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Lakers biggest challenge: Adapting tradition to changing times

Aug 15, 2013, 1:01 PM EDT

Los Angeles Lakers Introduce Dwight Howard Getty Images

The legend, the tradition of the Lakers is not in question. In the past 14 years the Lakers have seven trips to the finals and five titles, and since the Buss family took over it is up to 10 titles. In the past 30 years they have simply been the best run, most successful franchise in the NBA — they had both the spending power to overpower the competition but they used it wisely.

But times, they are a changin’.

The newest Collective Bargaining Agreement was much more what middle and smaller market teams wanted — they tax on high spending teams is much more stiff, plus when you are over the tax apron your hands become much more tied on moves you can make. Many of those smaller teams have gotten smart with the use of analytics and they have become more formidable. The advance of social media, and NBA games that stream on your phone anywhere, are altering the marketing rules for players.

Can the Lakers adapt to that?

While we brought you the sexy quote out of a fantastic Ric Bucher piece for the Hollywood Reporter on the Lakers (Jim Buss saying Dwight Howard was never a Laker) that is not the thrust of the article.

Rather, it was about the challenges that face Jim and his sister Jeanie, as well s the rest of the Buss family, as they try to keep the Lakers on top in a new era.

But the Lakers need to acquire more than salary-cap room if they want to be in play for the league’s biggest superstars. “They’re living on the History channel,” says one free agent, meaning the team remains convinced that the attraction of playing for the Lakers in L.A. is enough. As one NBA agent notes: “The Lakers were built for a different era. Their personnel has been depleted and [research] infrastructure is outdated. It’s important to be in a major market, but not as important anymore. And they were always able to spend more than other teams. Now they can’t.” A longtime opposing assistant coach adds that free agents feel the Lakers’ track record is impressive but the team is not on the cutting edge when it comes to marketing, physical therapy or analytics. The sense is that institutional arrogance has caused a slow but evident decay. “It hurts to hear that,” says Jeanie, without contesting it.

The Lakers have one huge advantage — Los Angeles. It’s a place players want to be and it provides more marketing opportunities off the court for most players. Look at it this way: If you are an international brand like Kobe Bryant or LeBron James it may not matter where you play because you’ve risen above that level, but do you think there is a Cliff Paul/Chris Paul commercial series if he is still in New Orleans?

Plus, the Lakers will have only $11 million on the books for next season and are in position to chase big free agents. (It’s not that simple, but the Lakers have space to make moves.)

L.A. and tradition count for something, but if you get left behind as the game and how it is run moves forward you become the Oakland Raiders. Tradition can only take you so far.

Jim Buss has make some smart moves with the Lakers in his control, including the trade that sent the damaged goods of Andrew Bynum out and brought in Dwight Howard. That could have worked long term (injuries and the in-season radical coaching change killed the chances last season).

But Buss talks in Bucher’s article about being private, and that cost them with Howard. Kobe told Bucher about how twice (2004 and 2007) he considered leaving the Lakers but his personal relationship with and trust he had with Dr. Jerry Buss prevented the move. When Howard was looking to bolt, the Lakers simply didn’t have that kind of personal relationship to fall back on. There wasn’t any trust — Kobe believed Dr. Buss would build a winner around him again (and he did), Howard did not have that faith in Jim Buss.

That’s not about Howard not being a Laker, that’s on the Lakers. While times change on thing that doesn’t is the power of personal relationships — why do you think Tim Duncan is still a Spur?

The Buss family is smart (that includes Jim, people who deal with him will tell you that) but you can’t be so rooted in a “this is how we do things” mindset to not challenge your own notions. The world of basketball and the NBA is changing.

The Lakers have built-in advantages that no CBA can ever wipe out. As executives around the league — who are thoroughly enjoying watching the team struggle — and they say they expect the Lakers to bounce back.

The question is when. Because times are changing and we will have to see if the current Buss family can adapt to this brave new world.

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