All Ball: Kings lose Game of Thrones, Buss under the bus


                                                                                              

by Paul Teetor                                    

The Los Angeles Kings blew a golden opportunity with their 2-0 game 7 loss to the Edmonton Oilers in a National Hockey League first round playoff series Saturday night.

Actually, make that two missed golden opportunities for the price of one loss.

First, when they lost game 7 and the series to the Oilers after leading 3-2 in games just a few days earlier, they blew a golden opportunity to win their first playoff series in eight years. It would have been their first since they bulled their way through four rounds and won the Stanley Cup in 2014.

Second, and equally importantly, they also blew a golden opportunity to fill the spring-time playoff publicity void left by the Lakers and Clippers, who both missed the NBA playoffs this year. The ever-growing LA sports media complex – print, radio, TV and podcast — needs something to fill its hungry maw 24/7, and a Kings revival and long playoff run would have been a perfect story to fill the missing Lakers/Clippers publicity hole.             

Kings fans – of both the die-hard watch-every-game variety and the casual, jump-on-the-bandwagon variety – were all ready to party like it was 2014 or even like 2012, when the Kings also won the Stanley Cup.

All the Kings needed to do was to win one first-round series and then memories of the roll they were on back in the golden years a decade ago would come rushing back and the excitement would start all over. Guaranteed.

Remember how Kings fever took hold in the Beach Cities? It seemed like half the roster lived in either Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach or Redondo Beach, so the Kings mania that gripped LA was particularly acute here on the coastal strip.

Not only was the North End bar on Hermosa Ave turned into an informal Kings party headquarters for two months, but it seemed like every bar on Pier Plaza  was televising every Kings game, over and over. Even the local tattoo parlors were swamped with requests for Kings logos and favorite Kings names like Jonathan Quick, Dustin Brown and Anze Kopitar.

Indeed, those three veterans are the only Kings players remaining from those two championship teams, and Brown officially retired after Saturday night’s loss. Besides being a two-time Stanley Cup champion – and the captain of both those title teams — he also has the distinction of being the longest tenured LA King in franchise history.

The two losses in games 6 and 7 this week were excruciating. After a thrilling 5-4 overtime win in game 5, the Kings were poised to bring all that hard-earned momentum back home and win the series in front of a home crowd at the Crypt in game 6 Thursday night.

But Edmonton, led by superstar center Connor McDavid, had ideas of its own and banged out a 4-2 victory to frustrate the crowd and set up a decisive game 7 back in Edmonton.

The seventh game, played in front of a raucous-but-nervous full-house home crowd and a multi-nation audience on ESPN, turned on one simple reality: the Oilers have a genuine superstar in McDavid and the Kings do not. Their biggest star is Quick, the aptly named goalie with the magic hands who became a household name during the two Stanley Cup runs a decade ago.

Quick was still good enough and sharp enough and quick enough Saturday night to withstand a barrage of shots in the scoreless first period. But the dam broke midway through the second period when Oilers defenseman Codi Ceci scored from the right circle at 13:15 of the second period on a beautiful setup from McDavid.

The score stayed at 1-0 Edmonton all the way through the end of the second period and deep into the third period. The increasingly desperate Kings fought hard to hold off the Oilers onslaught but, in the end, fell just short when their offensive output couldn’t match their defensive excellence.

“We were just one shot away,” Kopitar said. “But we just couldn’t get sustained pressure on them.”

Indeed, by the end of the game the Oilers had 41 shots on goal to the Kings not-good-enough 29.

Ultimately McDavid scored the insurance goal with a slicing backhand at 16:07 of the third period. In the last couple of minutes the Kings pulled Quick to give themselves a man advantage at the offensive end, but it was too little too late.

Quick finished the night with a good-enough 39 saves on the Oilers 41 shots, but Edmonton goalie Mike Smith was even more impressive, recording 29 saves for the shutout that sent the Kings back to LA, empty-handed.                                             

Kings Coach Todd McLellan, who was brought in three years ago to return the Kings to glory, said he saw both sides of the gut-punch loss that at least gained the Kings valuable playoff experience: the short-term despair at blowing a 3-2 lead and the long-term hope for the future.

