For a franchise boasting 16 NBA championships — second only to Boston’s 17 — this simply should not be.
The Lakers have decided not to replace Johnson; instead Pelinka will continue as GM and report directly to ownership. This is yet another curious decision made by Buss who has demonstrated a profound inability to slot the right people in the right places.
She has eschewed going outside the organizational family to bring in an experienced executive capable of running the club; to reward her inner sanctum seems more important to her. The brass quite simply is not top brass.
Entrusting Pelinka with the responsibility she has is more than head-scratching. (Particularly to Magic who cited Pelinka’s “betrayal” and “backstabbing” as key reasons for his abrupt departure in April along with his perceived loss of “decision-making power.”).
Equally concerning is the fact that long-time Buss confidantes Kurt Rambis — 65–164 as an NBA head coach or 99 games under .500 — and his wife Linda have been gifted senior leadership positions within the hierarchy. And if that’s not enough her ex-fiance Phil Jackson, chief architect of the debacle that was the New York Knicks from 2014–2018 (and in fairness still is) is said to be advising her.
Rambis was a Jackson lieutenant in New York.
It is unfathomable that the franchise has been allowed to fall so far on her watch. When the Lakers hired Frank Vogel as their next head coach after being spurned by Tyronn Lue it was largely on the say-so of the Rambises and Jackson. And it was Pelinka and Rambis who mandated that Vogel take on Jason Kidd as his lead assistant. (Heir apparent?)
Vogel who had previous stints in Indiana and Orlando is more of a deliberate-style strategist not necessarily well-suited to the NBA’s new incarnation of fast-paced wide-open basketball. Keeping up in the run-and-shoot Western Conference will demand that he rejigger his philosophy. There is also the notion with which to contend that nobody else was exactly breaking down Vogel’s door to get his signature on the dotted line.
His willingness to accept the terms of a three-year contract which Lue would not, speaks volumes. As veteran Los Angeles Times columnist and ESPN’s Around the Horn stalwart Bill Plaschke wrote about the embarrassing Lue scenario at the time, “An unemployed coach would rather stay unemployed than work for the Lakers. Think about that…Think about how that screams of the leadership void under Jeanie Buss…Say hello to the Los Angeles Knicks.”
Aaah, the Knicks. The New York Knickerbockers. A rich, storied history and along with the Celtics, one of the two charter NBA franchises still located in its original city.
Madison Square Garden. Ned Irish. Joe Lapchick. Sweetwater Clifton. Carl Braun. Harry Gallatin. Dick McGuire. Eddie Donovan. Red Holzman. Willis Reed. Dick Barnett. Walt Frazier. Phil Jackson. Dave DeBusschere. Bill Bradley. Jerry Lucas. Earl Monroe. NBA championships in 1970 and 1973. Bernard King. Patrick Ewing. Rick Pitino. Pat Riley. Don Nelson. Jeff Van Gundy. Latrell Sprewell. Allan Houston. Larry Johnson. Donnie Walsh. Isiah Thomas. Larry Brown. David Lee. Anucha Browne Sanders. Mike D’Antoni. Carmelo Anthony. Amar’e Stoudemire. Jeremy Lin — Linsanity. Phil Jackson (President of Basketball Operations). Kristaps Porzingis. Jeff Hornacek. David Fizdale.
James L. Dolan.
Jim Dolan: Executive Chairman and CEO of the Madison Square Garden Company and Executive Chairman of MSG Networks. Son of Cablevision founder Charles Dolan and nephew of Cleveland Indians owner Larry Dolan. Blues-inspired rock singer, frontman and guitarist for JD & The Straight Shot, his country blues and roots rock vanity project, not just a diversion but the fulfillment of a life-long passion.
In 1994 Paramount Communications, the owner of Madison Square Garden was acquired by Viacom who in turn sold the MSG properties to Cablevision and ITT Corporation, each assuming a 50% ownership stake.
ITT sold out to Cablevision three years later and in 1999 Dolan was given an increased role in managing Cablevision’s sports properties.
Today he is the primary manager of these assets, the domain of which includes the New York Knicks, New York Rangers, the WNBA’s New York Liberty and the AHL’s Hartford Wolfpack.
As Chairman of MSG he supervises daily operations of its professional sports teams and regional sports networks including MSG Network and MSG Plus.
He also serves as governor of the Knicks and Rangers to their respective leagues.
His missteps have been many; swirling controversy sticks to him like flypaper and seems to be part of his DNA. His middle initial stands for Lawrence but it just as well could be for Lost.
The Knicks have performed abysmally. They made the NBA Finals in 1999 and from 2001-’2 thru 2009-’10 posted nine consecutive losing seasons.