“I think there’s a small picture/big picture thing going on,” he said outside the locker room. “Small picture, we’re disappointed. We were in this to win it. We weren’t just coming here to gain experience. And when you’re all in and you want to win and you don’t it’s disappointing. There’s a lot of water-filled eyes in there, grown men that are feeling that way, and that’s because we were all in. And it stings right now.”

Then McLellan turned to the future. 

“There’s also the other side of the coin,” he said.  “The organization four years ago came up with a plan about transforming the team, changing the way we play, the identity of the group, bringing younger players in, relying on the older players to guide them and that was the positive aspect throughout the year.” 

Kopitar saw it the same way: a promising season ending in disappointment, but also generating optimism for the future because of what the Kings went through this postseason.

“Right now it’s very frustrating. The series was hard fought. We gave it all we had and we should be proud of that,” Kopitar said. “But I think there’s certainly an element of growth within the group throughout the season, even throughout the playoffs. It didn’t go well today and it’s extremely frustrating because we came in here believing that we can get it done, and we didn’t.”

Kings center Phillip Danault, who was signed last summer and proved himself an invaluable addition to the roster, joined in the bad year/good year chorus.

“A lot of pride and a lot of work. A long year. A lot of ups and downs,” he said. “I’m proud of the group we have and the character we showed. I think the experience we got this year is going to carry us a long way for the next few years. Obviously a bad ending, but we gave it all we had and I’m very proud of the group we have.”     

Coach McLellan summed up the prevailing post-game feeling.

“Next year, starting tomorrow, is going to be one tough year,” McLellan said. “But we’ll be ready.”        

They better be, because they’re likely to have the same opportunity to grab LA’s attention next spring when the Lakers and possibly even the Clippers fail to make the playoffs yet again.

Prediction: if that opportunity indeed comes their way, they will not blow it again.                                

Jeannie Buss finally breaks her silence 

And speaking of the Lakers, it turns out that Lakers fans are not the only ones fed up with the team’s failure to even make the playoffs this year, despite having four players listed among the NBA’s 75 greatest players ever in LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony.

Lakers Owner Jeannie Buss says she is fed up, too.

But is she going to do anything about it?

Not for at least another year.

By then the fans she claims to love and honor will be ready to revolt if the team isn’t radically better – which is extremely unlikely unless she starts making big changes right now.

Buss maintained radio silence for the last four months while the Lakers endured a tsunami of criticism for finishing 11th in the NBA’s Western Conference. They didn’t even qualify for the play-in tournament that determines the last two spots in the real playoffs.

But instead of holding a come-one-come-all press conference, Buss agreed to sit down in her El Segundo office for a no-questions-barred one-on-one session with LA Times star sports columnist Bill Plaschke.

Plaschke has his faults – too saccharine and sentimental about people with mental problems and physical handicaps, too reflexively woke about complex social justice issues far outside his sports expertise, and occasionally too presumptuous and dictatorial to the teams he’s covering – but he’s still a worthy successor to the great Jim Murray and miles ahead of the Times’ other regular sports columnist, the relentlessly negative, untalented and small-minded Dylan Hernandez.

So it is not surprising that Plaschke did the right thing with his privileged opportunity and asked Buss the right questions, the legit questions that everyone – press and public alike – wants answered.

It was the answers that were the problem. 

Not only were they ambiguous and wishy-washy, but they revealed why the team has been such a dumpster fire since she took over from her father Jerry Buss when he passed away in 2013.

Ironically, she sounded a lot like the high-rollers who pay up to $12,500 for courtside seats at Lakers games. The outrageous price goes even higher if it’s a playoff game – which may not happen again for a long time.

“I’m growing impatient just because we had the fourth highest payroll in the league,” she told Plaschke. “When you spend that kind of money on the luxury tax, you expect to go deep into the playoffs. So, yeah, it was gut-wrenching for me to go out on a limb like that and not get the results that we were looking for… I’m not happy. I’m not satisfied.”

Of course not. Who would be? No one in their right mind would be.

Notice the lack of self-awareness or sports sophistication in her answer? As if just spending more money than 26 other teams is supposed to guarantee winning? 

No, it doesn’t work that way. Everything starts with the tone set by the owner and then filters down through the front-office people she hires to implement her vision.

That’s where she has really stumbled. Her so-called management team of Linda Rambis, Kurt Rambis and Rob Pelinka is a joke, an affront to anyone who knows or cares about best practices and corporate governance.