In 2012-’13 they won 54 games but haven’t won more than 37 in a season since, the nadir seemingly reached in a pair of 17-win campaigns — as in 17–65 — in 2014-’15 and this year, 2018-’19. They have missed the playoffs 6 years in a row and 12 of the last 15.
This is representative of nothing less than a staggering level of impotence for a team that has lots of money to spend (and does so but indiscriminately) and enjoys all of the inherent advantages of playing in New York City at Madison Square Garden, “The World’s Most Famous Arena.”
Media and informal fan polls too numerous to cite — including a recent Sports Illustrated poll — have ranked Dolan as the worst owner in the 30-team NBA. In 2007 the aforementioned Commissioner Stern sharply criticized Dolan’s stewardship of the Knicks saying bluntly that, “they’re not a model of intelligent management.”
Examples abound. The Allan Houston overbid and signing; the Isiah Thomas hiring and extension; the Larry Brown coaching nightmare costing the Knicks plenty ($18 million); the Anucha Browne-Sanders sexual harassment lawsuit in which Dolan was named as a defendant on the basis of firing her for spite; the 2012 loss of Jeremy Lin without deigning to match Houston’s offer; the foolish and baseless response to a letter criticizing his leadership from a 73-year-old Knicks fan named Irving Bierman in which Dolan told him to “root for the Nets because the Knicks don’t want you,” and characterized Bierman whom he did not know as “a sad person” and probably an “alcoholic maybe”; the Charles Oakley brouhaha; and most recently his threat to ban a fan from attending games for life after the fan yelled, “sell the team” at Dolan.
As for the Rangers, they won the Stanley Cup in 1994 after a 54-year drought and then Dolan showed up with that increased role. The kiss of death.
Speaking of droughts, the team failed to make the playoffs from the 1997-’98 season until the 2004-’5 NHL lockout — the longest playoff absence in team history — despite having the league’s highest payroll during much of that time.
In the wake of expensive and dubious free-agent signings — Eric Lindros, Pavel Bure and Theo Fleury — fans and media called for GM Glen Sather’s head and hide. Dolan retained him and allowed him to rebuild from the ground up which culminated in a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2012, their first since ’97.
When Dolan pontificated about the team’s Stanley Cup chances in January 2012 it didn’t sit well with then-coach John Tortorella who remarked in response, “I have my owner up here talking about a Stanley Cup. That’s a bunch of bullshit…”
Tortorella, in his second tour behind the bench was relieved of his duties in 2013 and replaced by Alain Vigneault who took the Rangers to the Cup Finals in 2014 and earned the Presidents’ Trophy for most points (113) in the 2014-’15 regular season.
Vigneault guided the team to 101 and 102-point campaigns and the playoffs in 2016 and ’17 respectively, missed the postseason in 2018…and was summarily fired by Dolan. Under new-hire David Quinn the Rangers registered 78 points (32–36–14) and missed the playoffs in 2018-’19.
Suffice to say that most of the straw Dolan gets his hands on is not spun into gold.
Knicks fans are rightfully concerned that Dolan will somehow quell their justifiable optimism in what could be a bountiful off-season. The Knicks have the money and the salary cap space to add two high-profile free agents this summer — Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving come to mind — and the #3 pick in the NBA draft.
Had they been fortunate enough to snag the lottery’s #1 selection they could have added Duke’s All-Intergalactic Zion Williamson to the mix, but to settle for his teammate, freshman sidekick sensation R.J. Barrett at #3 would be no hardship.
Gary Horn, 57, a lifelong Knicks fan now living in California laments that Dolan “has cultivated an environment where N.B.A. guys don’t want to play there. But his grand flaw is that he has deputized people who don’t know how to draft young players.”
Jonathan Macri, a fan and founder of the Knicks Film School, a website dedicated to the team, demurs observing, “If Durant thinks playing for the Knicks is what’s best for his business and branding goals, Dolan’s reputation as an unpleasant, impulsive individual isn’t going to change that.”
The essence of wonder — that which inspires amazement, bewilderment, curiosity, fascination and stunning surprise — is to ask how the Lakers and Knicks could operate like this.
And exactly what both Jeanie Buss and Jim Dolan really see when they look in the mirror, the background of which is no doubt papered in thousands upon thousands of dollars in therapy bills.
[Editor’s Note: This piece was written by Mr. Kaplan in May 2019.]
— Lakers Record — -34–8 a/o 01/19/2020;
— Lakers GM Rob Pelinka was named VP of Operations to go with GM role on 01/10/2020;
— Knicks Record — -11–32 a/o 01/19/2020;
— Mike Miller was named Knicks interim head coach replacing David Fizdale on 12/06/2019;
— Rangers Record — -23–20–4 a/o 01/19/2020 good for 7th place (of 8 clubs) in NHL Metropolitan Division;
— Former NBA Commissioner David Stern died on 01/01/2020.]