Linda Rambis got her job because she has been Buss’s BFF for 40 years, going back to their time together working in the front office of the Los Angeles Strings, the tennis team her father took on as a lark and then named 19-year-old Jeannie as the general manager.

Kurt Rambis has some legit hoops qualifications – he was an over-achieving power forward with the Showtime Lakers of the 1980s – but he was canned as the interim Lakers coach in 1999 to make way for Phil Jackson, and laterflamed out as the Minnesota Timberwolves coach, and as an assistant to Jackson when he was running the New York Knicks into the ground a few years ago.

Pelinka got his job when Kobe Bryant recommended his agent to Buss. But agents and general managers have very different skill sets: agents are supposed to squeeze the most money possible out of teams that employ their clients; GMs are supposed to organize and run a team to maximize its assets.

Pelinka, who developed a bad rep as an agent, has been an even bigger failure in his new role.

His one accomplishment was signing LeBron James, who didn’t need to be convinced to come to LA because he was intent on chasing his Hollywood dreams.

And after LeBron’s four years with the Lakers, they have missed the playoffs twice, lost in the first round once, and won a worthless 2020 NBA title that no one really took seriously because it was played in a Florida bubble in front of no fans and with the pandemic raging outside.

But hey, at least LeBron got Space Jam 2 made – although it tanked at the box office. 

And after four years with the Lakers, LeBron and his agent Rich Paul, head of Klutch Sports, have called all the important Lakers shots until the last trade deadline in February, when Buss finally said no to their demands that she trade the team’s last remaining first round draft choice – their 2027 pick – for a player who could help them right now, at the expense of their distant future, when LeBron probably won’t even be here.

So Plaschke put it to her bluntly: are LeBron and his agent actually running the Lakers?

“Do they have final say? No. Are they running the team? No, no, not at all,” she said. “I am the controlling owner of the Los Angeles Lakers. I’m held accountable for every decision that’s made here.”

That’s the only answer she could have given. No owner is going to admit they have ceded their power to their star player. But credible reports from agents and other top execs around the league insist that LeBron and Paul cook up the big deals – like acquiring AD and Westbrook – and leave it to Pelinka to make it happen.

And now Jeannie has added to her “management team” by consulting Phil Jackson, her former boyfriend who gave her an engagement ring and strung her along for more than 10 years before finally dumping her in 2016, five years after he left the Lakers.

While Jackson was a great coach – or at least he had great players in Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal – he has shown no aptitude or talent for team building in the front office. A born contrarian and anti-authoritarian, he might be the least suited guy in all of basketball to help rebuild the Lakers.

But Jeannie dismissed all the criticisms one by one.

“In terms of basketball decisions, I have complete confidence in our front office, which is headed by Rob Pelinka,” she said. 

Kurt Rambis?

“He has been a part of championship teams both as a player and assistant coach. He is someone I admire for his basketball knowledge.”

And Linda Rambis?

“Her role, as it has been for the last almost 40 years, is as my advisor.”                        

For some inexplicable reason – perhaps fear of being labeled a misogynist, perhaps misplaced reverence for her father – the mainstream media has been extremely reluctant to criticize her or point out her mistakes. But that reluctance is in itself sexist: if she were a man, every wrong-headed move she made would be subject to skepticism by the media.

She allowed her idiot brother, Jimmy Buss, to remain in charge of basketball operations long after it was clear he had no idea what he was doing, other than driving the Lakers into the ditch.

Plaschke gave her big props for firing her brother in 2017, but at the same time she also fired long-time General Manager Mitch Kupchak, who had been groomed by Jerry West – only the most successful front office guy in NBA history – to be his successor. 

Dumping Kupchak was a big mistake. He was quickly scooped up by the Charlotte Hornets – owned by the great Michael Jordan – and has been slowly but surely building them up into a contender in the Eastern Conference behind the most skilled Ball brother of them all, LaMelo Ball, last season’s Rookie of the Year.

Will Buss move quickly to rectify her mistakes if next season is no better than this season?

“If we are not living up to the Lakers ‘standard, absolutely. I will look at everything,” she said. “I will make the hard decisions, because that’s what you have to do.”           

So there you have it, straight from the owner’s mouth: Like you, the average fan, she is mad as hell and is not going to take it anymore.

At least not for more than one more year.

Contact: teetor.paul@gmail.com. Follow: @paulteetor ER





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